Iditarod dog sled race a lonely trek through wilderness
March 5, 2007 10:56pm CST
WILLOW, United States (AFP) - The frigid Alaskan backcountry will echo with the yips and yowls of sled dogs for the next two weeks as 82 mushers race their teams across 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) of desolate tundra, jagged mountains and wind-swept sea ice. Few will be there to hear them. And, unless it's a question of life or death, nobody can help them along the way. Some mushers will bed down on school room floors in towns so remote their extra supplies have to be flown in by bushplane. Others will find a quiet spot on the trail and pull a dog into their sleeping bag for extra warmth. Billed as the Last Great Race, the Iditarod covers about half the distance of the Tour de France with none of the amenities and few of the cheering crowds. After setting off from the town of Willow on Sunday, where adoring fans set up barbecues along the start line on top of a frozen lake, the mushers will be alone in land unreachable by road. Over the next nine to twenty or some odd days, they will pass through just 20 checkpoints, three of which are uninhabited the rest of the year and most of which have less than a few dozen residents. Winning teams will run about 130 miles (220 kilometers) a day, mushing well into the night by the light of the moon, stars and a head lamp. They will race through blinding snow storms, thick forests and across frozen rivers where temperatures are routinely around 40 below and the wind can whip it down to a bone-chilling minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. "All the way to Nome!" is a common cheer along the trail. While about twenty of the teams are in it to win, the rest are just hoping to finish. For mushers like Rick Swenson - the only five-time champion who is currently racing for the 30th time - the Iditarod is both an obsession and a way of life. For most, just crossing under the finish line is an unparalleled accomplishment. More people have climbed Mount Everest than finished the Iditarod. Just 617 teams have made it from Anchorage to Nome and many of those teams were led by Iditarod veterans. About half the dogs will get sick or injured and will have to be flown to safety. Several of the mushers will end up giving up somewhere along the way as exhaustion sets in or the problems pile up. Some teams have fallen through the ice into rushing rivers. Others have been attacked by moose. One musher nearly sacrificed a dog for food after he was lost for five days in the wilderness. Five others were nearly asphyxiated sleeping in an airtight tent. Frostbite is common, hypothermia a constant concern. And the exhaustion and cold can lead to strange hallucinations as the days drag into nights and the northern lights flicker overhead. Things are easier on the trail compared with the early years of the 35-year-old race. Snowmobiles now ride ahead of the teams so the dogs don't have to fight their way through as much fresh snow. Communication systems have improved. Sleds have gotten smaller and lighter, synthetics have made clothes warmer. Research has led to better dog food and experience has led to better dog care. There are 15,000 markers placed along the trail line so mushers don't lose their way and teams are equipped with an emergency beacon in case they get into trouble. Old timers complain the trail has become a dog highway and that the old camaraderie, where a couple dozens mushers would gather around the same campfire, has been lost to the competition. But for those who are in the race for the challenge, and not the purse, it remains the experience of a lifetime. "I don't really care if I get fourth place or 30th or 60th," said Norwegian rookie Sigrid Ekran, 27. "You just have a passion for it and you want to do it. To test yourself and your dogs, see how far you can push," she told AFP. "I'm looking forward to seeing the trail and some villages I've never been to. There's going to be a lot of fun episodes."