The Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska starts the first Saturday in March. The race usually starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome. Due to minimal snowfall, over the past couple of years the race has been moved to start the trail at Fairbanks. Though many of the mushers and dogs are local, many others fly dogs in from around the world to race in Alaska. Mushers and dogs from more than a dozen countries have raced the Iditarod.
The mushers drive 16 dog teams for about 1000 miles. The dogs travel through extreme weather and trail conditions in tribute to the 1925 dog sled run from Anchorage to Nome that brought medicine to head off a devastating diphtheria outbreak. The trail varies from year to year and weather conditions do too. The total millage of every race is estimated as well as the time it will take the teams to complete it, it usually takes between 9 and 12 days for the first team to arrive in Nome.
The Iditarod is all about the dogs. These amazing athletes draw crowds from around the world to watch them race. These pups include Siberian Huskies and a mixed breed of dog known as Alaskan Huskies. “Iditarod sled dogs are top-of-the-line world class athletes that have capabilities far beyond any human ability.”
And they are not just fast, since they have spent their lives constantly interacting with humans they are tremendously friendly. “They are always interested in giving licks and wrapping their front paws around you as they stand on their hind legs to give you a hug.” Their training doesn’t only prepare them for pulling a sled and running, it also prepares them for the weather conditions they will encounter on the trail.
But don’t feel bad for the dogs… Anyone who has seen these dogs as they are ready to be released into the race can see the dog’s enjoy it. They can’t wait to begin running, with leaps and barks and all manner of excitement. “As they travel their designated trail they quietly operate in sync with one another; each dog focused on going forward. They are in their element and are content with doing what they love and what they do best. These are Iditarod sled dogs who are always ready to run!”
The teams begin with as many as sixteen dogs and they must finish with no fewer than 6 dogs in harness. It’s true that some mushers finish with 16 but most drop dogs at check points along the trail. So what happens to the dropped dogs? There are no roads that lead to Nome, actually none of the checkpoints in the Iditarod trail are on Alaskan roadways. The terrain is quite rough and covered in snow so the only way back is by air. There is a special Iditarod Air Force to fly dogs back.
There are many reasons why these dogs fly back. The race is pretty intense and like many athletes, the dogs can have off days, they sometimes get hurt, they can go into heat, get over tired or can just be in an uncooperative mood. In some cases, the dogs are fine and the musher pulls out of the race for other reasons. Whatever the reason, there is a lot of planning that needs to be done to fly dogs back.
The dogs are left behind at checkpoints where veterinarians and dog handlers take care of them until they are ready to fly, unless the musher is staying behind too. The “base camp” in Anchorage is notified of the number of dogs that need to fly back and then an Iditarod Air Force plane and pilot pick the dogs up (and musher if need be).
Every dog needs to have a boarding pass signed by a veterinarian on site to be loaded on the planes. These are very different from the commercial planes where pet dogs usually fly. These little planes are not meant to carry dogs in crates. The dogs are each hooked from their collar to a ring inside the airplane. “Sled dogs are great passengers. During the 1-½ hour flight, they snuggled up to their neighbor and slept.”
Now we know how those dogs fly back from the checkpoints. But at the end of the race there are hundreds of dogs in Nome that need to get home. The Bering Sea is frozen so boats aren’t an option. There are no railroads leading to or from Nome, and like we said before there are no roads. The dogs fly with class on the way back, they are loaded as first class passengers on Alaskan Airlines. After all they really do deserve the best. By the end of the trail these dogs have run more than 38 back to back marathons in 9 to 16 days approximately.
It is no wonder that this amazing race is known as the LAST GREAT RACE. There are documentary films like The Great Alone (2015), and series like Discovery Channel’s “The toughest race on Earth” that follow musher and dog teams to show what it’s like to be a part of this dog sledding race.