Today, they race sled dogs for fun and adventure.
But it wasn't that long ago when the dogs and their mushers served an important role in transportation in the northern regions of the United States as well as Canada. With long winters, deep snow, ice-bound harbors and no modern transportation, often the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B was by way of sled pulled by a team of dogs.
In Alaska, before planes, trains and automobiles, there was the Iditarod Trail, which ran from Seward along the Gulf of Alaska in the south to Nome, a northern town near the Arctic Circle located along the Bering Sea. Reaching more than 1,000 miles, the "Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail" was their superhighway, the entry to the great northern frontier.
Perhaps the most known use of this trail came in 1925, when dogs and mushers helped rush a large dosage of medication north to Nome to deal with an outbreak of diphtheria. Their effort, which took a week, helped save Nome from an epidemic that could have taken countless lives.
While it is common to link this event to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the connection is more myth than fact. The fact is, a rail connection between Anchorage and Nenana, south of Fairbanks, served as the first leg of the trip. Teams of dogs and mushers did in fact relay the serum from there to Nome, but they traveled nearly 200 miles west along the Yukon River before joining the Iditarod Trail used today only a few hundred miles from Nome.
The idea behind the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which dates back several years before the first race was held in 1973, was not to honor the relay of serum north, but rather to celebrate Alaska's centennial as an American territory and to bring publicity to the historic trail itself. Dorothy Page conceived the idea, and Joe Redington, Sr. put it to action.
The Iditarod's history page notes:
Redington had two reasons for organizing the long-distance Iditarod Race: to save the sled dog culture and Alaskan huskies, which were being phased out of existence due to the introduction of snowmobiles in Alaska; and to preserve the historical Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome. To promote both goals, Redington asked Dorothy Page to be the editor of an Iditarod Annual. Her enthusiasm, drive, and love of history opened the world's eyes to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
Sixty-six mushers and their teams of dogs will hit the trail Saturday at the ceremonial start in Anchorage for the 41st running of the "Last Great Race."
The Iditarod remains the most famous sled dog race and has spurred interest and feeder races in states along the northern border of the continental U.S. The trail itself is open to the public during periods outside of the race, and has become one of Alaska's popular tourist destinations.
Today, just shy of 40 years since the first running, it's easy to say Page's and Redington's vision was a success: Driving a team of dogs may be more recreation than necessity, but it's a recreation still practiced in part because of the success of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.