Steam rises from open mouths. The smell of sweat and straw cuts through the cold air. The start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is near, and when the time comes, the dogs will be ready to run. But for now, they wait patiently. These Siberian Huskies were born to run, their bloodlines offering survival instincts for an event that requires intense focus for days on end.
Layers of fur insulate their bodies, ensuring a steady core temperature.
Their ears are up, noses into the air, taking everything in.
Their eyes focus on something that we can’t see.
The pack leaps into the air, defying the harnesses stretched tight against their chests. They struggle to push forward, barking.
History of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race has taken place in Alaska every year since 1973. Alaskans organized the race to commemorate the historical importance of the dog sled team. I have come to Alaska for the past 7 yearsto see for myself this race that shows the powerful relationship between humans and dogs.
As a physician and public health professional, I am fascinated by the Iditarod because of its connection with one of the greatest sled dog races in the history of the world: the Great Serum Run of 1925.
It all started with Leonard Seppala, a Norwegian man who emigrated to Nome in 1900. He had his first exposure to sled dog teams in 1901 when he left to explore a new gold claim some distance from Nome. In 1913, Seppala met Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who led the first successful expedition to the South Pole. Amundsen recruited Seppala to train a group of Siberian Huskies for an expedition to the North Pole.
Seppala didn’t just train his dogs; they became his family. Together they worked on the trails outside of Nome, keeping the supply lines open to mining claims and helping others along the way. They worked in harsh conditions, forging a trust that would become key in later endeavors. These dogs loved what they did. They literally jumped at the chance to run, especially Seppala’s lead dog, Togo.
In 1925 a diphtheria epidemic threatened to wipe out the children of Nome. Alaskans called upon the sled dog teams to deliver the life-saving diphtheria antitoxin over 647 miles of arctic wilderness to this isolated community on the Bering Sea. In total, 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs were used in this effort.
Seppala and Togo led the effort, traversing 350 miles of arctic terrain in subzero temperatures, crossing a bay of frozen water on little sleep and no backup. At times Seppala couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of him and had to rely on Togo to stay on the trail and get them safely through. All the years of Seppala cultivating trust, loyalty, and hard work among Togo and his team paid off: the sled dog teams successfully arrived in Nome, delivered the serum, and saved the children.
Today the official race starts in Willow and traverses the interior of Alaska, crossing 998 miles of arctic wilderness, frozen rivers, and mountain passes at temperatures often below 20 degrees fahrenheit. They eventually reach the coast of the Bering Sea at Nome. Since the start of the Iditarod race, thousands of dogs have run this narrow trail to Nome.
Frostbite and hypothermia are constant threats. Racers rarely come in contact with wolves or bears, but moose frequently appear on the trail. The drivers and dogs face sleep depravation and the constant struggle of passing over thick snow and rough glare ice.
Although socks cover the dog’s feet, the constant pounding of their feet on hard-packed snow takes a toll on their paws. Discarded socks are often found along the trail.
A blur of steam rises as a team makes their way across Shell Lake at 3:00am, only 100 miles into the race. The dogs exhale through frost-covered mouths, illuminated by the single headlamp of the musher. The dogs often run through the night, taking short rest breaks to eat and sleep.
A hard-working dog eats a slice of frozen salmon.
The lead dog is the first to see, feel, and hear everything on the trail. She finds the scent left behind by thousands of other dog teams that have passed over this very trail. The blood, sweat, and urine have been permanently embedded in this trail, left by legendary Alaskan sled dogs of many years past.
Drops of blood frozen in the snow reveal the harsh truth of the dogs’ sacrifice for the team.
The lead dog keeps the team on the trail and sets the pace. She feels for the weak spots on river ice, sensing the slightest change in the ice’s texture and stopping the team if needed.
Dogs rely on each other in this harsh climate.
Even before the Great Serum Run of 1925, dogs held a special place in the hearts of Alaskans. Sled dog teams were required to access areas of Alaska where there were no roads for cars, and airplanes were not capable of landing. Sled dog teams transported people and supplies between villages in these remote locations and were essential to mining crews during the gold rush. Access to these locations is difficult and remains a challenge today, requiring either flying in small bush planes or riding for long distances on snow machines over frozen rivers and trails.
The dog-musher relationship is formed under harsh conditions with mutual trust and reliance.
They depend on each other for survival: woman and dog becoming more than best friends.
It is 1:00 a.m., and while most of Alaska sleeps, there are many locals lining the trail outside of Shell Lake Lodge, awaiting the first team to the bonfire at Shell Lake. The heavy parkas and fur hats stand in freezing temperatures at this hour. The crowd peers through the darkness and suddenly we see a single light crossing the lake in the distance. As the light grows brighter one appreciates all of the legs in front of the sled pulling hard over the snow-packed trail. The crowd erupts as the light grows brighter and the dogs bark. The team has completed one-tenth of the race to Nome.