Two Chugiak mushers will be in the world-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that starts two months from today.
Jim Lanier, 76, a retired pathologist, is scheduled to take part in his twentieth Iditarod, his first start being in 1979. He has been in the money 14 consecutive times, with his best finish in 2004 when he came in eighteenth. He was forced to scratch in 2014 due to an injury and again when he was felled by pneumonia after reaching Unalakleet in 2015.
Michael Suprenant, 52, moved here from Anchorage in 2001 in order to pursue his mushing career. He has finished both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod where he competed from 2008 through 2013. He finished forty-ninth in 2009.
According to race information reports, they will be among 76 mushers who were in the race as of last week. Among them are 11 rookies who underwent a briefing session on Dec. 3. They heard tips from Dallas Seavey, the youngest man to win the Iditarod and who also turned in the fastest time of 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes, 16 seconds in last year’s victory. The Iditarod chief veterinarian also described the various inspections that will be conducted on dogs before, during and after the race.
The top priority is the dogs, both men stressed as they told about how the dogs are to be treated and cared for.
Mushers come from several U.S. states plus three each from Norway and Canada as well as single entries from New Zealand, Sweden, France, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
The ceremonial start will be in Anchorage on Saturday, March 5, and the re-start the next day in Willow.
This year’s race will follow the longer southern route, covering a distance of 998 miles. The northern route is 975 miles. The two are rotated each year, the northern run held in even years and the southern in odd years. This gives more rural villages an opportunity to host a portion of the event, according to race officials.
Commemorating the 1925 Serum Run in which anti-toxin was rushed from Anchorage to Nome by train and a relay of dog mushers, the first race was held in 1973.
The Serum Run was in response to an outbreak of diphtheria that threatened the Seward Peninsula city where not enough viable serum was available. Dog teams were chosen to make the dash from Nenana to Nome because at that time it was felt they were more dependable than airplanes. While bush pilots offered to fly, territorial health officials were worried that sub-zero conditions might cause problems and refueling possibilities were uncertain. In all, 20 teams and 150 dogs were to take part. Of the 20 vials of serum, all arrived safely and not one was broken.
To get the vials to Nome, the first musher, “Wild Bill” Shannon, picked up the 20-pound package rushed by rail to Nenana, then handed it off to a series of mushers. The most dangerous leg was over the frozen and windswept Norton Sound. Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian who founded the Nome Kennel Club, was chosen for the critical Sound crossing which would save at least one full day. The renowned musher had won several All-Alaska Sweepstakes races from Nome to Candle and return held between 1909 and 1917.
Battling winds, a chill factor of 85 degrees below zero, darkness and open leads in the ice, Seppala reached Nulato. There he passed the oncoming team which was ahead of schedule. Alerted by the other musher, Seppala turned his team around, took the precious package and started back across the Sound. Forsaking an opportunity to rest himself and his team, Seppala drove another 260 miles to Golovin with only one brief stop.
At Golovin, Seppala handed off the package to Charley Olsen who then gave it to Gunnar Kassan for the final dash to Nome. The 674-mile trip from Nenana took just 127-1/2 hours.
It was Kassan and his lead dog, Balto, who were praised in the national press for their “heroic effort.” Those who knew the truth, however, lauded Seppala and his lead dog Togo for their tremendous run. Seppala and the team led by Togo covered a total of 350 miles with little time out for rest. Togo had led Seppala’s team to victory in a number of local races but the toll exacted by the grueling rescue task ended his career. The Iditarod race honors Seppala with the honorary Number 1 starting position each year.
Fast-forward now to 1967. The 100th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase was at hand and people were looking for ways to celebrate it. Dorothy Page of the Wasilla Museum came up with the idea of a dog race patterned after the Nome races. She enlisted Joe Redington, Sr., and his wife Vi to help. Their race with a relatively small purse proved to be popular.
Redington wanted to expand the race and make it an annual affair. He aggressively promoted the idea and devoted his time to making a thousand-mile race come true. He was to complete the race several times and his sons have followed in his footsteps.
The idea was to follow the historic Iditarod Trail, a route that came into being during the Gold Rush. Miners seeking new gold fields found deposits in creeks south and east of Nome. Mail, freight and passenger routes connected the various camps with Seward, an open-water port in Southcentral Alaska. Knik, where the Redingtons lived, had become a major settlement in the old days and itself was an oft-used port in summer months.
The first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was held in 1973. Dick Wilmarth won it in 20 days, 49 minutes, 41 seconds.
More than two thousand mushers have taken part in the years since, the times getting shorter as training, diet and equipment have improved. Last year, Dallas Seavey became both the youngest and the fastest winner in the race’s history. Mitch Seavey, the 2013 winner and father of Dallas, was the oldest to win at age 53. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win, accomplishing that in 1985 with a daring dash in the final leg. Rick Swenson is the only musher with five wins to his credit while four others have won four times.
Despite the length of the race, there have been several very close finishes. The closest was in 1978 when the first- and second-place finishers came in neck and neck, only one second separating them as they crossed under the burled arch on Front Street in Nome. Three times there was five minutes or less between the winners and seven times the top two have been within an hour of each other.
The race has its detractors who think the dogs are abused by being forced to run such a long distance, subjected to extreme conditions.
To fans who watch at the start, the finish and the checkpoints in between, however, that contention is hard to swallow. At the starting line, the dogs jump in their traces, straining and eager to run. They have been training for weeks, getting in condition for the long trek. They maintain their eagerness to run and seem to feel the excitement of the race.
Assurance that dogs are not abused is the duty of the Iditarod board. They require mandatory rest stops. One 24-hour stop is required and an eight-hour rest at White Mountain is mandated to give the mushers and dogs a chance to rest and be adequately nourished before the final dash into Nome.
Veterinarians inspect the dogs before the race start, at each of the checkpoints as well as at the finish line. Strict adherence to rules that prohibit the use of harmful substances and require proper food and hydration is a must.
Alaska’s official state sport can be followed online at Iditarod.com. The Nome finish is televised, regardless of the hour. Those who are fortunate enough to be at the finish line are able to join in the celebration. It really is an experience one can remember for a lifetime.