New Thing: See The Iditarod

Each year I make a list of new things I want to try. Some are easy, some are hard, some are shockingly mundane. You can read about past adventures here.


you can see more photos from my Alaska trip on Instagram

I didn’t go to Alaska just to see hundreds of dogs in tiny boots.
(But that was at least, like, 70% of why I went.)

Ever since I was a little kid, poring over White Fang and trying to strap the neighbor’s dog to my plastic sled I’ve been obsessed with the Iditarod. There are sled dog races in Minnesota but (obviously) none of them hold a candle to Alaska’s 1000 mile race across mountains, tundra, frozen rivers, rocky coastline – all in temperatures well below zero.
It’s all very Jack London. 
So when my cousin bought a house in Anchorage and sent out the obligatory “Hey, we’ve got a guest room now!” email, I couldn’t take her up on the offer fast enough. Especially if it meant I could see hundreds of dogs in tiny boots.
The race really, actually starts in Willow Lake, but the ceremonial start that I attended takes place on the streets of downtown Anchorage and runs through the city’s parks and greenway system. Imagine hundreds of yelping, eager sled dogs, mushers in bright, rustling technical gear, spectators in fur hats chowing on reindeer dogs, a main street packed with snow.
It was, of course, pretty magical.
Things that I discovered!


* I know a lot of of kindhearted, animal lovers (like me) get concerned about the safety and well-being of the sled dogs. There are vets at the race start and at various checkpoints on the route. From what I saw, the dogs – while certainly not pets – were treated well and taken care of, the way you’d treat any animal you depend on.
* Most mushers have ‘day jobs.’ The purse for the winner is only $50,400 and a new truck and the cost of living in Alaska is high. Many mushers subsidize their races by working with sponsors, running kennels, or giving sled dog tours to tourists.
* There are plenty of female mushers and Susan Butcher won the race four times.  There is even a pair of blond twin sisters from Wisconsin who race!
* Rather obviously, the sleds don’t stop for dog bathroom breaks so it can be rather unpleasant to ride in the sled behind them, as you can get covered in kicked up snowy dog pee.
* Alaskan husky (the type of dog most frequently used in to race) is technically a mutt and not recognized by the AKC.
* The dogs train for special positions in the team – just like on any sports team. The smartest, fastest dogs become lead dogs. Swing dogs direct the team around turns and curves and wheel dogs are right in front of the sled – they’re usually the largest and strongest of the team.

* Mushers are required to pack a sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, and a cooker or pot and fuel for boiling water. They also might pack ski poles, a gun (!) and a headlamp. They sleep very little during the race. There are designated sleeping areas at each checkpoint, but other than one 24-hour and two eight-hour mandatory rests, competitors push themselves to stay awake.Fascinating, right? Have you ever seen a sled dog race? Would you ever ride in one?

P.S. An interview with my friend Justine who vetted for the Iditarod for years!

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  1. Sarah M

    I would totally watch one of these. My husband and I watched the Iditarod doc. series and it was pretty interesting. We are huge dog-lovers. Back when we had 2 labs, ages ago, my husband made a wooden cart with small bicycle wheels for our kids (toddlers back then) to sit in and ride while the labs hauled it. We got some stares but it was soo cute. The dogs really liked it, too!
    Sarah M

  2. Jennifer

    Incredibly awesome fact: Gary Paulsen, who is a fabulously successful young adult author who has sorta taken up Jack London's mantle with his novels Dogsong and others, has raced the Iditarod. I hard him speak at an ALAN luncheon about how difficult and rough the race is on the body, going into pretty graphic detail. Young boys in particular love his books.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Girl, I loooooved Hatchet! In fact, the first draft of this post I even mentioned it!

  3. Stacia, the Homey Owl

    I have always wanted to go to this! My sister and I were addicted to the movie Balto growing up (dragged my parents over every square inch of Central Park to try and find his statue), so going to this would be awesome. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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