Mushers, Sled Dogs and the Iditarod Sled Race in Alaska

    Mushers, Sled Dogs and the  Iditarod Sled Race in Alaska
    Last updated: July, 2019

    What heart remains untouched by the amazing yet sad story of White Fang? The half-woolf half-dog’s faith brought tears in many children’s eyes, as he was sold to be a sled dog in the harsh and frozen Yukon Territory. Somehow Jack London’s character came to my mind as we began our Husky Homestead tour that morning in Denali. The country house is home of four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King and his Iditarod sled dogs.

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    The tour started with a heartwarming puppy cuddling. August is supposed to be still warm in Alaska, but summer was rushed out in a hurry this year. The previous day’s snow was still covering the mountains. The morning was freezing cold and the little dogs greeting us were shivering. They seemed so happy to be picked up and hugged!

    a future iditarod sled dog
    A future Iditarod Sled Dog

    The Iditarod Sled Dogs

    Before going to Alaska, I had no idea about the Iditarod sled race. Or about mushers and their dogs – the Alaskan Huskies which are somewhat different from the Siberian Huskies I was accustomed to. 

    Unlike the blue-eyed Siberian Husky, the Alaskan Husky is rather a type of dog than a specific breed. Besides, the breed is not recognized by any kennel club. But don’t let this average looking dogs fool you. Even though they won’t make it to the dog shows, they surely are the strongest sled dogs out there.

    Iditarod sled dog with his trainer
    An Iditarod Sled dog with his trainer

    A Brief History of the Iditarod Race

    The Iditarod race was inspired by a memorable sled dog relay to deliver a life-saving medicine to the remote village of Nome.

    In the winter of 1925, the children of Nome were dying from diphtheria. The only way to stop the fast spreading was a vaccine that rested more than 1,000 miles away, in Anchorage. But nobody could reach Anchorage. The harbor waters were frozen and the planes couldn’t fly in subzero temperatures. The only hope for Nome were the sled dogs.

    The Husky Homestead where the Iditarod sled dogs are raised
    The Husky Homestead

    Today, the Iditarod race starts in Anchorage each year in March. The race lasts anywhere from 8-12 days, ending when the last musher crosses the finish line.

    Iditarod sled dog at training
    Training session

    Touring the Husky Homestead

    The tour continued with an introduction into the daily life at the Husky Homestead. The mushers train the dogs, as they get prepared for the Iditarod sled race. The dogs are chained to their own cages to keep them from fighting with each other. They all have very funny names.

    Iditarod sled dog in his cage

    When new puppies are born, Jeff King’s daughters are in charge of naming them. And since there are so many litters to be named, the girls’ imagination faces serious challenges. So names like Merlot, Bailey, Rebel, Burglar, Menace and Suspect are very common.

    Iditarod sled dog resting
    Iditarod sled dog

    The trained selected some of the Iditarod sled dogs for a race demonstration around the grounds. The pack was howling like crazy, trying to catch the trainers’ attention in order to get selected. But the moment the team was complete and they realized they won’t be picked, the howling suddenly stopped. 

    These dogs are really smart and they obviously LOVE to run! It seems that both mushers and dogs get an adrenaline rush from racing. That’s probably what keeps them running up to 150 miles/day for 10 days straight.

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    The Challenges of the Mushers and Sled Dogs in the Iditarod Race

    Running the Iditarod is extremely challanging for both the mushers and their dogs. It takes years of preparations and training to increase the team’s chances of winning.

    Sadly enough, the $50,000 prize barely covers the costs involved in running this world race. But that doesn’t keep the passionate participants from pouring every bit of energy and funds they have into it.

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    Preparations for the Iditarod begin long before the race starts. All dogs are being examined by a veterinarian before the race. The mushers send food and other supplies in drop bags to checkpoints by helicopter. Straw is also available at the checkpoints that the musher can use for the dogs to camp.

    How the Iditarod Race Unfolds

    There are only a few things they can carry on their sleds during the race:

    • a Vet Book that has notes on each Iditarod sled dog (this is mandatory and is checked by a vet at each checkpoint)
    • a cooler with high-callory dog treats 
    • a 3-gallon pot with a double bottom that acts like a kerosene stove
    • dog booties
    • dog coats
    • foot ointment for the dogs
    • an ax
    • a pair of snow shoes.

    As they stop on the road, they melt snow in the pot to prepare food for themselves and for the dogs. Before taking care of his/her own needs, the musher will first take care of the dogs: examine them, change their booties, massage their muscles, feed them and put them to rest. This last task seems to be the must difficult, as the dogs love so much to run that it’s hard to convince them they need to rest once in a while during the race.

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    The 1100 mile long trail through rugged wilderness, across frozen waters and over the treeless tundra is more than demanding for the dogs. They often get injured and have to be dropped from the race at the check points. An elaborate system has been established to care for and transport dropped dogs so that they can safely return to their homes.

    A Final Note

    I have to confess that we we weren’t expecting much from the Husky Homstead Tour. We only booked it because the weather was pretty bad that morning in Denali, so there was nothing else to do. The wind was blowing hard and a new storm was coming in, so our fancy helicopter tour and highh-alipine tundra hike had been canceled.

    Looking back at our Husky Homestead tour, we are glad we chose it. The tour gave us a glimpse into the rural Alaska, but also a rare look at the behind-the-scene preparations that take place for the Iditarod sled race.

    Disclosure: In preparation for this post, I read some sad reports about animal abuse during the Iditarod race. While these reports may be true, I personally haven’t seen any sign of animal abuse or mistreat of the dogs at the Husky Homestead of Jeff King. This article is no way a promotional post for the Iditarod race, or the Husky Honstead tour.