A lot goes through your mind while lying on the floor of a sushi restaurant in downtown Anchorage. Stuff like, “somebody needs to clean the underside of this table,” and, “why doesn’t anyone ask what I’m doing on the floor?” and, of course, “this is gonna make a great story if I live.”
But I digress.
Five days prior, I had flown into Anchorage, Alaska, to experience first-hand the most famous dog sled race in the world, the Iditarod. Two previous trips to the Yukon had fueled the desire. On the first trip, I drove a dog sled in the dead of winter (ANW Winter 19) and loved it. On the second trip, I helped pack 1000 pairs of dog booties and 500 pounds of frozen fish, beef, and pork into plastic drop bags for musher Michelle Philips and her upcoming Iditarod effort (ANW Winter 21). Since being a participant was out of the question (Iditarod mushers and their dogs are on par with elite Olympians), I decided to serve as one of the countless volunteers who make it possible.
When we moved past the gate and into the race chute, thousands of cheering fans waved and shouted, a wild vortex of adulation.
I left Vancouver, BC, on February 28th to spend seven days in Anchorage, near the town of Willow, where the Iditarod officially starts. Known as the Last Great Race on Earth, the Iditarod stretches between Anchorage and Nome, over 1000 miles of backcountry wilderness impassable during spring, summer, and fall. It can take up to 14 days to complete the trek with mandatory safety, and health stops at up to 27 checkpoints boasting colorful names like Finger, Ophir, Cripple, Ruby, Nulato, Kaltag, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, and Elim.
As my flight descended into Anchorage, I saw the city sitting on a broad swath of white and green flatland edged by miles of exposed tideland. An escarpment rising into coastal mountains made the whole area look like a giant bowl of wilderness, spectacular and compelling to anyone with a taste for nature in the raw.
I stayed at one of the Iditarod’s main sponsor hotels, the Lakefront Convention Center. For 30 years, the Lakefront has been ground zero for race registration, logistics, and communications. The frozen lake behind the hotel conveniently provides a landing strip for bush planes to carry people, dogs, and supplies in and out of checkpoints. This year, the hotel’s shocking decision to pull sponsorship for the foreseeable future created quite a stir, with people whispering about how the owner had caved to pressure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Iditarod’s archnemesis.
The lobby décor resembled a deserted hunting lodge, complete with enormous animal heads mounted on every wall and full-sized taxidermal displays around every corner. Caribou, moose, arctic fox, lynx, bear, birds, and fish stared blankly into space, complimented by a variety of antlers and pelts. Yet, as empty as it was when I arrived, within 24 hours, it felt like the Superbowl was in town. People filled the lobby, spilling out of the volunteer registration offices, lining up to purchase swag, and hanging around waiting for transport to downtown Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous Winter Festival. By evening, everyone was getting blotto in the hotel bar.
My first job was to serve as a technical host for the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA) training, two full days of streaming presentations, and hands-on training for volunteer trail veterinarians and vet techs. Unlike my other volunteer work, this was a paid contract with Dr. Stuart (Stu) Nelson, the Iditarod’s Chief Veterinarian for the last 26 years. Ensuring dog health, safety, and comfort was of primary importance at the Iditarod, and Stu was the ideal man to lead that charge. He made certain all volunteer vets and vet techs understood the unique needs and concerns of sled dog athletes.
I also signed up for dog handler training despite the list of physical requirements designed to discourage most people. Dog handlers help mushers move their teams to the race start line. The role involves running through snow, stopping and starting on ice, and preventing dogs from moving the sled too quickly.
At least 30 people participated in the dog handler training I attended. We stood in a circle around our trainer, Jake, hugging ourselves against the cold. Jake was a stocky man in jeans and a plaid shirt with a tan face lined by years of exposure to the elements. He demonstrated the basics of the job, then moved us into position along both sides of a team (one person per dog), and then began barking commands.
“GEE! Go right! Outside move faster! Inside slow down!”
“HAW! Go left! Keep up with the dogs! No lagging!”
We practiced holding leads (ropes attached to guidelines running the length of the dog team), following commands, and keeping our feet steady alongside our four-legged counterparts. The job was more challenging than I first thought because the weight and length of the sled made it clumsy to turn and extremely difficult to slow down.
