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Mushing off to Alaska

On Saturday, March 2, 2019 the 46th Iditarod Race will begin in Anchorage, Alaska. The Iditarod is regarded as a symbolic link to the early history of the state and is connected to many traditions commemorating the legacy of dog mushing. The word Iditarod comes from the Athabaskan Indian word "haiditord", which was the name of the river on which the town was built. It means "far distant place". This race, from Anchorage to Nome, has been ongoing since 1973. The object of the race is to determine which musher and dogs can cover the race in the shortest time under their own power and without the aid of others. The winner is determined by the nose of the first dog to cross the finish line. The first race took 20 days to finish and of the 34 who entered, 22 made it to Nome. In 2017, at the age of 57, Mike Seavey was recorded to be the oldest and fastest person to win with a time of 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds. The closest race in Iditarod history was in 1978 when the winner and the runner up were only 1 second apart. 53 mushers have signed up for this years race, and will leave at two minute intervals from the official starting point in Willow, Alaska. Their starting order is determined by a drawing, with selections made in order of musher registration.

The Iditarod Trail, a United States National Historic Trail, was named for the town of Iditarod, a former Athabaskan village, a mining district in 1910. After the gold rush it became a ghost town. The primary communicatory and transportation link to the rest of the world during the summer was the steamship. But between October and June, when northern ports became icebound, dog sleds delivered the mail, firewood, mining equipment, gold ore, food, furs and other needed supplies. There were roadhouses along the trail every 14 to 30 miles where travelers could spend the night. By the end of the 1920s, when mail carriers were replaced by bush pilots, the roadhouses disappeared. Snowmobiles in the 1960s helped to cause the threatened extinction of dog sledding.

Mushing was a popular sport in the winter. The first major competition was the 1908 All-Alaska Sweepstakes. The most famous event in Alaska mushing was the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, known as the "Great Race of Mercy". A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome. Dr. Curtis Welch, Nome's physician, refused to use the expired antitoxin and sought a fresh supply. The nearest supply was located in Anchorage, nearly 1000 miles away. A 20 pound cylinder of serum was sent by train from Seward to Nenana and then to the first of 20 mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the serum 674 miles to Nome.  A Norwegian, Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto, arrived in Nome on February 2nd. at 5:30a.m., just five and a half days later. The two became celebrities and a statue of Balto was erect in Central Park, New York City in 1925, where it stands today.

The trail is composed of two routes; a northern route, which is run on even-numbered years and a southern route, which is run on odd-numbered years. Aside from the addition of the southern route, the route has remained relatively constant with changes along the route adjusted depending on the weather, snow and ice. As a result the exact distance of the race varies from year to year. Officially the northern route is 975 miles and the southern route is 998 miles. It is frequently rounded to 1000 miles, but officially set at 1,049 miles, which honors Alaska's status as the 49th. U.S. state. There are 26 checkpoints on the northern route and 27 on the southern route where mushers must sign in. There are 3 mandatory rests that each team must take during the race: one 24 hour layover to be taken at any checkpoint and one 8 hour layover taken at any check point on the Yukon River, and an 8 hour stop at White Mountain.

Mushers can encounter blizzards with whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds which can cause the wind chill to reach -100 degrees Fahrenheit. The trail runs from its start in Willow up the Rainy Pass of the Alaska Mountain Range into the sparsely populated interior, along the shore of the Bering Sea and ending in Nome in western Alaska. It goes through harsh landscapes of tundra and spruce forest, over hills and mountain passes and across rivers. It passes through widely separated towns and villages and Athabaskan and Inupiat settlements. Aside from the weather being a problem, animals create hazards. The first 100 miles is known as "Moose Alley", where the moose come onto the trail for easier foraging for food. In 1985 Susan Butcher lost her chance at becoming the first woman to win the Iditarod when her team made a sharp turn and encountered a pregnant moose. The moose killed 2 dogs and seriously injured six more in the 20 minutes before Duane "Dewey" Halverson arrived and shot the moose. In the 1982 race, three mushers and their teams were driven into the forest by charging moose.

More than 50 mushers enter each year and only experienced mushers are allowed to enter. If a musher has been convicted of a charge of animal neglect, or if the Iditarod Trail Committee determines the musher is unfit, they are not allowed to compete. Estimate costs to participate in the race have been said to be between $20,000 and $30,000 with the entrance fee being $4000 this year. Figures vary depending upon how many dogs a musher has, what the musher feeds his dogs and how much is spent on housing and handlers.

Each team must start with 16 dogs and finish with at least 5 on the towline. The mushers keep a veterinary diary on the trail and are required to have it signed by a veterinarian at each checkpoint. Dogs that become exhausted or injured may be carried in the sled's basket to the next "dog-drop site", where they are transported by the volunteer Iditarod Air Force to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center at Eagle River, where they are cared for by the prison inmates until they are picked up by handlers or family members, or they are flown to Nome for the transport home. All dogs are examined by veterinarians prior to the race. They are identified and tracked by microchip implants and collar tags. The dogs wear booties made of polar fleece, nylon, or canvas to protect their feet from cuts and abrasions from the ice. They are held in place with Velcro or electrical tape. Iditarod rules stipulate that a musher must have at least 8 pairs of booties for each dog at all times. That means a musher may need up to 1500 booties for his team. The dogs burn up to 12,000 calories a day and require a special diet. The mushers prepare "drop bags" of supplies which are flown ahead to each check point by the Iditarod Air Force. The bags contain gear, supplies, and food for the musher and the special formulated dog food.

As of the early 1990s only northern dog breeds like Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes are allowed to race.  The first two dogs on the line are the "lead dogs". They set the pace and respond to the musher's commands. The commands are: "mush", "hike". "let's go", "get moving" are commands to start; "come gee" or "gee, gee" means go right; "come haw" or "haw" means go left; "straight ahead" means don't deviate; "easy" means slow down; "on by" means pass another team; and "whoa" means stop. The "swing or point dogs" are directly behind the lead dogs. They help steer the team around corners.  They pull the team in a arc. "Team dogs" are next in the line and are the team's brawn pulling an average of 300 to 500 pounds. The "wheel dogs" are placed directly in front of the sled. Their job is to pull the sled out and around corners.

The end of the race has an arch that each racer will pass under. It is known as the "Burled Arch", now a spruce log with 2 distinct burls on each end and states "End of Iditarod Sled Dog Race". A "Widow's Lamp" is lit at the start of the race and hung on the arch until the last competitor crosses the finish line. The tradition is based on the kerosene lamp lit and hung outside a roadhouse when a musher carrying goods or mail was en route. The last musher is referred to as the "Red Lantern" and as he passes the finish line, the lantern is blown out and handed to him.

We give you "My Turn". This was taken in Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada. We took a dog sled ride on a very cold day. Midway on the ride we stopped in a warming hut to regain the feeling in our hands and toes. To keep the dogs from continuing to run, they had to be taken off the line and staked. The blue eyed Siberian Husky was the lead dog , and she was lashed to the sled. She was no dummy, and jumped into the sled we had warmed with our bodies to warm her "toes"!. The ride was quite an experience, especially since the canvas basket we were sitting in would occasionally hit the high center in the path.  It was  an "up lifting" experience!

This image is available in table top to wall size, triple matted and with or without a frame.  The matted versions are yours at a 10% discount and the framed matted versions in sizes 11 x 14 and larger can be yours at a 15% discount.

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March is the month God created to show people who don't drink what a hangover is like.

— Garrison Keiller

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