Picture this: You are going to travel over one thousand miles across Alaska---by car?
by train? by plane? NO!! You are travelling by dogsled - your only companions on this journey will be eleven to fourteen of the most honest, loyal and strong dogs that you can find. For over six grueling months, you and your carefully selected dogs have been training, and now it is up to you and your canine companions.
For sledders (or "mushers") this is a dream come true because they are about to start the Iditarod - a name possibly derived from the Indian word "Ingalik" meaning "distant place". Only half of the starting team of dogs will finish. Those with the strongest heart and the will to go on against overwhelming odds will complete the race.
The Iditarod is a dogsled race that takes place in Alaska every year. It goes from Anchorage (Alaska's largest city) to Nome, stretching over 1,000 miles of icy, snow-covered ground. The Iditarod was begun in the 1960's when people tried to restore tradition to Alaska. It was first run to commemorate a trip that took place in 1925 to deliver medicine to Nome. The race has two routes, the Northern and the Southern. In even-numbered years, the Northern route is used and in odd-numbered years, the Southern route is used. The Iditarod is the hardest and toughest dogsled race there is. Sometimes the mushers get so tired, they hallucinate. What makes the race so demanding? Three features: time, temperature and distance.
The temperature in Alaska is so cold that it can reach up to 40 degrees below zero during the running of the race. Because it gets so cold, the mushers have to wear several layers of clothing. One of the major sponsors (Timberland) has made specially-designed clothes to keep them warm, including sleeping bags, snowshores, special long underwear, boots for wet and dry surfaces, water resistant climbing suits, and mittens made out of beaver skin. Other equipment includes dog "booties" for the dogs' feet, and a six foot long 28 pound tobaggan. One tobaggan, made by North Star is called the "Ferrari " of dogsleds. More than one sled is used. As the land gets flatter and icier, a new sled with flat runners is used. This sled is easier for the dogs to pull on the icy surface.
For training, the dogs are split up into two teams for three days of workout and one day of rest. It is critical that the dogs be able to maintain their pace even when they are exhausted. The dogs get a few days off before the "big day".
Sometimes accidents can happen. For example, when training, Bruce Johnsen, Canada's top musher, plunged through the ice of a frozen lake where he and his eight dog team died. The mushers and their team can get attacked by a moose, like when Susan Butcher got attacked by a near 500 pound moose, killing two of her dogs and injuring one. Mushers are now starting to carry weapons to defend themselves from moose.
While the team is on the trail, the mushers drive the team for six to eight hours at a time, then they take a break and feed the dogs (beaver and horsemeat, plus beef). They also rest or sleep. During the first couple of miles out of Anchorage, the dogs go about 14 miles an hour, but after that they slow down slightly to 11 or 12 miles per hour. The starting positions are drawn based upon when a person enters. To enter the race, you must complete a 200 mile race. When the race starts, each team has a one day supply of food. Also on the trail are 25 checkpoints that each team must check in at. At some checkpoints, veterinarians check the dogs. Some mushers pick up fresh dogs and leave the tired ones at the checkpoint.
For some mushers, the prize money at the end of the race is enough to keep them going ($50,000 to the winner, and $150,000 split among the next ten finishers). But for others it is an honor just to finish the trail.
Mushers rely on voice commands. Among them are:
Mush! - Let's go!
Gee! - Turn right!
Haw! - Turn Left!
Whoa! - Stop!
- Snowhoes, sleeping bag.
- Eight booties per dog, plus a restraint to carry an injured or sick dog on the sled.
- Two pounds of food per dog.
- Three dog drop chains (for dogs left at checkpoints)
- Hand ax, head lamp, matches or lighter, plus emergency
- lighting equipment
Gangline: heavy nylon line that harnesses the dogs' strength to the back of the sled.
Tugline: Attaches harness to gangline. Also made of heavy nylon.
Brush Bow: Curved piece of wood that protects sled's front.
Runners: Strips under the sled that slide over the snow.
Snow hook: Ancholrs the dog team at rest stops. Made of heavy metal.
Brake: Attached to the rear of the sled. Shaped like a claw. Musher stands on it and yells "Whoa!"
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. "Dogsled Races" 1994.
"Huskies Hounded", The Economist. March 5, 1994.
"Ready, Set, Go!" Ranger Rick., March, 1994.
Skorupa, Joe. "Iditarod: The Last Great Race," Popular Mechanics. July, 1993.
Ward, Alex . "Man and Dog Vs. Alaska," NY Times Magazine. February 24, 1985.