At 2:20 AM on March 15, 2016, Dallas Seavey was the first musher to reach Nome, Alaska, with his father Mitch close behind. This is Seavey’s fourth Iditarod championship in five years (and overall). Seavey and his team of seven dogs averaged about 9.5 miles an hour on the 1,049-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome. Seavey broke his personal record by nearly two hours, with a time of 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes and 16 seconds.
The race begins in Anchorage each year on the first Saturday in March, and it ends when the last musher reaches Nome. The ceremonial start does not count towards the overall time in the race to Nome. The next day, 65 teams line up in the Matanuska Valley for the Re-Start. They leave in two-minute intervals so each team is on a separate clock, and mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint until they reach Nome.
The Alaskan Iditarod shares a story that has spanned decades, cultures, and social barriers. The Iditarod has helped to define the state of Alaska. It honors the sled dogs as essential elements of early Alaskan culture and celebrates the natural areas of Alaska. The race continues to gain recognition and curiosity from all over the world. The race truly is “The Last Great Race on Earth”.
History of Dogsledding in Alaska
Dogsledding was essential in the settlement of Alaska, the emergence of a race to commemorate the history of sled dog travel, and the evolution of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
In Alaska prior to the 1960s, the only way to get daily supplies was by sled, pulled by a team of sled dogs over dangerous, rugged winter terrain and driven by mushers blinded by the windswept snow. Dogs were used because they are the most reliable animal for transportation; they average speeds of 8-12 MPH for hundreds of miles, and they can live off the land- eating caribou, moose, or fish.
Sled dog teams had used the Iditarod Trail throughout Alaskan history as the primary method to transport people, mail, food, firewood, and other daily essentials. While it had been used previously, traffic on the trail picked up between the 1880s and the mid 1920s during the Alaskan Gold Rush.
Nome’s Diphtheria Epidemic
If you’re familiar with Universal Pictures’ Balto, you may have heard this story. During the winter of 1925, A diphtheria epidemic hit Nome and threatened many of the Native children. The closest quantity of antitoxin was nearly 1,000 miles away in Anchorage. The ports were frozen, and no planes could fly due to poor weather conditions. Instead, the serum was sent 300 miles by train, and relayed by dog teams the rest of the 675 miles to Nome. 20 mushers and 100 dogs were involved in this relay. Balto, the famous lead dog, and his musher arrived in Nome to conclude the five-day “Great Race of Mercy”. Balto became a celebrity; however, many mushers believe the true heroes were Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo, as they covered 91 miles, including the most dangerous stretch of the route.
Nearly a decade later, the Gold Rush slowed and Alaskan natives began to seek alternate forms of transportation for themselves and their supplies. Airplanes were becoming more technologically advanced, and more reliable in extreme weather conditions. But it wasn’t until snowmobiles became widespread in Alaska in the 1960s, that dogsledding almost disappeared completely.
Origins of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race
The Iditarod Race today honors this rich history of dog mushing throughout the settlement of Alaska and the bravery of the mushers who risked their lives during the Great Race of Mercy.
Hoping to commemorate Alaskan heritage, chairman of Alaska’s centennial committee, Dorothy Page, proposed a sled dog race over the Iditarod Trail in 1967. She received support from the musher Joe Redington Senior, who was extremely passionate about creating a race to bring the sled dog back to Alaska. Redington had said, “I’ve seen snow machines break down and fellows freeze to death in the wilderness. But dogs will always keep you warm and they’ll always get you there.” Together, Redington and Page found enthusiastic volunteers to clear enough of the trail to create a 25-mile sprint race. To their delight, 58 mushers entered the 1967 race hoping to win the $25,000 prize. There was another short race in 1969, but there was little financial support and only twelve entrants.
Joe Redington did not let his dream of creating a longer race to Nome die. Reddington and two other mushers spirited the first-ever Iditarod race in 1973. The first winner of the Iditarod took about three weeks to reach Nome. Rod Perry, a three-time Iditarod finisher, sums up the first race perfectly: “We didn’t know what was out there. These people were the most experienced outdoorsman to ever run the Iditarod. They didn’t get into it because there was an Iditarod race. They just loaded up and headed for Anchorage; they did what they did everyday.”
Since the first race in 1973, the Iditarod has transformed. It has gained tremendous amounts of public and monetary support to make the race Alaska’s major sporting event. The race has been reshaped and has grown over time to help accomplish the goals that Joe Redding Sr. had dreamed.