"On a cold spring day in 1907 a group of us gathered around the stove in a Nome saloon and began talking about dog races. After a few weeks of arguing we worked out the rules of the 'All-Alaska Sweepstakes.' Beginning with the spring of 1908 this great race of dog teams was run every year until the war, the last one in 1917. It became world famous, and has set the pace for every important dog race since."
-A.A. "Scotty" Allan, in "Gold, Men and Dogs"
is the oldest organized sled dog race in the world, with records kept by the
dating back to the first race in 1908. The route from Nome, on the south side of the Seward Peninsula, to the small community of Candle on the north side and return, is 408 miles, following the telegraph lines which linked camps, villages and gold mining settlements on the Peninsula. This route's established communication lines allowed those betting on the outcome to track the race more easily from the comfort of saloons like the famed Board of Trade in Nome, where the Nome Kennel Club had been founded the previous year.
A.A. "Scotty" Allan describes the route to Candle in his classic book "Gold, Men and Dogs" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1931): "It was selected because the trail to it from Nome goes over all kinds of country, from sea ice to high mountains, with rivers, tundra, timber, glaciers, and everything else in the way of mental and physical hardships en route. We knew there wouldn't be any doubt about the excellence of a dog or driver that covered it."
In her booklet and official souvenir history of the race, titled "The Great Dog Races of Nome Held Under the Auspices of the Nome Kennel Club, Nome, Alaska," author and 1916 Nome Kennel Club President Esther Birdsall Darling described the "why" of the race: " It was early seen that not only would the races furnish much of the winter entertainment, but that there would also be a consistent effort on the part of the dog owners and dog drivers to improve the breed of sled dogs, which up to this time had been but little considered; an effort to instill into all dog Users an intelligent understanding of the accepted fact that care and kindness to their dogs bring the quickest and surest returns from all standpoints. This has resulted in the development of such a high standard for dogs that not alone is their worth acknowledged throughout Alaska, but their supremacy is conceded the world over."
With colorful drivers like "Scotty" Allan and Leonhard Seppala, who each won the race three times, the All Alaska Sweepstakes was an eagerly anticipated annual event until the First World War interrupted everything. After the war gold mining dropped off and Nome's population dwindled, along with the local interest in sled dog racing. Finally, in 1983, after several years of planning and preparation, and with the boost in interest brought about by the then-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Nome Kennel Club was able to bring back the All Alaska Sweepstakes for the 75th Anniversary of the race. Rick Swenson won that year, taking home the $25,000 winner-take-all purse.
For the 2008 100th Anniversary of the event, the Nome Kennel Club offered the richest purse ever raised for a sled dog race: $100,000 winner-take-all. Sixteen teams entered, mushers from all across Alaska hoping to have their name engraved on the trophy beside Allan's and Seppala's, and for the considerable winnings. The story of the Centennial All Alaska Sweepstakes Race is the subject of a new documentary from Donna Quante's Husky Productions, "Running With Spirits."Helen Hegener
Alaska Dispatch Publishing