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5 Facts About the Iditarod Dog Sled Race

5 Facts About the Iditarod Dog Sled Race

The History

The Iditarod Race follows the historic Iditarod trail which was originally used to haul freight, mail and supplies during the Alaskan gold rush era of the1890s to the early 1900s. Dog teams were the only way to reach the most remote villages and for much of the year large parts of the state were virtually inaccessible except by dog sled. With the introduction of bush planes in the 1920s and snow mobiles in the 1960s dog sled teams were facing virtual extinction and a large piece of Alaska's heritage was slowly being erased from memory. In the 1960s Dorothy Page, a local historian was creating projects to commemorate Alaska's centennial Year of 1967. She, along with some concerned and enthusiastic mushers, set about creating a short memorial race over part of the historic Iditarod Trail to honor the role sled dogs played in Alaska's early settlement. Thus the now famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was conceived in an effort to remember and honor a vital part of Alaskan history. When the first official Iditarod race was run in 1973 changes in distance and route had occurred and continued to be refined over the years. Officially there is now both a southern and northern route which are used on alternated years and modifications are sometimes made to reflect weather and hazardous trail conditions.

The Route

The race’s terrain is made up of two routes and has remained constant over the years: the northern route, run on even-numbered years, and the southern route, runs on odd-numbered years. Both routes follow the same trail for a total of 444 miles from Anchorage to Ophir. At Ophir the routes diverge and then rejoin in Kaltag for another 441 miles to Nome. The southern route was added in 1977 to distribute the positive economic impact of the event to small villages in the area, and additionally passed through the actual historic town of Iditarod.

Checkpoints for mushers and their team do occasionally change, being added or dropped, and the start of the route and the restarting point are adjusted depending on weather and the conditions along the routes. Given the slight change in routes and checkpoints, the exact length of the race varies slightly each year, but is officially set at 1,049 miles to honor Alaska being the 49th state in the United Sates.

The Mushers

Over 50 Mushers enter the Iditarod each year with a team of sled dogs. Most of the mushers are natives to Alaska coming from rural South Central Alaska, the interior of the state, and the Bush, the area of the state not connected to the North American road network. Only a small amount of the entrants are from the other states, Canada, or Europe. In order to qualify for the Iditarod, mushers must participate in three smaller races.

While participants may lease dogs and are not tested to determine eligibility, knowledge of the sport, or canine first aid;if a musher has been convicted of an animal abuse or neglect, or the Idiatrod Trail Committee finds a musher unfit, the musher may not be allowed to complete.

The Dogs

Originally sled dogs were bred by the Mahlemuit tribe and over the years, through crossbreeding, developed into what we now know as the Siberian Husky. One of the most popular racing breeds, the Husky is strong, has great stamina, speed and a desire to run, tough paws, endurance and an even temperament. Conditioned and treated as athletes, the dogs begin training for the race in early summer. It is estimated that prior to running the actual race, the musher and team will run 2,000 miles to train.

Each team is made up of 12 to 16 dogs. Each dog is examined by a veterinarian and nurse prior to the race to ensure the dog is a good health and hasn’t been subjected to illegal drugs, is pregnant, or has any wounds. Additionally, each dog is tracked by a micro chip, collar and tag and monitored at check points throughout the race to make sure the dog is healthy and properly hydrated.

When crossing the finish line, the team must be comprised of at least six dogs.


Many animal activists regard the race as dog abuse and not a test of perseverance for man and dog. Critics site the fact that dogs have died and been injured during the race and that the act of tethering dogs on short chains in kennels at checkpoints is detrimental to the dogs well being. The ASPCA has said, "General concerns arise whenever intense competition results in dogs being pushed beyond their endurance or capabilities.”

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