In Alaska there are no professional sports teams and there is no college football. Therefore, Alaskans get their outdoor pre-game festivities not in parking lots, but alongside a 1,150 mile trail from Anchorage to Nome.
The end of February and the beginning of March is one of the most exciting times of year in Alaska, not because the spring break-up is around the corner, but because it is mushing season and the granddaddy race being the Iditarod.
For those unfamiliar with the event, the race’s original roots came from the 1925 diphtheria epidemic that took place in Nome. The Iditarod Trail had already been developed as a mail and supply route from Seward and Knik into the Alaskan interior. When the epidemic took place, serum had to be brought quickly, and dogs were the fastest mode of transportation. Teams of sled dogs raced from town to town passing the medicine from team to team until it reached Nome. After a mere five and half days and 674 miles, the medicine reached Nome behind the lead sled dog Balto.
The modern race usually takes somewhere between 10 to 17 days. During this trip riders and their team of 12 to 16 dogs cross some of the most beautiful terrain in the world, where they pass through mountain ranges, forests, frozen rivers, desolate tundra, and coastlines—in temperatures far below zero and winds that have the ability to cause complete loss of vision. As you can imagine, such a test brings out the adventure junkies from around the world.
The 2011 class of riders consisted of 62 teams from six countries: USA, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, UK (Scotland), and Jamaica (yes, I said Jamaica). The U.S. mushers in the 2011 field drew entries from Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Tennessee, and Michigan (Ed Stielstra of McMillian).
The front-runner was Fairbanks native and Iditarod legend Lance Mackey. Mackey is a 40-year-old competitor who won a record four straight Iditarods. Mackey comes from one of the premier mushing families in Alaska. He is the son and brother of former champions. Mackey’s son is also part of this year’s race. The prize was $50,400 on cash and a new truck.
That covers the riders; now for the fans.
The celebration begins in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska (280,000). This celebration is called Fur Rondy and lasts two weeks. Snow is actually brought into the city and dumped in the main street for the events. The main events are the running with the reindeer (similar to Spain’s running with the bulls), the outhouse race (homemade outhouses are put onto skis then pulled by teams with one teammate sitting on the john), and the ceremonial Iditarod start.
Fur Rondy attracts people from all over the state. While attending the outhouse race and the running with the reindeer, my wife and I met groups from as far north as Kotzebue and as far south as Ketchikan. The majority of the people who attended the festivities drove from Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, and the Kenai Peninsula. However, with the majority of Alaskan cities and villages not being connected to the Alaskan road system, many people from western, northern and southern Alaska flew into Anchorage to experience these annual events.
The outhouse race was my favorite event. I had friends who helped make up three teams. The various teams decorated their homemade outhouses and many of the teams wore costumes. One of my friend’s team all wore capes, underwear over their clothes, and large, fake plastic butts.
My favorite team mockingly called themselves “Elect Joe Miller” and all of the team members wore suits and ties. Most of the events that lead up to the Iditarod are suppose to be fun filled competitions, not to be taken too seriously.
The ceremonial start brings thousands into Anchorage, packing the trail all the way to Eagle River. The riders are introduced downtown, where they take pose for photos and sign autographs, then begin the first part of their journey to Eagle River before the official start begins the next day in Willow.
People pack the trail the first two days of the race and trailgate while the mushers and their teams ride by. The first day on the trail resembles a dogsled parade. Mushers ride by waving, and giving high fives while throwing candy and dog booties to the crowd. The trailgate that my wife and I attended took place 3.5 miles into the trail and was one of the biggest groups out. The group was made up of a mix of born-and-bred Alaskans and lower 48 implants such as my wife and I.
We had to park our car at a small park in Anchorage, then walk two miles to our spot on the trail. We had upwards of 40 people packing the trail cheering, holding up signs for our favorite riders and grilling an Alaskan staple—reindeer sausage.
Our trailgate coordinator has been setting up Iditarod trailgates for the past couple years and has helped our group gain quite the reputation. Mackey said that he looks forward to the ride by our group every year because of how loud and energetic we are and because he gets a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints handed to him as he races by. The Iditarod Trailgate is as fun and rowdy as any Morenci/Sand Creek, Central/Western, or Michigan/Notre Dame tailgate I have ever been a part of.
After the mushers make the short trip up to Eagle River, they get the remainder of the day to rest until the serious portion of the race begins.
This year proved to be one of the fastest trails in Iditarod history, with relatively good weather. However, there was a minor virus that was spreading throughout many of the dog teams making some of the riders leave dogs at the checkpoints. This tends to be a fairly normal part of the event. Dogs are treated at the checkpoints by the veterinarians on the trail and then given back to the riders at the end of the race.
I was able to track the race the entire way while getting to watch live feed from the checkpoints. At the checkpoints I was able to see crowds of fans cheering on the riders in all of the tiny villages along the trail.
An unexpected musher won this year’s race. John Baker, the 48-year-old Kotzebue native, was the first to arrive in Nome, winning with a time of eight days 18 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds, a new Iditarod record. He led the race by more than two hours for the final four days. Lance Mackey finished the race in 16th place (nine days 17 hours, 55 minutes, 34 seconds) and Michigander Ed Stielstra finished in 27th (10 days, 14 hours, 1 minute, 30 seconds).
The Iditarod helps outsiders get a tiny glimpse into the Alaskan way of life. Alaskans are unlike most people in the lower 48, they do not shy away from winter and hibernate in their homes from November to April. They get outside and take advantage of the fun that winter can bring. Alaskans spend their winters cross country and downhill skiing, snowshoeing through the mountain passes, ice fishing, snowmobiling, winter mountain biking, and mushing.
Alaskans look forward to Fur Rondy and the Iditarod all year, when they can take a few days out of their busy winter schedule to relax with friends on the mushing trail while eating reindeer sausage, drinking Alaskan beverages and cheering on their favorite mushers.
• Morenci graduate Matt Clark recently moved to Alaska and is teaching school there. He lives in Palmer, Alaska.