Magazine article Sunset

The Last Great Race: The 1,100-Mile Iditarod Is Alaska's Highest-Profile Event, and Proof That the West Inspires Adventure like No Other Place in the Country. Kimberly Brown Seely Follows the Sled Dogs and the Mushers Who Love Them

Magazine article Sunset

The Last Great Race: The 1,100-Mile Iditarod Is Alaska's Highest-Profile Event, and Proof That the West Inspires Adventure like No Other Place in the Country. Kimberly Brown Seely Follows the Sled Dogs and the Mushers Who Love Them

Article excerpt

The dawn is still pink, the streetlights in downtown Anchorage sparkling against the sky, when the dog people show up. Trucks packed with Alaskan Huskies, dog handlers, racers, and fans pull into Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Stroll past the wooden barricades lining Fourth Avenue, past the guy setting up a reindeer hot dog stand, and here are the Huskies shivering with excitement in the snow.

"If a dog gets loose, your job is containment!" a man yells to a group of volunteers wearing Official Dog Handler armbands.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race--or Iditarod, as it's more commonly called--is the pinnacle of distance dog-mushing. The race, which begins the first Sunday of every March, pits experienced and first-time mushers not only against one another but also against roughly 1,100 miles of Alaskan winter wilderness, all the way from Anchorage to Nome. That's the equivalent, say, of mushing from San Diego to Denver--but in temperatures ranging from 30[degrees] above to 40[degrees] below zero.

It sounds insane. But the Last Great Race on Earth, as Iditarod fans like to call it, has become Alaska's highest-profile event. This winter, tens of thousands of spectators will fly in to join the festivities. (For about $3,500, die-hard fans can take Anchorage-based outfitter Sky Trekking Alaska's trips that follow the race by bush plane.) Schoolkids around the globe will track the racers from checkpoint to checkpoint via the Internet. Top mushers such as five-time winner Rick Swenson, four-time victor Martin Buser, and four-time champ Susan Butcher have become media celebrities. And the Iditarod has inspired a West-wide craze for recreational dog-mushing, with dogsled tours offered everywhere from Whistler, British Columbia, to Vail, Colorado. Now in 2006, the Iditarod is proof that the West still challenges and inspires. After all, more people have made it to the top of Mt. Everest than have finished the Iditarod.

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The first race was created by a woman. In the 1960s, snowmobiles were taking over Alaska's villages. That's when Dorothy Page decided to "stage a spectacular sled-dog race" to rekindle an appreciation for mushers, their dogs, and the role they'd played in Alaskan history. She recruited musher Joe Redington Sr., who organized a 50-mile race along part of the route mushers used during the gold rush--the Iditarod Trail. That first race attracted 58 competitors vying for a $25,000 purse. In 1969 Redington extended the race all the way to Nome, Alaska, to honor the famous 1925 serum run in which 20 mushers and 100 dogs transported lifesaving diphtheria serum to the town on the Bering Sea. This year about 80 mushers will compete for prize money that totals almost $900,000--first prize is $70,000 plus a new pickup truck.

The Iditarod and Alaska's other 1,000-mile sled dog race, the international Yukon Quest (held in February), represent the ultimate in endurance mushing. Once the Iditarod mushers leave Knik, Alaska, a few miles into the race, their route loses all contact with the road system. They and their dogs travel for hundreds of miles through wilderness where moose, caribou, and wolves still roam freely.

Last year's winner, Norwegian Robert Sorlie, completed the race in 9 days and 18 hours. (The final finisher took a little more than 15 days.) Racers are required to sign in at checkpoints along the trail, and they calculate their race strategies in advance to maximize trail time and rest time. …

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