We've had a good foot or more of fresh snow at my house over the past 24 hours and it's still snowing. This has really got me in the mood for the upcoming Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, starting next weekend!! This annual event draws visitors from all over the world, but it is truly Alaskan in nature. The race celebrates the Alaskan Husky dog and the role these special dogs played in the early history of Alaska.
Did you know that outside the still-small boundaries of towns like Anchorage and Fairbanks, dog-sleds utilizing between 6 and up to sometimes 16 or more dogs (depending on the weight being hauled) were still the main means of transportation in winter right up until the 1960s? That really wasn't all that long ago, all things considered! With such a limited road and railroad system, nothing else was practical. It wasn't until the introduction of the snow-machine (snowmobile to outsiders) that the Alaskan Husky was finally set aside and replaced by automation.
The first Iditarod Sled Dog Race was the brain-child of avid musher and historian Joe Reddington, Sr., his wife, Vi and fellow historian Dorothy Page when they were trying to come up with a way to celebrate Alaska's Centennial in the mid-60's. 1967 was the 100th anniversary of Alaska becoming a U.S. Territory. Yep, 100 years from the date the USA bought Alaska from Russia.
The Centennial Planning Committee wanted something that would truly commemorate the early history of Alaska, the dog-sled teams that made settling Alaska possible and to memorialize the freight and mail track used by those dog teams from Seward, AK all the way to the Nome gold fields. Of course, a race THAT long wouldn't have been at all practical, so they settled at first on a short 56-mile race from Knik (not far from where I live right now) to Big Lake, Alaska, highlighting just a small section of the historic trail. This was the race that first Centennial year, but it was pretty small and didn't draw a lot of attention.
Even though the Centennial celebration was now behind them, the idea of an annual sled-dog race lived on. A sled dog race seemed like the perfect way to commemorate and remember Alaskan Huskies as working dogs and the long track (now a National Historic Trail) so many of them traveled so faithfully every winter, pulling freight sleds and bringing the mail to the thousands of men and women deep in Interior Alaska. It was decided that a multi-day race, divided up into village check-points so no one stretch was too strenuous for the teams, was the answer. The first actual Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Knik to Nome (1,000 miles) took place in 1973, and has been an annual tradition every since.
As sleds have gotten faster and more modern - and lighter - and dogs have even better nutrition and training, the race record has been faster and faster, with reporters and TV camera's catching the action from aircraft and at check-points. It's an Alaskan THING, and it's world famous. Read more about it in my current article; Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race!
By the way; the Reddington family (Joe Sr. has sadly passed, but he sure did leave a legacy) and their now world-famous sled dog kennel are still here, still actively participating in sled dog racing and recreational mushing and are a big part of our local community. I've met them and some of their dogs.