In Alaska today, the Iditarod dogsled race is celebrated as the “race of mercy,” commemorating the 1925 trip of dog teams from Anchorage to Nome. They were carrying life-saving serum to save children dying of diphtheria.
Ironically, the original intent of those who originally organized the race in the mid-1960s was to commemorate the opening of Alaska to gold miners and explorers. The Iditarod Trail currently used is actually one of the pathways taken by the miners and settlers who were intent upon reaching the gold fields of Alaska. The Race of Mercy followed a different, albeit a challenging, path.
Here’s the story of how the gold rush affected Alaska:
After gold was discovered in Alaska in the 1870s, men were eager to travel north. They boarded boats along the western U.S. coastline and traveled to port villages along the southern coast of Alaska. From there, they used dog sleds to travel overland to the gold mines. One of the frequently used trails was the Iditarod.
For many years, dog sleds were the only way to reach remote parts of the state during the winter months. The dog teams generally consisted of twenty or more animals. These teams could pull half a ton or more of supplies. (Think of that power.)
The sled teams averaged 50-70 miles per day. A trip to Nome generally took three weeks. On the way in, the sleds carried supplies and an occasional passenger, priests and judges among them. On the way out, the cargo was gold. Documents from 1911 show that 2600 pounds of gold was hauled out by four teams.
In the 1930s, the men got a glimpse of the future . They saw that if the weather cooperated, planes could be used to fly inland. But planes were still primitive and weather was unpredictable. Dog sleds remained the primary transportation method predominated until the early 1960s. By this time, snowmobiles began to be used increasingly, and this trend has continued.
Planning an Alaskan Celebration
In the mid-1960s, preparations were underway for the centennial celebration of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Wasilla resident Dorothy Page feared that between the growing use of airplanes and snowmobiles, the importance of mushers and dogs in settling Alaska would be forgotten.
In 1967 and again in 1969, a 25-mile version of the race was held. By 1973 an increasing amount of the trail had been re-opened, and it was decided to open the race all the way to Nome–over 1,000 miles, most of it through uninhabited wilderness.
As time passed, organizers decided that the Race of Mercy was a more memorable event to commemorate.
The Dogs as Athletes
Sled dogs are quite special; they differ from our usual household companions.
The native people of Alaska, living along the Seward Peninsula, developed a particularly hardy breed of dog now known as the Malamute. Genetically, these dogs share characteristics with the sled dogs of Siberia. The average weight of the dogs is about 75 pounds, and they can pull great weight—the same weight as much larger horses. When running, the dogs average speeds of 8-12 miles per hour for hundreds of miles, and they can exceed twenty miles an hour for short sprints.
The spirit of the dogs, the athleticism of their build, and their racing prowess are unique and very impressive. For a better understanding of the animals, take a peek at this video of a kennel that maintains sled dog teams today.