The Iditarod is a Race…and a City, a River, and a Trail!

by, Jo Carol Hebert

The word, Iditarod, from the language of early natives of North West Alaska, means “a distant place”.  The now-abandoned town of Iditarod was founded on the Iditarod River during Alaska’s Yukon gold-mining era from 1870-1896. 

Iditarod History

Iditarod2Mail delivery to the city was only by dog sled along the Iditarod Trail. 

After World War II, snow mobiles and airplanes replaced the traditional dog sled as the favored form of transportation. By 1970,the dog sled tradition of traveling was disappearing. 

Joe Redington, Sr., a musher (dog sledder) founded the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races from Anchorage to Nome in 1973. 

The race now symbolizes and embraces two concepts:

  1. To recognize and preserve the history of dog sledding and train future generations in the old traditions of mushing;
  2. To commemorate the mushers and dogs of the Great Race of Mercy that brought a lifesaving vaccine from Anchorage to Nome, where an infectious disease was raging.

The Serum Run

Nome, Alaska, Winter of 1925. People were sick, mostly children. It was a dreaded



diphtheria epidemic. The only vaccine was in Anchorage, nearly 1,000 miles away. Snow storms, high winds, and ice kept airplanes grounded and ships stranded. 

The plan was to bring the vaccine by train to Nenana, Alaska. From there, 20 dog sled teams and 150 dogs would relay the precious cargo to Nome.

In a miraculous 5-1/2 days, through blizzards, uncertain terrain and -53 degrees temperatures, the vaccine arrived in Nome.

A Siberian Husky lead dog, Togo, ran 250 miles of the roughest and most treacherous part of the trail. Other dog teams ran about 31 miles each, including another Siberian Husky named Balto that became the symbolic hero that brought the vaccine into Nome.

Did You Know?

  • a lantern stays lit until every racer finishes the annual race
  • a Red Lantern is given to the last team to arrive in Nome
  • sled dogs wear boots of fleece or blue jean material on their paws
  • a team of Standard poodles was entered into the race in 1988
  • moose often charge the dogs on the trail of the annual run        

Language of the Iditarod Race

iditarod3Mush!, Hike!, OK!, All Right! and Let’s Go! are commands that start the eager dogs running. 

Whoa! is a command to stop, as the musher applies brakes. 

Gee is to turn right. 

Haw is to turn left. 

The team consists of the musher on sled, a lead dog in front, the two swing dogs behind the leader and the rest of the team dogs. 

A ‘dropped’ dog is an injured or exhausted dog left at checkpoints to be cared for. The health and safety of the dogs is a priority in the race.

Dog Breeds That Stay The Course

In 1990, a rule was made that only northern bred dogs could qualify for the race. The dogsmushers’ experience of the extreme arctic conditions of the run determined that these thick-undercoated dogs were the hardiest to run the course. 

These breeds include:

  • Alaskan Husky (Indian Dog)
  • Alaskan Malamute
  • Canadian Eskimo
  • Chinook
  • Samoyed
  • Siberian Husky.

Present Day Iditarod Race

This is extreme sport – an endurance race for mushers and dogs along paths that present iditarod4the most challenging of arctic cold, snow, and ice conditions. 

The teams must keep moving for 1,000 miles!  This race tests both the physical limits of man and dog, and also the passion, commitment, spirit, and the bond of all mushers and their beloved dogs. 

The musher must start with a team of 16 dogs, and allowing drop-offs, must finish with at least 6 dogs. The 50+ teams compete to travel from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome, Alaska in the shortest number of days. The average is 10-17 days. The lantern at the end of the trail was still shining a victory beacon even for the longest finish time in any race – 32 days.

On your marks . . . get set . . . mush!

You can check out the 2020 Iditarod Starters, with status and country information on:

Print the coloring pages to have more Iditarod Fun!

Husky Coloring Page pdf

Sled Coloring Page pdf



Categories: Dogs, Sports

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