Geography in the News: Iditarod, The Race of Arctic Champions

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and


One of the world’s most grueling races, Alaska’s Iditarod Dog Sled Race, began today, March 3rd. The history and geography of this magnificent race excite followers all over the world as the race is one of the most challenging for humans and their teams of dogs. Sixty-six teams registered for the race and many are repeat entries.

The Iditarod is an annual race through Alaska where mushers and teams of dogs cover about 1,150 miles (1,853 km) in eight to 15 days. The Iditarod competition began in 1973 as a test of the best dogs and mushers in the state and has evolved into a highly competitive and popular race. Teams often encounter blizzards with whiteout conditions, aggressive wild game animals, and sub-zero weather and gale-force winds that can create wind chill temperatures reaching minus 100 degrees F (-75 degrees C).


The race has a ceremonial start in Anchorage, but officially started this year in the village of Willow about 50 miles north of the town of Wasilla in the south central region of the state. From Wasilla, the trail proceeds up the Rainy Pass of the Alaska Range into the sparsely populated interior. The trail passes along the shores of Norton Sound of the Bering Sea, finally reaching Nome in western Alaska. The race route is actually composed of slightly different routes during even- and odd-numbered years.

The race teams cross an unsympathetic, but starkly beautiful landscape under the cover of the Northern Lights, through tundra and spruce forests, over mountain passes and across frozen rivers. The majority of the route passes through widely separated towns and villages and small Athabaskan and Inuit Indian settlements.

Native peoples used the Iditarod Trail hundreds of years before Russian fur traders arrived in the area in the 1800s. The trail reached its peak use in the late 1800s and early 1900s as miners arrived to dig for coal and later gold. During this time, most of Alaska’s interaction with the rest of the world was by steamship during the summer months. Between October and June when the northern ports including Nome became icebound, sled dogs carried mail, firewood, mining equipment, fur, food, gold ore, other supplies and priests between trading posts and settlements in the Interior and along the western coast.  Mail-carrying dogsleds were replaced by airplanes and bush pilots in the 1920s and the snowmobile emerged in the 1960s. Dog sledding nearly became extinct, but the Iditarod competition helped revive public interest.

Today’s Iditarod race was inspired by an actual historic event—a dogsled relay of life-saving serum from Anchorage to Nome in 1925, known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome and especially the Inuit children who were not immune to this “white man’s disease.” The only known serum to combat the disease at the time was in Anchorage, nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 km) away.

Since the only two airplanes available had been dismantled and had never been flown in winter, the governor authorized dogs and mushers to carry the medicine to Nome. Doctors in Anchorage sent the 20-pound (9-kg) cylinder of serum the first 298 miles (480 km) from the port of Seward to Nenana by train. From there, 20 volunteer dogsled drivers and over 100 dogs relayed the serum non-stop the remaining 675 miles (1,086 km) to arrive in Nome five days and seven hours later. The town was saved.

Today, mushers and their dog teams are off and running–literally. The race is an extraordinary test of endurance and athleticism for both the mushers and the dogs. Though the Iditarod will likely remain controversial to animal rights organizations, mushers, like five-time winner Rick Swenson, four-time winners Lance Mackey, Jeff King, and Susan Butcher truly loved their dogs and the dogs loved to run. Last year’s winner Dallas Seavey was the youngest ever.

The Iditarod is still the most popular sporting event in Alaska and widely watched throughout the world.

And that is Geography in the News.

(Neal Lineback is a Professor Emeritus of Geography at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC. Geographer Mandy Gritzner of Sandpoint, ID, was author of this article. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.)

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Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..