Anchorage Feature


Iditarod Trail History

Since 1973, mushers and their sled-dog teams have raced more than 1,000 miles across Alaska in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the longest sled-dog race in the world.

After a ceremonial start in Downtown Anchorage on the first Saturday in March, dog teams wind through Alaska, battling almost every imaginable winter challenge. Iditarod mushers and dogs endure extreme cold, deep snow, gale-force winds, whiteouts, river overflow, and moose attacks, not to mention fraying tempers. Less than 10 days later, the front-runners in the "Last Great Race" cross under the burled-wood arch finish line in Nome, on the Bering Sea coast.

The Iditarod's origins can be traced to two events: an early-1900s long-distance race called the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, and the delivery of a lifesaving serum to Nome by dog mushers during a diphtheria outbreak in 1925.

Fascinated with the trail's history, Alaskan sled-dog enthusiasts Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. staged the first race in 1967 to celebrate the role of mushing in Alaska's history. Only 50 miles long and with a purse of $25,000—no small amount at that time—it attracted the best of Alaska's competitive mushers. Enthusiasm waned in 1969, however, when the available winnings fell to $1,000. Instead of giving up, Redington expanded the race.

In 1973, after three years without a race, he organized a 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, with a then-outrageous purse of $50,000. Critics scoffed, but 34 racers entered. First place went to a little-known musher named Dick Wilmarth, who finished in 20 days. Redington then billed the Iditarod as a 1,049-mile race to symbolize Alaska, the 49th state. While still the official distance, the race really covers more than 1,150 miles.

The race actually begins in Willow, the Iditarod's headquarters, a 70-mile drive north of Anchorage. The first few hundred miles take mushers and dogs through wooded lowlands and hills, including Moose Alley.

Teams then cross the Alaska Range and enter Interior Alaska, with Athabascan villages and gold-rush ghost towns, including one called Iditarod. Next, the trail follows the frozen Yukon River, then cuts over to the Bering Sea coast for the final 270-mile "sprint" to Nome. It was here, in 1985, that Libby Riddles drove her team into a blinding blizzard en route to a victory that made her the first woman to win the race. After that, Susan Butcher won the race four times, but the all-time record holder is Rick Swenson, with five victories. Lance Mackey holds the record for most consecutive wins, with his back-to-backs from 2007 to 2010. The fastest time was recorded in 2011, when Alaska Native John Baker finished in 8 days, 18 hours, and 46 minutes.

Updated: 2014-01-22

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