|The ceremonial start at Anchorage|
Each year hundreds of people gather in the town of Anchorage, Alaska, for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Great Sled Race. The race is named after the Iditarod Trail, a 1500+ km trail which was commemorated as one of the first National Historic Trails in America. However the race itself covers a much larger distance of almost 2000 km, with the path alternating between a southern and northern trail each year. Each team competing in the Iditarod consists of a musher and between 12 to 16 dogs, with at least 6 dogs required to be in harness as the team crosses the finishing line.
The first true Iditarod race was held in 1973, with the purse of $51,000 attracting 34 mushers, 24 of whom completed the race. The popularity of the race has been steadily increasing ever since, with the Iditarod now being the most popular annual sporting event in Alaska. The top mushers and their team of dogs are local celebrities in Alaska, with the progress of the race keenly followed by many people.
|One of the checkpoints along the way|
In the early days of the race the course was commonly completed in over 20 days, however improvements in dog training and advancements in the preparation of the trail have meant that the fastest teams now complete the course in less than 10 days. The record time to complete the course currently stands at 8 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes, and 39 seconds, set by John Baker in 2011. Each musher must pass by a number of checkpoints along the way, with some mushers choosing to rest at these, whilst others prefer to press on. Three mandatory rests must also be taken by each team; one 24-hour layover, one 8-hour layover, and one final 8-hour rest taken before the last dash to the finish.
|The stunning scenery on the Iditarod Trail|
The conditions during the Iditarod race are notoriously brutal, with the teams frequently having to race through blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds (which can cause the wind-chill to reach -100°F). The ideal sledging conditions are around freezing. Any colder and it puts the mushers and dogs in danger of frostbite (or worse). Any hotter and the snow and ice can start to melt, making it much more difficult and dangerous. When the snow melts the sleds become harder to pull for the dogs, and the water causes the dogs and drivers to get wet, thus making it hard to maintain their body temperatures.
The Iditarod competitors also have to cope with the loneliness of the trail, often going many hours between checkpoints, encountering little except for ice and snow. When the equipment fails or the dogs are injured teams can be stranded in the wilderness, having to wait an unknown amount of time for help to arrive. This desolation, along with the brutal weather conditions, have given the Iditarod the unofficial title of “The toughest race in the world”.
|One of the dogs takes a rest after a hard day's work|
Animal rights activists have criticised the Iditarod race, claiming that it amounts to little more than dog abuse. The rules of the race prohibit “cruel or inhumane treatment of the dogs”, however a number of dogs are injured or die each year, and the conditions and long hours undoubtedly push these athletes to their limits. Whilst some injuries and deaths are statistically likely due to the sheer number (1000+) of dogs competing and the length of the event, it’s a shame that any have to occur. The committee can be seen to be carrying out their rules however, with prominent musher Ramy Brooks suspended for 2 years in 2007 after being found guilty of abusing his sled dogs.
The Iditarod is one of the most fascinating sports events in the world, and as an outsider it's a truly captivating event, covering some of earth’s most magnificent scenery. Whilst I do hold strong reservations about the way the dogs are treated during the race and the unnecessary suffering they have to undergo, I also understand dog sledding is part of the history and culture of the Alaskan people.