Imagine yourself standing on the back of a sled pulled by a team of dogs. Now imagine racing that team over
frozen rivers and coastlines, through treacherous mountains and dense forests, and battling desolate tundra, subzero
temperatures, long hours of darkness, and blinding winds. Since 1973, dog sled mushers have gathered in Alaska every
March to compete in such a race. The race, officially titled the “Iditarod”, is so grueling that it is often called
“The Last Great Race on Earth”.
Organized and run by thousands of volunteers, the Iditarod covers close to 1,150 miles between Anchorage and Nome and
usually takes 9 to 12 days to complete. The race always begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome but the interior route
between the towns of Ophir and Kaltag alternates each year. In even years, a northern route through Cripple, Ruby,
and Galena is followed. In odd years, a southern route through the towns of Iditarod, Shageluk, and Anvik is taken.
The race attracts competitors from around the globe. From as close as Alaska and Canada to as far away as
New Zealand and Brazil, this year’s pool of mushers
seek to conquer the mental and physical challenges of the Iditarod.
The idea for the Iditarod race hearkens back to the gold rush days of Alaska’s history. In the 1880s, a gold rush
began in Alaska. A mail and supply route developed from the south central coastal towns to the interior mining
camps to the west coast towns. Mail and supplies were sent in while gold was transported out. The freight
route was well traveled and became known as the Iditarod Trail. In winter, rivers and coastlines froze and the
interior became packed in snow, making mushers and their dog sled teams the only means of travel between the communities on
In 1925, the Iditarod Trail received national attention. Nome, Alaska, was facing a diphtheria epidemic.
The town was in desperate need of serum but it was winter and its port was icebound. Airplanes were still rare and
the newly completed Alaskan Railroad only ventured as far west as Nenana, about 700 miles away. A plan was hatched
to get the serum to Nome. The serum first traveled by train as far as Nenana. The train was met by a
musher who took the serum west over the frozen Tanana River to the Yukon. From there, the serum was passed from
musher to musher along the trail. Each village offered its best dog team and driver to transport the serum to the
next village. The team that ran the final two legs of the trail had to brave a blizzard with 80 mph winds but got
the serum to Nome in time to prevent an epidemic. The lead dog on that final team was named Balto and Balto's run
has been memorialized in books, movies, and a Central Park statue. A total of 20 mushers covered the 700 miles in 6
days. They endured battering winds and temperatures rarely above -40 degrees Fahrenheit but they saved hundreds of
Dog sledding declined with the increased use of airplanes and became nearly extinct with the arrival of snowmobiles.
In an effort to both celebrate Alaska’s rich history and renew interest in its traditions, the idea was conceived by Alaskans Dorothy Page and Joe Redington, Sr., to organize a
race following the historical Iditarod Trail and honoring the famous Nome serum run. A race along part of the trail
was organized in time for Alaska’s Centennial celebration in 1967 but Mr. Redington, a member of General McArthur’s Special
Assault Troops during WWII, was determined to extend the race the full distance to Nome. In 1972, the northern
route of the current Iditarod was organized. The southern route proved more difficult but, once a U.S. Army winter
exercise reopened a key portion of the trail, the full run to Nome became possible. Determination, planning and the
efforts of numerous volunteers resulted in the current Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race becoming a reality in 1973.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of “The Last Great Race on Earth”. Beginning in Anchorage on March 2, 2013,
the race will take the southern interior route. 67 mushers will be competing this year, including all of last year’s
top 10 finishers. Military connections for this year’s mushers include veteran Iditarod racer Ken Anderson who is being co-sponsored by the
U.S. Coast Guard, former National Guard twin sisters Anna and Kristy Berington , and former U.S. Air Force technician Michael Suprenant who is currently
a DA employee at Elmendorf A.F.B. Soldiers and their families stationed in Alaska might be able to catch a glimpse
of “The Last Great Race on Earth” at the Anchorage start, the Nome finish, or one of the many checkpoints along the trail . Those of
us unable to watch in person can watch live coverage and learn additional Iditarod details at www.iditarod.com.