They call the Iditarod “the Last Great Race” here. It’s the mushing equivalent of the World Series — there are qualifying races, everybody whittles down their teams, and by the time you race in the 750-mile trek, you’re typically pretty well known in the mushing world.
In a changing world, the future of a sport that depends on fairly constant snow and ice conditions is in question. For the last three years, the race start has had to relocate from its traditional location in Anchorage to Fairbanks, hundreds of miles to the north, because of the lack of dependable snow. This year has been better than the previous three, and the race organizers pulled off a ceremonial start in the city’s center, but the race still began Monday in Fairbanks.
There’s a coterie of younger mushers that are determined to see the sport continue. The Iditarod particularly has been slammed with scandals for years, from mushers abusing dogs to a domestic violence coverup last year by one of the top competitors. Animal rights groups have called for an end to the race, and some for an end to mushing altogether (along with horseracing and greyhound racing). While those scandals are important and animals should be treated humanely, many of the mushers do treat their dogs like family members and give away or sell puppies that don’t make the cut rather than culling them.
And it’s of great cultural importance. An Alaskan I met compared it to whale hunting on the North Slope. While they have other options for food and it’s certainly less than fun for the whales, it’s of deep cultural and spiritual importance to those people, and they do their best to kill the whale quickly and humanely and to use every single piece of the body.
The Iditarod takes off today. The mushers will be on the trail for at least the next week, some a lot longer. Take out of the past, it was an interesting moment for me to stand on an Anchorage street with my cell phone and digital camera, a girl from Chicago out of place, and watch the dogs run down the trail. They wouldn’t know the difference in years. From the looks on their faces, you wouldn’t even know they were pulling anything.