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On Sunday, March 2nd, 69 Mushers and their team of 12-16 experienced sled dogs set off from Willow, Alaska, ready to tackle the below freezing temperatures, mounds of snow and ice, as well as, the dangerous terrain that they normally encounter in the Iditarod - an annual 1,000-mile sledge dog race from Anchorage to Nome. What they were not prepared for however, was spring-like temperatures, which had transformed the normally snow-packed trail into a minefield of rocks and ice.
By Tuesday, nine teams had officially bowed out from the race due to injuries and damaged sleds. Among them was Jake Berkowith. The experienced musher who came in eighth place last year, was forced to withdraw after his sled broke beyond repair leaving him stranded amongst rocks, bushes and stumps. Dee Dee Jonrow, a three-decade veteran of the Iditarod who has always finished in the top ten, also had to withdraw after sustaining injuries in a particularly rocky part of the trail.
70-year old Jim Lanier, who has successfully completed 16 Iditarod's, was forced to retire after a leg injury, while Karen Amsted from Alberta, Canada had to be removed by the officials because her affliction was deemed too serious to allow her to continue.
However, nobody has had it as bad as 52-year-old Scott Janssen, who has been racing in the Iditarod since 2007. His saga began on Tuesday when he crashed and hit a rock, which rendered him unconscious for two hours. When he awoke, he found his sled nearby and his dogs huddled close to him. After ensuring his canine team was okay, the brave musher decided to continue. But that was short-lived.
Just as he was getting going again, one of his dogs - Hooper, decided to escape. As Scott tried to dash after him, he slipped on the ice, breaking his ankle. Unable to move, the musher sat amidst the frozen ice for 45 minutes hoping someone would pass by. Fortunately for him, Newton Marshall a competitor from Jamaica happened to come along. He not only called for help, but even waited with Scott until the Alaska Air National Guard helicopter arrived to rescue him. The good news is that besides a broken ankle and a slight concussion, Janssen is in good health and so are all his dogs, including Hooper, who caused the drama.
The mushers say the reason for all these accidents is that sled brakes do not work as well on ice and frozen mud as they do on snow. This makes it difficult for them to control the speed. Hence when the eager dogs charge forward enthusiastically, instead of moving smoothly, the sleds get stuck on the stumps and rocks, often resulting in the brakes and even the sleds, being broken beyond repair.
The good news is that the worst seems to be over for those that made it through the first part of the course. The rest of the trail seems to have enough snow to make the race all about endurance and speed and not, avoiding unexpected pitfalls. By Wednesday, Alaska's Aaron Burmeister had made it to Cripple, the halfway point and earned himself some gold nuggets and $3,000 USD. Six other mushers and their sled dog teams arrived shortly after.
Now in its 42nd year, the competition often referred to as 'Last Great Race On Earth', involves sledding about 1,000 miles across the Alaskan wilderness, through jagged mountains and frozen rivers in below freezing temperatures and against blinding winds. The race began as a way to commemorate twenty hardy souls and their dog teams, who braved minus 40° temperatures to rush a diphtheria serum from Anchorage to the isolated town of Nome, saving it from an epidemic.
The journey, which lasts anywhere from 11-16 days, depending on the pace, entails the competitors checking in at 24 pre-designated areas, normally small towns along the way. While the race always takes place on the historic Iditarod trail that runs from Anchorage to Nome, the actual route alternates between even and odd years. This year, the competitors will be traveling the northern route, which follows the same path as the Southern route for 44 miles, before branching off.
The first person to cross the finish line takes home $50,000 USD and a new truck, while the next 29 split the remaining $600,000 USD purse. But that is not the reason competitors participate in this extreme event year-after-year. it is more to obtain bragging rights of having competed in Alaska's biggest sporting event - the 'Last Great Race On Earth'.
And while the humans get the glory, it is the brave dogs that cover as much as 100 miles a day on all kinds of harsh terrain, that are the true heroes. As with all sports teams, the dogs are trained according to their strengths and given specific duties. There is of course the leader or captain that guides its team to victory. Then there are the wheel dogs - the workhorses that help pull the sled out of the snow, as well as, 'point' and 'swing' dogs. Though there are several sled dog breeds that can be used, the most popular is the Alaskan Husky, which is well-known for its endurance, speed and reliability.
Though the spirit of the Iditarod remains the same, a lot has changed since the first race was held 42 years ago. For one, the leading contenders are all professionals who are financed by corporate sponsors and spend all year, training for this and other similar races. The participants are also equipped with cell phones and high-tech outdoor equipment, which includes custom built sleds and Global Positioning Devices (GPS), that help in tracking their progress. Not surprisingly, they also write their experiences on blogs and even stream live, as they race across the treacherous route! To follow this exciting race minute-by-minute, check out : www.iditarod.com.
Resources: theepochtimes.com,sbnation.com,adn,com,alaskadispatch,com, iditarod.com