2010 Iditarod begins today

Following the ceremonial start in Anchorage yesterday, the 2010 Iditarod officially begins today with 71 mushers, and their dog sled teams, setting out from Willow, Alaska on a two week long odyssey through some of the most remote and rugged wilderness that North America has to offer. Over the course of the next two weeks, they’ll face challenging weather conditions, endless miles of snow covered trails, and each other, as they race to the finish line in Nome.

Officially known as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the event began back in 1973 as a way to commemorate the famous 1925 race against time in which dogsled teams delivered a diphtheria serum to Nome, saving dozens of lives in the process. Since then, however, it has earned the moniker of “the Last Great Race”, thanks to its incredible length and challenging conditions. The mushers and their teams will cover over 1100 miles on their journey, while dealing with sub-zero temperatures and whiteout conditions.

The odds on favorite to win this year’s race is three time defending champ Lance Mackey, although he’ll be pushed by past champions such as Jeff King and Martin Buser. And should one of these dog sled racing legends falter, there are a host of young racers preparing to leave their mark on the race, such as Dallas Seavey, son of former champ Mitch Seavey. Both father and son, hope to contend this year.

To win the Last Great Race, the competitors will need incredible endurance, perfect strategy, and even a little luck. But most of all they’ll need a great team of dogs. These canine athletes are born and bred for pulling a sled, and they are impressive to watch in action. As such, their safety and health is of the utmost concern, with vets on hand at all checkpoints, and mushers taking great precautions to ensure that their dogs are well cared for.

At 10 AM local time today, the 2010 race will get underway. Expect the winner to cross the finish line in roughly 10 days, with the rest of the teams spread out over the following week. The winner will take home a nice fat check and a new pick-up truck.

Only in Alaska: Welcome to the 49th state

Alaska is one of those places where your expectations are met and often exceeded: the mountains are gargantuan and they’re everywhere, there are moose wandering the cities, and folks still run trap lines and live in log cabins. Yes, people still mush dogs (an Iditarod champion even lives in my small town), and many Alaska Natives still practice subsistence living.

Though the stereotypical Alaska is alive and kicking, there’s a whole lot more to the state. Environmental issues such as climate change and Pebble Mine, the political scene in 2008 (remember Sarah Palin? We’ve still got her), and an 800-mile pipeline that supplies a sizable sip of oil to the rest of the country all make Alaska more than simply a vast and beautiful place where hairy hippies live in off-the-grid harmony.

I hope to highlight some of the quirky qualities of living in or visiting Alaska – and there are plenty. Here are some stats, just to get you started:

  • Alaska is the largest state in the US. It’s more than twice the size of Texas, which means that if you cut Alaska in half, Texas would be the third largest state. In general, it’s about the one-third of the size of the continental contiguous US.
  • Though it’s not the least populated state (that would be Wyoming), it’s the least densely populated. There’s just under one square mile per person.
  • The population is approaching 600,000. Around half that number lives in Anchorage (279,000), and another 35,000 are in Fairbanks. The state capital, Juneau, has 31,000 residents, while Ketchikan, Sitka, Homer, Soldotna, Wasilla, and Seward collectively add roughly another 40,000. That leaves only 215,000 residents scattered across a massive sweep of land. It can be pretty quiet up here.
  • It’s the only state with a capital that’s not accessible by road.
  • Alaska has the US’s largest national park (Wrangell-St. Elias, 13 million acres), national forest (Tongass, 17 million acres), second-largest national forest (Chugach, 5.5 million acres), and the highest mountain (Mt. McKinley [locals call it ‘Denali’], 20,320 ft).
  • Though English is the official language, it is still possible to hear Yupik and Iñupiaq spoken. It’s not common in the cities, but in rural villages many residents still use their native languages.

With the widest spaces, the highest peaks, a somewhat surprising political influence, and a romantic place in Americans’ imaginations, it’s no wonder that Alaska receives $1.6 billion in tourist dollars. But if you can’t afford the trip this summer, I hope to provide a virtual tour of some of unique aspects of the state. Stay tuned!

Lance Mackey Wins 2009 Iditarod

Two time defending champ Lance Mackey claimed his third straight Iditarod crown yesterday, arriving in Nome less than ten days after setting out on the trail from Anchorage. He was followed in the evening hours by Sebastian Schnuelle and John Baker, who finished second and third respectively.

The Iditarod is known as “The Last Great Race” and is Alaska’s premiere sporting event and has been held annually since 1973. The race commorates the rich dog sledding tradition of the the 49th state, while following a historically significant trail that was once used to run mail and supplies throughtout the region. Back in 1925, when a diptheria epidemic hit Nome, the trail was famously used to deliver medical supplies, with a chain of heroic mushers passing the serum along like a baton in a relay race. Fortunately, the serum arrived on time, and the events caught the attention of the entire nation.

The course that is used in the Iditarod race today stretches 1150 miles in length through some of Alaska’s most remote and demanding terrain. The mushers in this year’s race dealt with brutal weather conditions as well, with temperatures dropping into the -50º F with windchills, and howling breezes creating whiteout conditions on the trail. Some were forced to seek shelter wherever they could to wait out the worst of the weather.

There are still a number of mushers out on the course, and they’ll continue to cross the finish line over the next day or two. These men and women are celeberties in Alaska, and they’ll each be met with cheering crowds when the reach the finish. The last competitor to reach Nome also receives a red lantern sympolizing the old kerosene lanterns that were used to light the way for mushers in years gone by.

Where does the Iditarod start? It depends on the weather

You’d think a race that’s been taking place since 1973 would have a starting line that never changes, but that’s not the case for the Iditarod — it has several starts, and some of these change from year to year.

The National Historic Iditarod Trail begins right here in Seward (see photo). Originally a mail and supply route, the trail became, in 1925, “a life saving highway for epidemic-stricken Nome. Diphtheria threatened and serum had to be brought in . . . by intrepid dog mushers and their faithful hard-driving dogs.” This one trip inspired today’s Iditarod, or what is called “The Last Great Race.”

The ceremonial start of the race is 125 road miles north in downtown Anchorage, and this past Saturday mushers took off down 4th Avenue while an announcer introduced each musher and team. Snow is trucked in so sleds can roll along the road, and bundled-up crowds gather on both sides to cheer the mushers and their teams on.

Mushers ride to East Anchorage, where they load their teams in trucks and drive even farther north for the official start (or “restart”) of the race the next day. This location is what changes from year to year — usually the competitive start has been in Wasilla, a bedroom community of Anchorage. This year, however, the start was in Willow — 30 miles north of Wasilla. Msnbc reported in January that the move to Willow was due to urban sprawl and a warming climate — and is permanent.

The conditions have been so terrible that the race hasn’t restarted in Wasilla since 2002, and in 2003 the restart actually took place in Fairbanks — 200 miles north of Wasilla.

If Alaska continues to warm up, the Iditarod may be no more, but until then I imagine the competitive start will continue to be pushed north until there’s nowhere left to go.