National Geographic News
Nathan Schroeder drives his dog team down the trail just after the start of the 2014 Iditarod Trail  Sled Dog Race out of Willow, Alaska, Sunday, March 2, 2014. The race will take mushers nearly a thousand miles to the finish line in Nome, on Alaska's western coast.

Musher Nathan Schroeder and his team head down the Iditarod Trail in Willow, Alaska, on March 2, 2014.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB HALLINEN, ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS, AP

Angie McPherson

National Geographic

Published March 8, 2014

Sixty-nine dogsledders are mushing across the Alaska wilderness in hopes of becoming top dog in the 42nd annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Since 1973, hundreds of competitors have come from all over the world to make the 1,150-mile (1,850-kilometer) journey from Anchorage to Nome. Usually, between 60 and 100 teams participate in the event. Each team must start with 16 dogs and finish with at least six. (Read what it takes to compete in the Iditarod.)

National Geographic talked to Diane Johnson, the Iditarod's director of education, to learn more about the so-called last great race.

1. Iditarod is a city, a river, a trail, and a race.

Iditarod means "distant" or "distant place" in the languages of Ingalik and Holikachu, which are spoken by indigenous Athabaskan peoples of northwestern Alaska. It's also the name of a city, a river, and a trail in the same area.

A relic from Alaska's gold-mining era, the abandoned city of Iditarod is located along the Iditarod River (map) and considered the halfway point on the southern route of the dogsled race.

Back in the gold rush days, the only way to deliver mail to Iditarod was to drive a dogsled along the Iditarod Trail. But after World War II, Alaska transportation began to change in favor of faster methods of travel such as snowmobiles and airplanes.

"By the 1970s, the dogsled tradition had nearly disappeared," said Johnson.

Iditarod race founder and musher Joe Redington, Sr., created the long-distance race named after the trail to keep Alaska dogsledding alive and to help the Iditarod Trail become recognized as a historic trail.

2. The starting line can change.

Unseasonably warm weather can move the starting line of the Iditarod race—known as the restart location—if the trail begins to melt.

In 2003, when the trail near Willow was impassable due to deteriorating conditions, the race was moved to Fairbanks, a city 359 miles (578 kilometers) north of Anchorage.

Organizers considered moving it to colder Fairbanks again this year, but decided that trail conditions were safe for the racers.

3. Chihuahuas need not apply.

Only northern dog breeds like Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes are allowed to race in the Iditarod. The rule was adopted in the early 1990s after musher John Suter entered the 1988 competition with standard European poodles on his dogsled team. However, many of the poodles were dropped off at checkpoints due to frozen feet and hair-matting problems.

"Most of our pet dogs don't have the right undercoat to travel in the Alaskan conditions during the winter," Johnson said. (Take National Geographic's dog quiz.)

Some mushers disagree with the decision to allow only northern breed dogs, but the organization insists the rule is to protect dogs that aren't suited for cold-weather racing.

Restart of the Iditarod in Willow, Alaska, 3/2/14.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL LEIFHEIT, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT
An unidentified dog team takes off on March 2, 2014.

4. Moose are dangerous.

Moose are a threat for dogsled teams, said Johnson.

That's because the large animals can charge the sled and injure the dogs. Such attacks are so frequent around Willow that some mushers have nicknamed the area "Moose Alley."

In 2012, a moose charged at musher Karen Ramstead while she was training in Moose Alley. She was able to escape the attack, but the moose injured one of her dogs.

5. Red lanterns finish last.

The Red Lantern Award is given to the last team to finish the Iditarod. The winner usually completes the race in eight to ten days, though the longest any team took to finish the race was 32.5 days.

The red-lantern tradition originated in 1953, during the three-day Fur Rendezvous dogsled race in Anchorage, and was passed on to the newer, and much longer, Iditarod. The name refers to the lantern that's lit during the race and not put out until the last dog crosses the finish line.

Top dog or not, in the Iditarod, every dog has its day.

Follow Angie McPherson on Twitter.

31 comments
Theresa Lipschitz
Theresa Lipschitz

Very interesting!  :-)  Love the race and am a paid insider!  :-)

Tabitha Nardini
Tabitha Nardini

Poodles did finish the Iditarod 3 time. They had corded hair and yes the hair did freeze in the ice on the rive but so did the husky's fur. That is why straw is to be at every check point. Every musher know, in some snow conditions, the snow will ball up in the dogs feet. There is ointment now to protect their feet.  The poodles where dropped at check points the same reasons husky are drooped not because of the reasons stated in the article. I know because I was there.  

Michael Marinsky
Michael Marinsky

To Ms. Glickman and others: I took an Iditarod tour in 2001, following the race by airplane and staying in lodges along the way. At one lodge, 100 miles from Anchorage, the owner had a pet wolf who was rejected by his pack, plus a pet Alaskan husky.


Veterinarians from around the world volunteer; I met a vet from Germany. The dogs are given a physical at each rest stop. If they determine the dog should be dropped, they are flown by volunteer airplanes to Anchorage. The dogs are then sent to an Anchorage medium security prison, and assigned to an inmate. By nursing the dogs, and then helping them be adopted, the prisoners earn time off their sentence. It's good for the dogs, and good for society by substantially reducing recidivism. 


The dogs wear booties, and if a musher is guilty of cruelty, they are dropped from the race and cannot participate in the future. The mushers also sleep outside with their dog team.


