What is the Iditarod, and why do we Alaskans love it so?
It's the pinnacle race of mushing, the practice and/or sport of using dogs to pull a sled. The race is held each year in March for two reasons. It celebrates the competitive side of the sport- in 2013 66 teams from around the world participated. It also commemorates the bravery of the men and dogs who, in 1925, saved the people of Nome. You ask, "How did they do that?"
In January of 1925, a diptheria epidemic was brewing in Nome (located on Norton Sound in the Bering Sea.) When there was no other way to get badly needed anti-toxin serum to the landlocked, icebound community, 20 dog teams and their mushers relayed the serum across the Interior of Alaska to get it there. They traveled through indescribably harsh and dangerous conditions, including temps to -62F and wind chills of -85F. The endurance and life saving actions of the heroic men and their teams in this true story race against death demonstrated a courage and fortitude of epic proportion.
As a kid, I never paid much attention to the sport or the race (first run in 1973 when I was a pimply 13 year old adolescent) but I clearly remember the moment I had my epiphany. It was March, 2000 and I was at a friend's lodge on the Yetna River, at the confluence of three rivers (Little Lake Creek, Lake Creek and the Yetna). A group of 20 of us had flown or snowmachined out to watch the Iditarod mushers and their dogs come through on the trail which runs on the frozen Yetna right in front of her lodge. We were roughly 20 miles upriver from the Yetna Station checkpoint and 62 miles into the race from the re-start in Willow. 10 miles further up was the Skwentna checkpoint.
It was about 1 a.m. We had a bonfire quietly blazing out on the river and teams were cruising by at regular intervals. It had been about a half hour since the most recent one had come and gone- the dogs full of energy and the musher casually returning our waves and greetings from the back of her sled. The conversation around the glow of the fire was, for the moment, at a lull. It was clear, calm and cold, about -20F. The Northern Lights had come out and were lazily simmering in blue-green waves across the sky overhead. The fire, although big, was not casting much light beyond the immediate circle of ground surrounding it. It was very dark out, but the snow was catching the moonlight in that pronounced way it does in deep cold, reflecting the light and turning the snow crystals into a carpet of sparkles. Beneath that sky, in the middle of the pristine nowhere, it was an indescribably beautiful night.
In the stillness off in the distance, I could sense it before I could see it. A presence was gracefully nearing, murmuring a song of quiet, rhythmic breathing. After about 15 seconds, in that black void darkness, a headlamp switched on and cast a warm beam of light out into the night, over and above the dog team. The beam shone through the hazy steam of the dogs' breath rising in small smoke-like clouds, creating little auras around their heads. 16 beautiful animals completely in their element were moving as one in a dance over the snow. The musher, with a relaxed, easy grip on the handlebar, quietly stood at the back of the team on the footboards of the sled. Trail partners, the musher and the dogs appeared completely bonded in a journey to conquer the beautiful, solitary, inhospitable landscape and challenges rising up to meet them.
I don't know who that team was. Whoever they were, the spirit of mushers past, present and future was with them. There was such a sense of teamwork, fortitude, courage and adventure - I knew that team could conquer anything.
I think Alaskans love the Iditarod because it celebrates the best of humans and dogs. It commemorates the best of us as people as well. It symbolizes good, strength, fearlessness and toughness- the frontier Alaskan spirit in general.
Iditarod 2014 begins on March 1st. And I hope I see you there!
Marilyn Walsh Morgan