“Conditions are gonna be very icy. You can’t wear cleats or anything that could possibly hurt a dog,” Jake warned. “If you slip and fall, you must immediately drop the lead and roll away from the team. Don’t wait for someone to help you. Get outta the way!”
It snowed heavily on Saturday, christening the ceremonial start with a fresh coat of white. Big soft flakes filled the air, piling in drifts throughout downtown Anchorage. Thousands of bystanders trudged along the slippery sidewalks, queueing in front of vendors peddling art, hot drinks, elk hotdogs, and bison burgers; everyone bundled in coats, anoraks, hats, and gloves. Many sported animal heads mounted on their hats. I saw a lot of silver foxes sticking up from the crowd.
The side streets were blocked off into huge staging areas for the sled teams. Over 50 teams had registered with up to 14 dogs per team. By the time I arrived, barking and yelling drowned out all other sounds. I strolled the route, watching dog teams move into a long, slow procession toward the start chute marked with banners and blaring music. It looked like a cross between a parade and a military action. Crowds filled every bit of free space. Sports commentators bantered over loudspeakers about the mushers, the dogs, and the sponsors and periodically implored visitors to stand against PETA. People cheered, mushers waved, and everybody was having a good time.
I’d skipped breakfast and was feeling quite hungry and tired. I scanned the street for a restaurant, but the few that were open had lines of people waiting. My brain fogged up as I lurched toward a corner table in a sushi restaurant. I chucked my backpack to the floor and dropped into a chair with my head between my knees. The room started turning sideways. Uh oh. I smoothed my hair, leaned toward the table of people next to me, and said in the calmest voice possible,
“Uhm, excuse me, but I’m just gonna slide down to the floor because I’m a little dizzy. It’s nothing, really.”
Then I was on my back under the table, and there I remained, eyes closed, for about 15 minutes. The restaurant was packed, but nobody said a thing. Later I realized I probably looked like I was drunk.
A server finally walked over and said, “If you stay, you’ve gotta sit on a chair.”
I looked up from the floor and blinked. “I’m about to lose consciousness, you see. That’s why I’m down here.”
“Fine, but sit on a chair and do it. Not on the floor. Or leave.”
I took a few deep breaths, pulled myself into a standing position, hoisted the backpack, and walked stiffly out of the building with as much dignity as I could muster. Then I leaned against a brick wall and slid back down to the cold, wet sidewalk. After a failed call for a taxi and another 10 minutes of freezing my butt off, the dizziness finally began to abate. Eventually, I caught a bus back to the hotel, where I ate a full meal, drank a gallon of water, and slept like the dead.
Sunday morning, I boarded a bus of volunteers heading for the race start in Willow. Unnerved from that ugly blood sugar drop the previous day, I ate a good breakfast and felt much better. Besides, it was my day to handle dogs.
The race start (known as the restart) was similar to the ceremonial start in that there was an enormous staging area, a clearly marked start chute, lots of elk hotdogs and bison burgers, and a ton of security. But yesterday felt like a party. Today was all business. The restart is the beginning of the actual race.
Nobody was allowed into the staging areas except for dog handlers, where we gathered to receive assignments. Instructed, in no uncertain terms, to shut up and wait for instructions, not to bug the mushers or the dogs, I waited next to my team, watching the musher calmly leash and unleash his dogs, then squat down at eye level and talk quietly with them. Despite the overwhelming noise and chaos in every direction, the connection I witnessed was calm, loving, and very personal.
Teams all around us were busy harnessing up and those in charge communicated by hand signals because of the noise level. The dogs radiated heat and joy. These were experienced athletes, clearly familiar with what was about to happen. They knew the trail, knew their musher, and they were ready to go.
Dog attitude is critical. Sled dogs have minds of their own, so if they don’t feel like racing, they won’t. Many mushers have been stuck at checkpoints because their dogs decided they were done. That’s why a big part of sled dog training includes ensuring the dogs always have a good time. I talked with a rookie Iditarod musher (very experienced, but his first time at the Iditarod) whose job wasn’t to win but rather to run a team of “pups” down the trail, making sure their tails were wagging the whole time.
I found myself leashed to a gang line between two dogs yanking at their harnesses in excitement. As they lunged forward, I instinctively pulled to the side and leaned back to keep them in check. Their power was astounding. As a team, we trotted a short distance, then waited, then trotted, then waited again, then trotted again, all the while flanked by a security crew who signaled and guided us as if we were airliners on the tarmac. The ice was wet and slippery, and I often slid as the dogs pulled.
