Monday, March 28, 2011


History of the Iditarod

   The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race first ran to Nome in 1973, after two short races on part of the Iditarod Trail in 1967 and 1969.  The idea of having a race over the Iditarod Trail was conceived by the late Dorothy Page.  In 1964, Page was chairwoman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial and was working on projects to celebrate Alaska's Centennial Year n 1967.
   She was intrigued that dog teams could travel over land that was not accessible by autos.  In the early 1920's, settlers had come to Alaska following a gold strike.  They traveled by boat to the coastal towns of Seward and Knik and from there, by land into the gold fields.  The trail they used is today known as The Iditarod Trail, one of the National Historic Trails as so designated b the U.S. Congress.  In the winter, their only means of travel was by dog team.

   The Iditarod Trail soon became the major thoroughfare through Alaska.  Mail was carried across this trail, people used the trail to get from place to place and supplies were transported via the Iditarod Trail.  Priests, minister, and judges traveled between villages via dog teams.
   All too soon the gold mining began to slack off.  People began to go back to where they had come from and suddenly there was less travel on the Iditarod Trail.  The use of the airplane in the late 1920's signaled the beginning of the end of the dog team as a standard mode of transportation, and of course with the airplane carrying the mail, there was less need for land travel.  The final blow to the use of the dog teams came with the appearance of snowmobiles in Alaska.

   By the mid 60's, most people in Alaska didn't even know there was an Iditarod Trail or that dog teams had played a very important part in Alaska's early settlement.  Dorothy Page, a resident of Wasilla and self made historian, recognized the importance of an awareness of the use of sled dogs as working animals and of the Iditarod Trail and the important part it played in Alaska's history.
   She presented the possibility of a race over the Iditarod Trail to Joe Redington, Sr., a musher from the Knik area.  Soon the Pages and the Redingtons began promoting the idea of the Iditarod Race to the extent that Joe and Vi Redington moved to the Knik area from their homestead at Flat Horn Lake and they have never moved back.

   The Aurora Dog Musher Club, along with men from the Adult Camp in Sutton helped clear years of over growth from the first 9 miles of the Iditarod Trail in time to put on the first short Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1967.  A $25,000 purse was offered in that race with Joe and Vi Redington donating one acre of their land at Flat Horn Lake adjacent to the Iditarod Trail to help raise the funds. ( the land was subdivided into one square foot lots and sold with a deed and special certificate of ownership, raising $10,000 toward the purse)  Contestants from all over Alaska and even two contestants form Massachusetts entered that first Iditarod Race, but a newcomer, Issac Okleasik, from Teller, Alaska, won the race with his team of large working dogs.  The short race of approximately 27 miles, was put on again in 1969.

Joe Redington Sr.

   The goal was to have the race go all the way to the ghost town of Iditarod in 1973.  However in 1972, the U.S. Army reopened the trail as a winter exercise and in 1973, the decision was made to take the race the 1,000 plus miles to Nome.  Redington and Page were instrumental in getting the first long Iditarod on its way to Nome in 1973, amidst comments that it couldn't be done.  There were many who believed it was crazy to send a bunch of mushers out into the vast uninhabited Alaskan wilderness.  But the race went on.  22 mushers finished that year and to date, there have been over 400 finishers.  Mushers have come from Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Italy,Japan, Austria, Australia, Sweden and the Soviet Union as well as from about 20 different states in the United States.

   The late Dorothy Page, the "mother of the Iditarod" is quoted in the October 1979 issue of the Iditarod Runner on her intent for the Iditarod: "To keep the spirit of the Iditarod the same.  I don't even want to see high pressure people getting in and changing the spirit of the race.  We brought the sled dog back and increased the number of mushers.  It is really an Alaskan event.  I think the fact that it starts in Anchorage and then ends in Nome has opened up a whole new area for people in Alaska. I think they appreciate that it puts them in touch with the pioneer spirit".

Iditarod Today

   The race has started in downtown Anchorage since 1983.  The teams leave the start line at the corner of 4th and D, at two minute intervals.  Starting at 10 a.m.  There are usually over 65 teams starting and some years even more.
   The mushers follow a  multi use trail through Anchorage and out to Tudor Road.  A telephone auction is held each year whereby fans can be a rider in a musher's sled from the start line for the first 8-9 miles.  This auction opens on October 1st and closes at 5 p.m. Alaska Standard Time on January 31st.  The money raised is used to offset expenses of the race and to provide each musher who finishes the race after the top 20 (who received cash prize winnings), with $1,049.  This helps the mushers get their teams home.  The mush along the Glenn Highway into the VFW Post 9785 in Eagle River.  From there the dogs are loaded into dog trucks and taken home for the night.  This is a ceremonial start and does not count in the overall time to Nome.

   On Sunday, March 8th, mushers will again line up at the old Wasilla Airport in Wasilla about 40 miles north of Anchorage.  At 10 a.m. the first teams will depart on their way to Nome.
   From Wasilla, they travel to Knik Lake, the last checkpoint on the road system.  Spectatros may drive the 17 miles from Anchorage to Eagle River and the approximately 30 miles from Eagle River to Wasilla.  It's about 13 miles from Wasilla ti Knik.  Once the mushers leave the Knik checkpoint, they are off the road system for the duration of the race.

   It is impossible to predict the exact day or time that the first musher will cross the finish line in Nome.  However,  it is expected to be between 9 and 12 days, making it on the second Tuesday or Wednesday.  Doug Swingley, the 1995 Champion, completed the course in 9 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes and 19 seconds to become the first usher from outside Alaska to ever win the Iditarod.