The depths of winter can be trying times in Alaska; the beer keg freezes up before you are halfway through, you use more gas defrosting your car windows than driving anywhere, your fuel bill looks like the latest foreign debt statement out of a developing country, and the oil in your gun freezes up before you can deal with the pesky moose eating your greenhouse. The days, which range in length from four hours to none (above the Arctic Circle), do not help matters. Sno-gos are great (snowmobiles for those not conversant in Alaskan), but they can only go as far as the fuel you haul. So what do you do to keep the cabin fever away? You mush - for those of you still not conversant in Alaskan, mushing is travelling across snow in a dog-sled.
The Researcher is not a dog musher (the individuals that train and run dog teams), so describing that sport will be left to someone who is. Whether musher or not, those that live in Nome, Alaska, find dog mushing to be a serious business. For this is where the Iditarod, the grandest of dog sled races, has its finish line. The race is based on the emergency run of Diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925 when mushers and their sled dogs brought the medicine over 600 miles in one week to stop an epidemic among local children. The actual competition honouring this event was inaugurated in 1973 by Dorothy Page and Joe Reddington Sr. A great deal of information about the race and its history is available at the Iditarod Website.
Running the Race
If you are considering running the race, there are a few points to note. The distance is approximately 1150 miles (in odd years the southern route covers 1141 miles, the northern route used during even years is ten miles shorter) over mountain ranges, rock-covered fields stripped of snow by the wind, and in places over the sea ice (if possible). Most mushers now take 10-17 days to complete the run, with frequent checkpoints to assess the health of the dogs and required layovers to prevent total exhaustion. If you get too far behind the leaders you will be dropped from the race.
Hazards include such local fauna as moose, bear, and drunk primates on sno-gos. A select group of intellectually different individuals have started an event known as the Iditasport or some such in which they ski, walk, or even ride bicycles up the trail during the race. Luckily, with a team of 12-16 dogs in front of you, you can pretty much run right over any human obstruction, as one pair of iditabikers recently discovered when they pitched their tent in the middle of the trail and were quickly stomped by several teams. Additionally, keep in mind that the dogs do not stop to defecate but instead let go on the fly, so avoid riding in the basket of the sled unless absolutely necessary. This may be a great way to introduce your tourist relatives to the joys of Alaska, however, and it makes for wonderful before and after pictures...
As for Nome, it is an already odd place that goes absolutely barmy during the Iditarod. The Anchorage departure is fairly sedate, if any event involving 700 sled dogs can be called such, but Nome starts revving up about a week before the race even begins. A town with 3,200 residents, 13 bars, half a dozen liquor stores, and basically no tourism perched on the Seward peninsula with no road connections to the outside world, Nome is a bit different to begin with. For the two weeks of Iditarod, the town is host to CNN camera crews, EU, Japanese, and Aussie reporters, minor glitterati in gaudy ski outfits barely warm enough to wear inside, and a broad selection of the world's oddest travellers. If you really want to experience Alaska and the Iditarod, this is the place to start.
First of all there's the tourists who volunteer to help with the race without realising that this involves chipping dog droppings from the road where they have frozen in the -30°F temperatures. The bars offer a variety of entertainment from the annual wet t-shirt contest and safe sex parties to the less organized, but just as engrossing, impromptu Olympics involving people attempting to get home over obstacles such as ice, snow, and incredibly high blood alcohol levels. The annual Bering Sea Ice Classic involves painting a patch of the Bering Sea ice bright green, drilling holes with ice augers, and playing a few rounds of golf. Alcohol helps with this as well. The Nome National Forest is another big attraction, being the spot on the sea ice where everyone places their Christmas trees after the holidays each year. This provides entertainment during the spring as well when locals wager over the departure date of the last tree on the slowly-collapsing ice.
As the mushers roll into town the fire alarm blares and people gather to watch, at least for the first dozen. After that the warm confines of a crowded bar seem much more attractive than standing in the screamingly cold weather to watch another team roll in. The locals try to greet them all, appreciating anyone that will willingly come to Nome in the winter. Most tourists are thrilled to shake the hand of a newly-arrived musher, until they smell what happens to a human after two weeks of no showers while under stress and caring for dogs. Once is usually enough.
After the Iditarod
All of this aside, there are great things to do outside the bars and the debauchery of Front Street. Craft shows with the incredible works created by both non-Native and Inupiaq and Yupi'k artists occur daily, and are worth the trip on their own. Educational lectures about the Iditarod and mushing displays abound, presentations occur regarding Nome's history and its role in the Second World War (as a transfer point for thousands of planes bound to the Soviet Union), and the vast majority of the locals are glad to show off their town. Once they've showered, the mushers are almost uniformly personable and pleasant, and the banquets are the affairs of the season for the whole community. The Miners and Mushers Ball features the Nome of the Gold Rush era, when it was the largest community in Alaska and featured a whorehouse owned by Wyatt Earp (now used as the city government offices, how utterly appropriate).
If you decide to visit, plan on getting there about a week after the race starts in Anchorage and spend at least ten days. The Red Lantern Banquet (named in honour of the prize given to the final musher to come in to Nome) is one of the nicest while most casual events, and you will miss it if you leave early. Hotel rooms are booked six months in advance, and vary greatly in quality, but sleeping space can usually be found on a local citizen's floor by contacting the Alaska Tourist Office. If worst comes to worst, the bars outside of town never close, so grab a comfy corner early. Dress warm, for while it may be a moderate -30°F ambient, the wind will quickly start to make things chilly.
Finally, bring a sense of humour. Bush Alaska is a third world country as far as services and pace of life. If you hurry or badger people they will simply not serve you, and once you have alienated one provider of a service there is rarely another within several hundred miles. Some homes still do not have interior plumbing, though all three hotels do. Read Jack London and Hunter S Thompson, ponder them both for a bit, and then come on up. You may regret it, but you will never forget it.