If you want to follow this year's race but don’t know a sled dog from a trail checkpoint, read on for a lesson in Iditarod basics and resources to learn more.
What is the Iditarod?
The Iditarod is a sled dog race that crosses wild, roadless Alaskan terrain from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome. A great history of the race can be found here.
How long is the race?
The race is more than 1,150 miles long, from Willow in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley just north of Anchorage, to Nome, located on the Bering Sea.
Where does the word Iditarod come from?
The official race site has three different explanations.
Who are the major contenders to win this year?
Lance Mackey, who has won four consecutive Iditarod races, is an obvious frontrunner, along with veteran mushers like Mitch Seavey, Hugh Neff and Hans Gatt. But Mitch Seavey's son, Dallas, who recently won the Yukon Quest race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska, is a contender as well. Race experts will tell you that a lot of hard-to-predict factors – like weather and dog health – factor into an Iditarod victory.
How many dogs are on a team?
A team typically consists of 16 dogs at the start. A musher may not officially finish with less than five dogs in harness.
What happens to dogs that get sick or injured on the trail?
Dogs that are injured or unable to finish are considered "dropped." "Dropped" dogs are transported back to Anchorage with the help of the Iditarod Air Force.
What's the hardest part of the trail?
There's no consensus, but here are a few notorious stretches:
Finger Lake to Rainy Pass is known for stretches of very difficult trail.
Rainy Pass to Rohn includes the notorious Dalzell Gorge.
Grayling to Eagle Island is on the Yukon River, upstream and usually into the wind.
Unalakleet to Shaktoolik can be exposed to some of the trail's worst weather, with north winds blowing at more than hurricane force and the last few miles feature major snow drifts and 'ground blizzards.'
White Mountain to Safety is known as one of the most dangerous stretches in bad weather. Checkpoint guide writer Donald Bowers Jr. writes that "mushers have nearly died within what would normally be a few hours' easy running to Nome. In reasonable weather, this is a pleasant five- to eight-hour run; in the worst conditions, it can be impassable."
Will the 2011 Iditarod take the Northern or Southern route? What’s the difference?
In odd years the race takes the Southern route, which takes mushers through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, Eagle Island and Kaltag. There are 27 checkpoints on the southern route, which takes mushers through some very desolate territory.
How long is the distance between checkpoints?
For the southern route, the distance between checkpoints ranges between only 18 miles (McGrath to Takona, Golovin to White Mountain) to 90 miles between Ophir and Iditarod.
What's the best place to watch the ceremonial start in Anchorage?
You have two options: join the downtown crowds on 4th Avenue to witness the spectacle and have a reindeer dog. Alternatively, you can pick a spot along the Chester Creek Trail and watch the dog teams fly by on their way to the end of the ceremonial start at the Campbell Airstrip. You can read a detailed description of the route here. The re-start – where the real mushing begins – happens in Willow, north of Anchorage, on Sunday.