With all the snow and cold weather we have had lately, we have to ask ourselves, "Is this Nebraska or is it Alaska?" Just for fun, when I was writing this column on Monday, I checked the temperature in both locations. As you know, York was a shivering minus eight degrees Fahrenheit at 3 p.m. And Anchorage, Alaska, registered a whopping eighteen degrees! It was more than 25 degrees warmer!
Of course this isn't always the case but, tell me, what has happened to Nebraska's normal average of 37 to 47 degrees daytime highs in February? Hopefully, we'll be back there soon. These cold temperatures remind me of Alaska and their most famous event, the Iditarod Race, which is coming up soon. If you've never heard of the Iditarod, you'll learn all about it when you visit Alaska.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race starts on the first Saturday of March. The 1,000 mile event annually attracts 50 to 100 mushers (drivers) and their teams of dogs. The teams race through blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds during the 9-17 days it usually requires to reach their destination. With wind chills that often reach -100 degrees Fahrenheit, I guess we shouldn't complain too much about current conditions in Nebraska.
Some people say the Iditarod Race commemorates the famous 1925 dog sled mission to deliver lifesaving serum to Nome, thus saving an entire community from the diphtheria epidemic. But that race is actually called "The Serum Run" and is shorter than the Iditarod.
Traditionally, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome, Alaska. The race follows the old Iditarod Trail which takes its name from the small town of Iditarod which lies along its route. The trail was created long ago by Native Alaskans for hunting purposes and to travel to other villages. Later, the Native Alaskans taught new settlers how to use sled dogs.
In 1909, the town of Iditarod was the site of the last gold rush in Alaska. The trail was then used as the route to supply miners and settlements with mail and supplies which were delivered by dog teams.
With the arrival of airplanes in Alaska in the 1920s, the need for sled dog teams began to fade. Regardless, many hardy Alaskans kept their sled dog teams for short runs in remote areas.
Then by the early 1970s, dog teams in the small villages were being replaced with snow machines and snowmobiles which were nicknamed "iron dogs."
Joe Redington, who is considered the father of the Iditarod Race, has been quoted saying "When I went out to the villages (in the 1950's) there were beautiful dogs, but now a snow machine is sitting in front of a house and no dogs. It isn't good. I've seen snow machines break down and fellows freeze to death out there in the wilderness. But dogs will always keep you warm and they'll always get you there."
He and others were determined to preserve the culture of sled dogs and their importance to Alaska. Their perseverance resulted in the first Iditarod race in 1973. The winner of that race took 21 days to complete the journey. These days the winner runs the course in eight or nine days.
The race is a popular sporting event in Alaska and the top mushers and their dogs are local celebrities. Although more than 50 mushers and about a thousand dogs every year are still mostly Alaskan, competitors from over a dozen countries have competed in the event.
The Iditarod has received greater attention in the world since the 1985 victory of Libby Riddles, a long-shot who became the first woman to win the race. The next year, Susan Butcher became the second woman to win the race and she went on to win three more times. Mitch Seavey set the record for the fastest time in 2017. He crossed the finish line in 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds.
If this weather continues, we might consider adding our own Iditarod to York's festive events. Any takers?