Opinions

Even during a pandemic, the iconic Iditarod continues

The Iditarod — the Last Great Race — captures the imagination and the hearts of many Alaskans, as well as people around the world. Teams of mushers and their dogs racing roughly 1,000 miles across the state of Alaska toward the finish line in Nome, in some of the harshest conditions and across some of the most difficult and rugged terrain on the planet. It is quintessentially Alaskan.

There are other sled dog races around the world and throughout Alaska, but the Iditarod is the most renowned. Not only as an event, but also for its commitment and dedication to a culture in which sled dogs were — and in some places still are — the primary means of transportation for so many who live in rural Alaska. This rich and vibrant history is woven into the fabrics of our state. It’s part of who we are.

Let us take you back to the remarkable beginning of the Iditarod in 1925. A time when another pandemic threatened the lives of many Alaskans. A diphtheria outbreak hit the community of Nome, and the nearest available life-saving serum was in Anchorage — more than 500 miles away “as the crow flies” — and desperately needed for several very sick children. No roads. No trains. No commercial airlines. Only dog sleds.

On the night of Jan. 27, 1925, musher “Wild Bill” Shannon tied a 20-pound package of serum wrapped in protective fur around his sled. He and a nine-dog team started what at the time was known as the Great Race of Mercy. The entire nation was watching.

Wild Bill rode the frozen trail for miles until he eventually met up with another sled dog team, who then relayed to another, and another. This relay team of dog mushers continued until the lifesaving serum reached Nome five days and more than 1,000 miles later.

Flash forward to the early 1970s. For practical use, dog teams had been mostly replaced by snowmachines, but the tradition and excitement that surrounded sled dog races lived on.

In 1973, the first official Iditarod took place and has become an annual tradition in Alaska, honoring the 1925 lifesaving mission to Nome.

In a world that is increasingly disconnected from nature, heritage, physicality and even each other, the Iditarod provides an antidote: It’s not technology, analytics or big data that gets mushers and dogs to Nome. Instead, it is grit, “dogged” determination, nutritious food and devoted dog care, along with the support of family members, friends and fans.

Staging and producing the Iditarod requires a volunteer army of more than 1,500 people dedicating time and talent to ensure that a complicated supply chain, checkpoints and a gold-standard canine continuum of care are properly deployed and fortified. The Iditarod Air Force, consisting of dozens of bush pilots, fly nearly 700 sorties, braving ice, snow and rugged terrain from dawn to dusk before and during the race as they ferry supplies and people. Throughout the event, 55 veterinarians collectively travel thousands of miles along the trail to provide first-class care for all the teams of dogs.

Last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic started hitting Alaska, the Iditarod was already underway. The mushers and their teams persevered. As each checkpoint brought news from the Lower 48 of quarantining, overflowing hospitals and rapid infection rates, the Iditarod instantaneously innovated and worked with all communities along the way. Bypass routes were engineered overnight to keep communities safe, and veterinarians moved up the trail to minimize additional travelers during the impending pandemic. In the true Alaska spirit, 33 teams safely made it to Nome.

The Iditarod is a vibrant part of Alaska’s heritage and culture — one that should be kept alive. The problem, like so many of the issues that define our state, is outside interests who fail to understand our history and our culture. They fail to acknowledge the work that goes into ensuring the health and safety of everyone involved — animal and human. They maliciously attack the Iditarod, spreading misinformation that is grossly inflammatory and false despite facts to the contrary. Iditarod mushers proudly claim to take the best care of their dog teams in the world. They are held to the highest standards for testing and veterinarian care and monitoring. The dogs that run the Iditarod are some of the best athletes in the world — malemutes and huskies that were born to run and, for centuries, have given humans this support.

We must stand up and push back against false campaigns and preserve our Alaska traditions.

We love the Iditarod and always will. We are proud of the mushers and their dogs, the volunteers, veterinarians and all the homegrown businesses that help sustain the Last Great Race. Regardless of the pressure campaigns from outside, rest assured, on March 7 we will be cheering on the 49th annual Iditarod in the 49th state, and will continue to do so long into Alaska’s bright future. Mush!

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young are the members of Alaska delegation in the U.S. Congress.

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