Lighten up.

Santa Chris Brooks
Santa Chris Brooks

The 50 years I lived in Alaska we had Sled Dog Races where dogs compete by pulling sleds. I've never seen any sleds full of dogs racing. How is that done?


I think it's still called the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Marie McQueen
Marie McQueen

FOR ALL WHO MAY BE INTERESTED IN THR IDITAROD. THE RACE MAY FINISH TOMORROW!

T. McGrath
T. McGrath

While it is true that some mushers use Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, the overwhelming majority of the dogs used by mushers are Alaskan Huskies.  They are about half the size of Siberian Huskies and have more stamina than either Siberians or Malamutes.  The dogs in the article's photo are Alaskan Huskies.


Martin Vuerhard
Martin Vuerhard

These animals are only truly in doggie-heaven when they are pulling a sled...preferably

in competition, any competition will do! If they are in snow and with their buddies, life is perfect! This is what they were born to do and they love it! Hellova lot more fun than chasing a stupid stick or ball.   

Barbara Boucher
Barbara Boucher

The unidentified dog team is Allen Moore's SP Kennel team.

Martha Dobson
Martha Dobson

Angie has some errors in this. First, she submitted these five facts to Diane Johnson--Johnson did not give them to Angie. Second, despite proofreading and error corrections sent to Angie, errors remain. The starting line moved to Willow from Wasilla because the town of Wasilla's growth, so that housing and businesses and the Iditarod Trail are in very close proximity. In Willow, this is not the case.

Jeannie Hess
Jeannie Hess

And I'd be a proud and happy camper to win the Red Lantern...

Chakri Wongsena
Chakri Wongsena

'Each team must start with 16 dogs and finish with at least six.' from this sentence, what happened with missing dogs?

Brian Gateley
Brian Gateley

@Michael Marinsky That reassures me to some extent, but when you say "By nursing the dogs," it sounds like the dogs must have suffered to some extent if they NEED nursing.  And also when you're talking to people who are just concerned that dogs and/or other animals are being treated humanely, "Lighten up" is definitely not cool.

Brian Gateley
Brian Gateley

@Martin Vuerhard Dogs are in heaven when they're eating a chocolate bar too.  Doesn't necessarily mean we, as their protectors, should let them!

Mike Kinville
Mike Kinville

@MARGERY GLICKMAN It's a fact that the SDAC "Likes" PETA on their Facebook page. It's a fact that the SDAC doesn't like the Iditarod. It's a fact that the death rate (now dramatically declining) for Iditarod sled dogs is around .3%, not much different than the husky population at large for the same period of time. It's a fact that PETA killed 82% of the dogs that came into their headquarters building for care. It's a fact that in a single year, in a single location, PETA killed 459 more dogs than have died in 42 years of Iditarod racing.

These are not the half-truths that Ms. Glickman presents as "Truth" and "Fact" on her website. This is the whole unvarnished truth of the Sled Dog Action Coalition and helpsleddogs.org


More here; http://www.newsminer.com/opinion/community_perspectives/anti-mushing-group-paints-unfair-portrait-of-the-iditarod/article_6442e8f6-a37d-11e3-a9aa-001a4bcf6878.html

Andrew Roberts
Andrew Roberts

@MARGERY GLICKMAN  BS.  These dogs were bred to work.  I had a husky and she absolutely loved pulling a sled through the snow.  We used to go backpacking and she loved carrying her own food.  When we got up in the morning, if I didn't put her pack on her- she would stand next to it until I did.  And they dogs are athletes and are cared for like any professional athlete.  So get off your high horse, you don't know these dogs or this race.

Richard Lavash
Richard Lavash

@MARGERY GLICKMAN  Hey Margery, 53 vets volunteered AND participated this year, do you think they tolerate the slightest HINT of cruelty?

Jeannie Hess
Jeannie Hess

@Chakri Wongsena  Dogs are often dropped from a team due to injury, illness, they simply cannot keep up, etc. They aren't abandoned by the wayside but are left with lodges, caretakers, veterinarians, etc. After the race (or if the owner drops out), the owner will come back and collect the dog/s. An interesting and humorous book is "My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian". I'm sorry I cannot recall the author's name, but I'm sure Amazon still carries it, if you're interested.

mao jason
mao jason

@Bill Mathisen @MARGERY GLICKMAN how do you know its a lie?

I wont want to be one of the dogs will you?

Anyways it will be extreme for a poodle to pull a sled in that kind of condition.

Chakri Wongsena
Chakri Wongsena

thank you so much for your descriptions this make me feel comfortable.

Bill Mathisen
Bill Mathisen

@Jeannie Hess @Chakri Wongsena Any more they have DoggieCondo's for them, and all dropped dogs are flown to Anchorage, after the Vets take a good gander at them. DO NOT  believe anything Marjorie Glickman and her zealots have to say about this race.

Richard Lavash
Richard Lavash

@Brian Gateley  They are mostly dropped for very minor issues, such as wrist or elbow soreness; it's very similar to a pitcher coming out of a baseball game. The fact is that the dogs are all treated like the superstar athletes that they are, and the humans are basically just along for the ride. Just ask ANY musher. 

This race is ALL about the dogs.  

Brian Gateley
Brian Gateley

But regardless of how wonderfully they are treated when they drop from the race for whatever reason, the fact that they ARE dropping from the race sounds to me like the race must be terribly hard on them.  

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