By Tracie Korol
Gold rushes were a major part of Alaska history beginning in the 1880s. Strikes near Juneau, the Klondike, Nome and Fairbanks helped define Alaska’s frontier character. The last full-scale, old-fashioned gold rush in the US roared into life in 1909 at Iditarod — the word means “distant place” in indigenous Alaskan dialects — 629 trail miles west of the future site of Anchorage and half way to Nome. By the next year, thanks to gold, Iditarod eclipsed Nome and Fairbanks to briefly become the largest city in Alaska with 10,000 inhabitants.
Steamboats served many gold districts in Alaska in the summer plying the many rivers lacing the Alaska interior. But there was virtually no way to travel to any of these places when ice stopped the river and ocean traffic from October to May. By 1910, the need for year-round mail and freight service to the miners in western Alaska led the Federal government to survey and construct a winter trail from Seward to Nome for use by dog sled teams. Colloquially, it became known as The Iditarod.
Pound for pound, the sled dog is the most powerful draft animal on earth, and a team of 20 dogs averaging perhaps 75 pounds each can easily match a team of horses weighing more than twice as much. Dogs are also faster than horses over the long haul, capable of maintaining average speeds of 8 to 12 miles an hour for hundreds of miles (including rest stops), and can exceed 20 miles an hour or more on shorter sprints. Even better, dogs can be fed from the land with moose, fish, or caribou in the winter, while horses or oxen require expensive (and heavy) hay or grain. Additionally, large draft animals cannot use the snow-packed winter trails.
The early mushers used a mixture of breeds, ranging from Native types such as the Malamute and Siberian husky to various domestic dogs imported from the Lower 48; some mushers even used wolves. Mostly, the teams hauled cargo on the three-week journey, but passengers were sometimes carried in long sleds. The dog teams also hauled out the season’s gold on the return trip to Knik. According to Ron Wendt in Hatcher Pass Gold, 2,600 pounds of gold arrived at Knik on December 10, 1911, hauled by four teams. In December of 1916, 3,400 pounds of gold came out behind 46 dogs.
The trail was used every winter through the World War I era and well into the 1920s, with parts of it being used as late as the 1940s. The inevitable end for the Iditarod and other long distance winter sled trails in Alaska, though, was the airplane.
But the sled dogs had one last taste of glory. In the winter of 1925, an epidemic of diphtheria ravaged Nome, which lacked the medicine to combat it. The nearest supply of antitoxin serum was in Anchorage — nearly 700 frozen miles away. Fierce weather precluded the use of aircraft. In what has become known as the “Great Race of Mercy,” 20 mushers and some 150 dogs teamed up to deliver the drugs in under six days, quelling an epidemic that threatened to decimate the town. Balto, the lead dog on the final stretch of the relay, earned national acclaim — and a statue that still stands in New York City’s Central Park.
The emergence of air travel blunted the trail’s importance in subsequent decades. But in the 1960s, a Wasilla resident named Dorothy Page moved to memorialize its importance by staging a race during Alaska’s centennial celebrations in 1967.
Since 1983, the Iditarod has steadily grown in popularity, becoming both the most popular sporting event in Alaska and an international touchstone renowned for both the stamina it requires and the desolate beauty of the unforgiving terrain it covers.