This weekend is an exciting one for sled-dog racing around the world. In far away Alaska, this weekend, a field of competitive mushers, each with 16 dogs, will launch their campaigns to travel over 1,000 miles (nearly 1,700 kms) across the frozen landscape between the city of Anchorage and a little town on the west coast, called Nome. This race is called the Iditarod.
Iditarod itself is a ghost town on the Southern Route (in green) which was founded during a gold rush in 1908-1910. The race was originally called the All-Alaska Sweepstakes in 1908, which travelled from Nome to Candle and back. It was in this race that Siberian Huskies were first publicised in Alaska, being brought over from Siberia in the gold rush period, and sled dogs remained a major mode of transport in Alaska until the spread of snowmachines in the 1960s.
One of the most famous events in the history of sled dogs in the area was the 1925 delivery of diphtheria serum to Nome. Nome relies on sea transport during the summer, and the one doctor of the town ordered diphtheria antitoxin in the summer of 1924, but it didn't arrive before the icy winter closed the port. Nome lies only 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, so the winters are intense.
After children starting dying of diphtheria in January 1925, the call went out for antitoxin. It was a desperate situation, especially amongst the indigenous population, who had no resistance to this highly contagious western disease. It was estimated that the mortality rate would be 100%.
At first, the authorities considered flying the medicine to Nome, but the cold weather forced crash landings in flight trials, so there was a unanimous vote to use dog sleds. Just a month after winter solstice, there were only around 5 hours of daylight, and the temperature as low as -70 degrees Celsius. The dog teams operated in relay, carrying the first delivery of 300,000 units from the railway town of Nenana, over a 1,000km to Nome, including a 68km across sea ice, with no landscape features to block the winds coming in from the arctic Bering Sea. Mushers suffered frostbite and hypothermia and dogs died, but the serum was safely delivered by Norwegian-born Gunnar Kaasen and his dog team, lead by the Disney-immortalized Balto on 2nd February 1925.
One of the things that I find really wonderful about the Iditarod, and all sled dog racing, is that females compete alongside males. Mary Shields was the first woman to finish the racein 1974, and Libby Riddles was the first woman to win in 1985. In fact, in the 1980's and 1990's, Susan Butcher (1954-2006) won 4 times, a record she shares with four men, and is beaten only by Rick Swenson. It was a great pleasure to meet ten time Iditarod competitor, Karen Ramstead, when she visited Australia in 2012, and I have avidly read her blogs dating back to her first attempt in 2000. In 2013, Karen is a judge - she says it is a strange feeling to be on the other side, and we hope that she'll be back competing in 2014. This year's Iditarod field includes 17 women in a field of 67 mushers.
Through the wonders of the Internet, we'll be avidly following all updates, especially the progress of Curt Perano from NZ, Cindy Abbott from California (competing for the first time), Michelle Phillips from Canada, Alaskans Aliy Zirkle and DeeDee Jonrowe as well as champions like Martin Buser, Lance Mackey and Jeff King (all 4 time winners). Its going to be a wonderful fortnight!