Tag Archives: Dog Sledding

The Last Great Race: Alaska’s Iditarod

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Yesterday 62 dog teams raced through the streets of Anchorage, Alaska for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod race to Nome. Covering 1,049 miles, the dog teams follow a faint snowmachine trail over two mountain ranges, through frozen tundra and across pack ice.

Scott Janssen, a musher from Anchorage known as the Mushing Mortician, due to his day job in funeral services, told me about the possible conditions out on the trail. During a recent mushing event, Janssen and his team were forced to cross a patch of water in the pack ice. Unsure of the water’s depth, or if the ice below would hold his team, he urged his dogs across. It was 40 degrees below zero.

His dogs hardly stalled when Janssen found himself up to his crotch in the icy water. The dogs pulled hard, their bodies straining against their harnesses, and they made it to the solid pack on the other side. In such cold temperatures, Janssen knew he had to get his team dry, so he covered each dog in snow and rubbed their fur. Calling Alaskan snow the Bounty paper towel of the frontier, Janssen “dried” the dogs with it.

His own boots were filled with water and his clothing quickly froze solid. But Janssen didn’t bother to change or even worry too much about himself. When he made it to the checkpoint several hours later, he walked in monster-strides, unable to bend his knees. His biggest mistake, he claims, was leaving the zippered pockets on his thighs open. The water filled those pockets and froze solid, acting as ice blocks against his clothing.

Yesterday’s run took the teams twelve miles out of town, where they were picked up and transported to Willow, where today the true start will begin. Check out the Iditarod website for updates on the teams.

Dogsledding in Alaska

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When I met Dario Martinez, owner of Chugach Express, yesterday in Girdwood, Alaska, his team of mushing dogs harnessed and ready to go against the backdrop of the surrounding peaks in alpenglow, he asked me if I planned on attending the start of the Iditarod tomorrow. Downtown Anchorage will be transformed today–snow covering the streets, dogs howling and yipping with anticipation, mushers shaking hands with spectators and worrying over logistics. Then the race with begin, the dogs will pull through the streets of the city and the state of Alaska will celebrate it’s unique heritage.

I told him I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

The famous race, known as The Last Great Race on Earth, keeps Dario’s dogs working. A hundred years ago, sled dogs were large, strong creatures weighing in over a hundred pounds and depended upon by Alaskans as transportation. Today, the dogs are slender and fast, having become marathon racers. And their sole purpose is to win. 

These dogs love to pull. When Dario stopped the sled after a taking a lap through the beautiful meadow at the base of Alyeska Resort, he dug a brake like a claw with six inch talons into the snow and tied that to a rope. That way, he explained, when we returned from our tour of the kennel, we’d still have a dog team waiting for us.

Dario also explained the lure of the sport. A nine-time Iditarod veteran, he knows what it takes to endure the 1,150 mile race over mountain ranges, frozen tundra, pack ice and snowy forests: Dario calls it “being in the now”. Running on a six-hour and six-hour off schedule, when the musher stops the team for a rest, his job as a sled handler ends but his job taking care of the dogs begins. In that six-hour rest period, the musher might get 45 minutes of rest.

Dogs are intuitive creatures. And they know their humans. If a musher is stressed and anxious, the dogs pick up on it. If their human is tired and rundown, the dogs will be too. But you can’t fake it. Dario knows that his dogs will pick up on any false pretense. Instead, the key is to say to yourself, “Yes this is a struggle, but it’s all for the good. It’s all worth it.” Whatever task that must be done is essential to the team and to the race. The secret, Dario claims, is staying in the “now”.

Today as I watch the dog teams race through the streets of Anchorage on their way towards a frozen ordeal requiring endurance, strength and the sheer will to pull, I will remember Dario’s words. Dog sledding is more than a sport–it’s a lifestyle that transcends the trails, circling back to all interactions required in life. Stay in the moment, enjoy the task, no matter how great and arduous, and bring that back to your pack.