Alaska, The Last Frontier, is also home to the Last Great Race, the Iditarod. The Iditarod is a 1000 mile sled dog race held the first Sunday in March from Willow to Nome every year. Teams are comprised of 14 fluff nuggets, a musher and all the gear they will need to trek through remote Alaska packed into a sled. This year was the 50th anniversary race, and I just had to go.
My love (obsession) with the race started when I spent a summer living in Alaska. I had read a book about the Iditarod and that is when the obsession started to grow.
I was a follower of the race for many years before I became an official Idita-lurker. In 2015, one of the people I followed on YouTube had an opportunity through a local television station to follow musher Dallas Seavey throughout the whole race–from prep to finish line. Cory’s storytelling and video skills had me hooked. This is where I became a Dallas Seavey superfan. Anyone who follows the race knows the Seavey name. His dad Mitch and grandfather Dan were/are also successful mushers. In fact, Dan Seavey was a part of the group who put together the very first Iditarod.
Dallas was on a Discovery Channel show called Ultimate Survival Alaska which was a show testing the survival skills of its participants by having them race through Alaska’s most remote and dangerous landscapes. The winners simply received bragging rights and pride. Dallas was a very successful participant on the show and actually won those bragging rights.
Every single musher in this race treats their dogs like their children. The care these dogs receive throughout the race is incredible. These dogs have been bred to not only endure Alaska’s terrain and climate, but they are so happy to be out running on the trail with their humans. The race is held over the course of 8 days up to 2 weeks. There are mandatory rest breaks, veterinary checks and guidelines the mushers must follow to keep their dogs and themselves safe and healthy.
Being a spectator for the Iditarod was a dream of mine. This year I was able to trick (I mean convince lovingly) my husband into joining me on this adventure. He went knowing very little about the race, in fact, when we arrived in Anchorage for the ceremonial start a few days ahead of time, he was convinced that I had brought him to this event that barely drew a crowd of 12 people. Honestly, I was a little nervous myself when walking in downtown Anchorage the morning before the race there were no signs of the Iditarod ceremonial start. However, Friday night, the magic began. Crews worked through the night to hang banners, set up barricades, haul in snow and set up the event. Saturday morning the 50th Iditarod was alive!
We stayed at the Hilton Anchorage, which proved to be an excellent location, but for reasons I’ll save for another day, I have nothing good to say about the hotel, except the doorman who was just lovely and gave us an excellent food recommendation. For two weeks prior to the Iditarod another festival takes place in downtown Anchorage. The festival is called Fur Rendezvous or Fur Rondy for short. These two weeks are packed with events like races, hockey games, ice bowling, live music, the ever popular Running of the Reindeer, native events and one event we accidentally stumbled upon, sausage eating contest.
Race day started bright and early with TONS of snow falling from the sky. We walked up and down 4th Ave and some of the side street to see all the dogs and mushers. There were vendors and some food, but we decided to grab a prime spectating spot right at the start line and wait. Despite being absolutely dumped on with snow, we had excellent viewing and watched every single team head off on the trail. Next bucket list item will be to be an Iditarider which is an annual auction that benefits the race. The winners of the auctions (each musher has a seat to auction off) get to ride in the sled of the musher on ceremonial start day for the 11 mile trek through Anchorage. Winning bids are typically $1000+ with some going for $5000.
With the Ceremonial Start behind us, we decided to head north to catch the official start in Willow, AK. Willow is about an hour drive from Anchorage. Because of the storms, it may have taken us a bit longer. We rented an adorable cabin on Big Lake. This was about 30 minutes from Willow. Once at the race start, we again picked out some prime real estate for spectating. Conveniently located close to a porta-potty in the middle of Willow Lake.
At the official race start, there were a couple of food vendors (the fresh, warm chocolate chip cookies were delicious) and inside the Community Center is where the race souvenirs were. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed in the souvenir selection.
We again had a great view of the mushers coming down the chute and onto the lake. They passed so close that some even held their hands out for good luck high fives. Overall we were happy with the parking and spectating areas. They do offer shuttles which were also very convenient from Wasilla and Anchorage. Next time, I think we will try to find a place on Willow Lake and possibly take snow machines to the race start.
The race from here on out was almost 100% only accessible by bush plane. We chose not to visit any of the remote checkpoints this time due to pandemic restrictions, and flight availability. Instead we chose to wait the race via the official race tracker. You can gain access to the GPS tracker, exclusive interviews, documentaries and live webcams at the check points by becoming an Iditarod Insider. There is also a package for teachers who want their classrooms to be involved with the race. Insider access beings at $19.95 and goes up to $39.95 for all inclusive access. Insider subscriptions help the race coverage continue, and given the elements and remote nature of these checkpoints, the coverage is really great.
Our next trip for the Iditarod will definitely include time at the finish line in Nome. For the rest this trip we had some excellent adventures in Fairbanks that I’ll talk about next time!