Every year, teams embark on a nearly 1,000-mile-long journey through the vistas of Alaska.
Spanning a distance greater than a trip from Nashville to New York City, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has become a tradition that highlights indigenous cultures and traditions — particularly those involving man’s best friend.
"The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the combination of a number of different, very interesting elements," said Chas St. George, the Chief Operations Officer of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"The bigger aspect of our race is not about a race at all. It's about a culture," he added. "This is really about the historical value of the sled dog."
"The sled dogs are unlike any other athlete on the planet," St. George said. "If you look at them physiologically, they drop off the charts."
According to St. George, one notable example of the dogs’ unique physiology is the size of their hearts, which are about 20-30% larger than those of other dogs.
"These huskies have big hearts — not only big hearts emotionally, but also big hearts, period, because it's a muscle," he said.
They also have thick hair and large paws that allow them to survive the cold, snowy climate of the North.
"The optimum temperature for a sled dog to run is between 15 degrees above zero and 20 degrees below zero," St. George said.
Adaptations such as these involve the sled dog’s evolution in such a unique climate.
According to St. George, the dogs were designed by the indigenous people of the circumpolar region to travel as working dogs.
"These are nomadic peoples who were always very opportunistic, always looking for looking for a better land, better and better opportunities for them to continue on their quest to find the right place," St. George said.
"So, they had their hunting grounds, they had their fishing grounds, and the dogs became a part of that circle that they would sustain in."
Playing coach and counselor
The physical adaptations of the dogs also led to their social adaptations. Many generations of sled dogs have learned to operate within a team led by a musher.
"They're very, very highly evolved when it comes to how they socialize," St. George said. "These dogs are they're goofballs and they're great, they're great dogs. But more than anything, they have high energy."
The mushers are tasked with harnessing the energy of multiple dogs and channeling it into a focused purpose, such as a dog sled race.
According to St. George, mushers start training the dogs as puppies, spending about four or five years raising a puppy team to become an A-team.
"There's a lot to handling just the sheer energy of fourteen dogs — that's the starting number for these dogs to run in this race," he said.
He added that every one of these mushers has to have excellent group counseling skills, and that they’re constantly reinforcing their performance in a positive manner.
"It's great to see how they are treated and how they are loved," he said. "It's a real unconditional bond that you have between that human and canine because they depend on each other. So, that's probably the most important thing."
Saving the sled dog
About fifty years ago, the sled dogs became the inspiration for ‘The Last Great Race’.
Joe Redington, Sr., an Oklahoma man who had moved to Alaska, took quite a shine to the sled dogs he saw in the country’s largest state.
"Joe had this vision of saving the sled dog from what was what was already happening on our planet at that time, and that was the snow machine, the snowmobile, all of these engineered mechanical chemical vehicles that were out there," St. George said. "We were replacing the sled dog."
For many years prior, sled dogs played a significant role is transporting people and goods. One of the most well-known cases was the ‘Great Race of Mercy’ in 1925, in which sled dogs traveled through inclement weather to deliver live-saving serum and put an end to a diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska.
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According to St. George, Redington wanted to keep the sled dog a part of, not just the history, but the future.
In 1973, one year after the Iditarod Trail was formed by the U.S. Army, Redington hosted the first Iditarod dog sled race.
"He worked very hard to build a purse that would be something that these humans would say, ‘Yeah, I want to run that race, I'd like to win that purse,'" St. George said. "I think the first purse was $12,000 for the winner, which wasn't too bad actually in 1973."
Redington named the race after the trail itself, Iditarod. Meaning ‘distant’ or ‘distant place’, Iditarod comes from languages spoken by some indigenous groups in Alaska.
According to St. George, many of the mushers to run the first race had strong indigenous backgrounds. Because of this, they well-versed in the ecosystem that they were going to travel.
Redington himself was an outdoorsman, who developed a heart for Alaska, for learning about Alaska’s native cultures and the sled dogs the indigenous people raised and loved.
"He was one of these gentlemen that just had this wonderful passion for these dogs," St. George said. "He never lost that passion."
A marriage made in the Arctic
According to St. George, this bond between dogs and humans is what makes the Iditarod dog sled race so iconic.
"When you look at the Arctic Circle and you look at how all these people from all these different parts of the world converged on this Arctic Circle, it was dogs that got them there," St. George said. "It wasn't horses, it wasn't cows, it wasn't this or wasn't that — it was sled dogs."
"These dogs were adaptive to the type of cold, harsh weather, but they were also very adaptive and very aligned with the people that they were with — their companions, their human companions were very much like them," he added.
"It was a marriage made in the Arctic."