Denali State Park

Mushing: Sled Dogs & the Iditarod

March 9, 2011, 7:11 am


When Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, few roads existed in the new state. Perhaps one of the most synonymous associations with the Great North is the usage of sled dog teams for transportation. Dog sleds as transportation have existed for thousands of years and span across the entire Arctic region, regardless of country. It is one of the most effective and reliable ways to travel great distances across the harsh environment. Every year, the best teams from around the world get the opportunity to showcase their talents in the race of the year in Alaska: the Iditarod.

The 2011 Iditarod racers set out on March 5, 2011 and face a grueling two weeks. This year, Lance Mackey will attempt to become the first musher to win an unprecedented five straight Iditarod races. Since 2007, no other musher has been able to defeat Mackey and his teams. The Fairbanks native is trying to tie Rick Swenson as the only other musher to win a total of five races lifetime.

The Iditarod spans 1,150 miles across the beautiful and barren Alaska wilderness. The race starts in Anchorage, a location not unlike most small cities in the lower 48 states. From there, the mushers will encounter mountains, tundra, vast coastline and dense forest. The 10 to 17 day race will test the mushers’ focus, drive, navigation skills, strategy and ability to survive.

The Iditarod is the most important sporting event of the year in Alaska and is often called the “Last Great Race on Earth.” Each team is allowed 12 to 16 dogs and races to various checkpoints along the over thousand-mile journey. Sled dogs are often given the care of athletes, each with their own mix of food, training schedule and assessment to keep them in top shape. The dogs can burn 10,000 a day while racing and it is important to have the animals conditioned for such a grueling race.

The race honors a portion of Alaskan history. Back in 1925, the trails played a huge role in delivering crucial medication to the city of Nome, which was ridden with diphtheria. The sled dogs provided one of the only forms of transportation at the time and, without them, many areas would not have survived. Perhaps the most famous sled dog is Balto, a dog that even received his own statue in Central Park and animated movie. After his death, the dog was prepared by a taxidermist and is on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Sled dogs vary across the world. Siberian Huskies differ from Greenland Dogs, which are different yet from Canadian Inuit Dogs. The Alaskan malamute is the typical image that comes to mind for most Americans when they think of “sled dogs.” Each type of dog is conditioned for a different purpose; speed, endurance, durability, intelligence, depending on where in the world they live. Fifty years ago these animals often did not make very good house pets, as they enjoy large amounts of space, colder temperatures and a wolf-like diet. However, over time, modern malamute dogs have been bred for pets “down south” in the lower 48 states and can make excellent companions.

For those who wish to try their hand at mushing, Denali National Park offers the perfect opportunity during the winter, be sure to bundle up! In Denali, there is a kennel of sled dogs maintained by the park that patrol during the winter and give demonstrations in the summer. For those interested in mushing in the winter, two tour companies that are permitted to operate in the park: Denali Dog Sled Expeditions and Denali West Lodge.

The path the mushers follow with their dogs passes through many public lands. The Bureau of Land Management maintains the Iditarod National Historic Trail, a complex system of historic sled dog routes that is much larger than the modern-day race route. The trails are maintained in a joint effort with various other organizations, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Iditarod National Historic Trail Centennial celebration runs through October 2012. This year’s Iditarod kicked off on March 5, 2011 and although the town that bears the same name is now a ghost town, it’s namesake lives on.

UPDATE: The 2011 Iditarod crowned a new champ! John Baker, 48, became the first Alaska Native musher to win the world’s longest sled dog race since Jerry Riley did it in 1976, and the first Eskimo to win it when he crossed the finish line.