Saturday, May 31, 2008

Alaska - History of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race

The annual dog sled race in Alaska, the Iditarod race, is held the second Saturday in March each year. The race starts in Anchorage with the finish line in Nome, approximate distance of 1,200 miles. The first race was held March 3, 1973. Since that first race, the popularity of this event has grown through the years, along with the amount of the prize money. The winner of the 1973 race received $50,000 and today that amount has increased to around $500,000.

The mushers spend anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars on the race. Not only do they have the entry fee to pay, but also the cost of their sled, their clothes and equipment; plus the cost of keeping their dogs all year, which estimated total cost of everything runs around $60,000. They do have corporate sponsors who sponsor them, which helps to defray their cost.

The Alaska Iditarod is to Alaska about the same as the Indy 500, the Super Bowl or the Olympics. It is the longest distance dog sled race in the world. It was originated as a tribute to an actual event which occurred during the winter of 1925. During that winter of 1925, a deadly outbreak of diphtheria had struck, threatening all the children of Nome. They needed the serum to fight this disease, but the serum was in the city of Anchorage, over 1,000 miles away to the southeast.

There was one airplane that could have been flown to Anchorage to pick up the medicine, but it had been dismantled and stored for the winter. A large Alaskan wilderness of uninhabited land lay between Anchorage and Nome. There was frozen and rough terrain with no roads. As a last resort, it was decided to try sled dogs to travel to Anchorage and pick up the medicine.

The medicine was taken to Nenana from Anchorage by the Alaska Railroad. A dog sled relay would be used to pick up the medicine at Nenana, a town north of Anchorage. Twenty mushers volunteered to relay the medicine from Nenana to Nome, 674 miles away. It was 50 below zero, when the first musher left Nenana and six days later, on February 2, 1925, the dog team of Gunner Kaassen arrived in Nome. Legend has it that on this last leg of the trip, a big gust of wind turned the sled over, with the life-saving serum falling out onto the snow. Kaassen used his bare hands to dig the serum out of the snow, turned his sled upright and proceeded to finish the trip into Nome.

The lead husky of Kaassen's dog team was Balto. He immediately became a world hero, as the world had been watching this story unfold through newspaper accounts. Balto traveled the United States for two years after the serum run, with people celebrating his heroic deeds that helped save the children in Nome.

Then in 1933 when Balto died, his preserved body was put on display at Cleveland's Natural History Museum. His popularity lives on, as in 1995 an animated movie about Balto was made.

He has become a highlight with the Alaskan children and some are working to get Balto brought back to his home state of Alaska to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Museum in Wasilla.

Balto is also partly responsible for the Iditarod race which was first started in 1973. It is held to commemorate the courage of the mushers and the dogs who participated in that life or death race to save the children of Nome.

Michael Russell
Your Independent guide to Alaska

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