For more than a week, mushers and their dog teams will race across 1,000 miles of rough, beautiful Alaska terrain.
They will fight fatigue, endure subzero temperatures and zero visibility from windswept snow, and navigate through mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra, windswept coast.
This is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, aka the ‘Last Great Race on Earth.’
The race route – between Anchorage and Nome – incorporates portions of routes used for generations by Alaska Native mushers, by dog teams that delivered mail and supplies to mining camps in the early 1900s.
As challenging as it may be, it’s arguably the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery that one can experience. Mike Williams Sr., Yu’pik, a veteran musher, talked about the beauty on this ancestral route.
“When we get to Rohn and Rainy Pass, that’s where my people used to hunt,” Williams Sr. said in an earlier interview. “We’ve had dogs forever, for thousands of years. We’ve always had a special relationship with them and we’re going to continue to. Like our language and our culture, it’s a part of who we are.”
It’s a race rich in history. Here are 9 facts you should know about the Iditarod.
What does “Iditarod” mean?
The official race history cites James Kasri of the University of Alaska Native Language Center, “’Iditarod’ comes from an Ingalik word meaning ‘distant’ or ‘distant place.’” This word is still known by elders in the villages of Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling and Holy Cross, the race history states.
What do sled dogs eat?
“Sled dogs burn a lot of calories … when they are racing, so they need to eat a lot of fat and protein to maintain weight and energy levels,” mushing twins Anna and Kristy Berington wrote on their blog.
The Beringtons feed their dogs a high-performance kibble mixed with a raw, natural meat product like beef, chicken, tripe, beaver, lamb, horse, turkey, fish, or other animal fat. Meat products are also frozen and cut into candy bar-sized snacks, which can be fed quickly and easily at a brief stop.
Mike Williams Jr., Yu’pik, told ICTMN he feeds his dogs a lot of beef and chicken, whale blubber and chicken skins for fat. “This year we have been feeding [them] Inukshuk,” he said, which is a brand of dog food that is formulated specifically for dogs that train, hunt and run.
What do mushers eat?
Alaska Native mushers eat traditional foods on the trail. Mike Williams Jr. eats high-energy foods like caribou steaks, moose steaks, dried fish, muktuk, and Yu’pik ice cream, made from seal oil and berries.
How much sleep do mushers get?
“Sleeping 2 to 4 hours per day is about as good as it gets out on the trail, aside from the longer, mandatory layovers,” the Berington twins wrote on their blog.
Mandatory rests: one 24-hour layover to be taken at any checkpoint, one eight-hour layover taken at any checkpoint on the Yukon River; and an eight-hour stop at White Mountain.
What does it cost to compete in the Iditarod?
Approximately $16,400, which includes the cost of entry fees, travel costs, veterinary checks, miscellaneous expenses the week before and after the race, handler costs, dog booties, dog food, sled maintenance, musher food, personal items, and other equipment and gear.
Mike Williams Sr., who operates a kennel with his son, said operating a kennel for a year can cost between $50,000 and $100,000.
Nugget is the only dog to lead teams to Iditarod victories for two different mushers – while on loan to Carl Huntington, Athabascan, in the 1974 Iditarod; and for her owner, Emmitt Peters, Athabascan, in 1975.
Legendary Alaska Native mushers in the Iditarod
The first Iditarod, in 1973, featured several Alaska Native mushers that would go on to become legends in the sport.
George Attla, Athabascan, placed fourth in the first Iditarod; Herbie Nayokpuk, Inupiat, placed fifth; Isaac Okleasik, Inupiat, finished sixth. Nayokpuk would go on to race in 11 Iditarods, finishing in the Top 10 eight times.
Carl Huntington, Emmitt Peters and Gerald Riley, all Athabascans, won the 1974, 1975 and 1976 Iditarods, respectively. Thirty-five years would pass before another Alaska Native, John Baker, Inupiaq, won the Iditarod.
Native mushers in the 2014 race
John Baker, Inupiaq, is mushing in his 19th Iditarod. He won in 2011 and has 13 Top 10 finishes; his 2011 time of 8 days 18 hours 46 minutes 39 seconds is a record.
Richie Diehl, Athabascan, is mushing in his second Iditarod. He finished 36th in 2013.
Peter Kaiser, Yu’pik, is mushing in his fifth Iditarod. He finished a career-best fifth in 2012.
Mike Williams Jr., Yu’pik, is mushing in his fifth Iditarod; he finished a career-best eighth in 2012.
The largest purse in dog-sled racing
The 2014 Iditarod purse is $650,000. Most of that money will go to the first 30 finishers (the winner also gets a new Dodge Ram 4×4 pickup); the remaining mushers will each receive $1,049.
All told, 17 awards are presented in the Iditarod.