When we moved past the gate and into the race chute, thousands of cheering fans waved and shouted, a wild vortex of adulation. I was sweating from the stress and exertion but kept tightly focused until my right foot slid out. “NOYOUDONT!” I shouted, throwing my weight sideways, dancing and flailing toward the fence. Somehow, I managed to regain purchase and grab the lead again. After a few sheepish steps, I glanced back at the fans. Many of them were cheering, giving me a thumbs up. It was a delightful show of support. I broke into a smile; my anxiety vanished.
By the time we reached the start chute, the dogs were going crazy. The loudspeaker countdown began, “10 – 9 – 8,” —the fans chanted along, “7 – 6 – 5,” —we unleashed our leads, “4 – 3,” we stepped back from the team, “ 2 – 1 – GO!” Our dogs bounded down the icy runway as the crowd erupted into cheers, then settled back for the next team in the chute. Meanwhile, I hustled alongside the fence toward the staging area, passing teams lined up and waiting, their handlers hanging on for dear life.
I was still buzzing as I packed to leave the next day. Handling dogs at the actual start of the Iditarod was by far the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. Being involved with such elite athletes— human and canine—was an honor and privilege. Being one of the people allowed right up to the starting gate, well, it felt like I was in the Olympics. Let me emphasize it didn’t feel like I was at the Olympics; it felt like I was in them.
Whoa. I can’t wait to go back and do it again.
Iditarod in a Nutshell
Alaska is Mecca for sled dog racing, with over a dozen yearly events, the 1000-mile Iditarod being its crown jewel. Known as The Last Great Race on Earth, the Iditarod combines athleticism, endurance, strategic decision-making, and backcountry smarts with an almost preternatural relationship between participating mushers and their dog teams.
Over the years, the Iditarod has built an extensive, active fan base spread across two dozen countries. Hundreds of volunteers apply annually for the privilege of helping run the event. They work in positions of communications, security, admin, transport, logistics, publicity, outreach, dog handling, and checkpoint support. In addition, volunteer veterinarians and vet techs travel from all over to work with Chief Veterinarian Dr. Stuart Nelson and the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA). The event also boasts an expansive educational mission (Iditarod EDU) with Teacher on the Trail™ video feeds and articles serving educators who make the Iditarod part of their curriculum.
What began in 1973 as a macho test of endurance has evolved into a world event that celebrates not just the unique characteristics of sled dogs and their rapidly diminishing arctic environment but also the dedicated mushers who struggle to keep this proud indigenous tradition alive and healthy.
To learn more, visit iditarod.com.
Hey PETA, Lay Off the Iditarod
Compared with most professional sports organizations, the Iditarod is small and regional. Sponsorships for the race are hard-won. Participants vie for purses that barely make a dent in their annual budgets. The event itself is run almost entirely by volunteers and feels more like a community project than an organized sport.
Unfortunately, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has labeled it a “deeply disturbing, despicably cruel dog race.” Over fourteen major Iditarod sponsors (Jack Daniels, Coca-Cola, etc.) have pulled their support due to PETA’s misinformation campaign and political clout. PETA has also successfully demonized the relatively small cadre of professional mushers who build their lives around racing in partnership with sled dogs.
Sure, mushing has a checkered past. If PETA were protesting the Iditarod of old, I’d probably agree. But 50 years later, things have changed. Instead of glorifying an unwholesome win-at-any-cost mentality, the race now champions mushers who put their dogs first, even before winning. In addition, anyone who treats their dogs poorly will find themselves vilified by the community and booted from the race.
The Iditarod’s Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Stuart Nelson, trains and deploys a sizeable pool of volunteer veterinarians and vet technicians who monitor every dog at each of the (up to) 27 checkpoints along the route. They keep detailed records and reserve the right to pull any dog from a team if it is determined to be in the dog’s best interest. The mushers themselves welcome the increased medical support, often soliciting input regarding concerns they’ve noticed on the trail. Dogs who show signs of illness or injury are immediately flown back to Anchorage, where veterinarians tend to their needs and send updates to anxious mushers who worry like parents.
C’mon, PETA. I’m sure there are other places where you can better focus your energy. It’s time to lay off the Iditarod.
Dawn Groves is a Bellingham writer who loves the great white north. She also kayaks during warmer months.