This year marks the 42nd year of the “Last Great Race” or as it is also known, the Iditarod Dog Sled race. It takes place in Alaska and has between 60 and 100 mushing competitors each year. The race is 1,150 miles long, begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome. Each musher begins the race with 16 dogs, and must finish with at least 6.
In the native Alaskan tribal languages of Northwestern Alaska, Iditarod means “distant” or “distant place,” which is obviously quite fitting. The all but abandoned city is located along the Iditarod River, and was once an old mining town and trading post during the gold rush era. Back in those days, the only way to deliver mail was to drive a dogsled along the Iditarod Trail. Race founder and musher, Joe Redington, created the race to keep the tradition alive and draw attention to the historical trail.
The starting line is subject to change depending on whether the conditions of the trail are reasonably safe or not. Interestingly, warmer weather may cause the “restart location” to be moved north where the conditions are better.
Not every breed of dog is able to compete in Iditarod. Only breeds like Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes are allowed to race. This amendment was adopted after a musher entered the 1988 race with Standard European Poodles on his dogsled team, many of whom ended up with frozen feet and matted hair. Some disagree with the ruling, but organizers claim they have to protect those pets that are not suitable for this type of racing.
Moose attacks are very common, especially around the city of Willow, which is nicknamed Moose Alley. The Moose are so large that they can seriously injure the mushers or the dogs.
The tradition of giving an award to the team that finishes last refers to the red lantern that is lit during the race, and not extinguished until the last dog crosses the finish line. It originated in 1953, in Anchorage during the Fur Rendezvous dogsled race.
The Iditarod is such a monumental feat and so steeped in tradition that no matter whether you win the race, or win the Red Lantern, every team can leave with a sense of accomplishment.