DeeDee Jonrowe, one of the more well-known dog mushers in Alaska, not only because she has had many successful runs but is a cancer survivor, said during this weekend’s Iditarod start that the Iditarod is a celebration of Alaskan culture. Dog mushing is certainly not unique to Alaska, nor is professional dog mushing racing, but there is something special about the Iditarod and its place in the Alaskan worldview.
Before living in Alaska, I spent nine years in Minnesota, where I attended college and graduate school. In between the two schools, I spent a couple of years up north working as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was there that I began to learn about dog mushing because of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. But I never made it down to Duluth (I was living in Grand Marais) to see any part of the race. I never got the sense that it was the sort of thing that people traveled long distances to see, that it had more of a regional impact.
But the Iditarod is something else entirely. People come from all over the world to Anchorage just to see the ceremonial start, and stay to see the official start in Willow the next day. Some even stay long enough to go to Nome – NOME – to see the first finishers come in to town.
There are so many things that make Iditarod not only a great Alaskan tradition, but one of the many things that makes Anchorage a special place to live. The entire downtown atmosphere during the day of the ceremonial start (always the first Saturday in March) is an extremely festive atmosphere, mixed with the excitement of being in the midst of some of the biggest stars in the wild sport of dog mushing. Prior to the official start, members of the public are free to interact with the mushers and their dogs, ask questions, pose for pictures, and simply be part of the excitement of getting ready for heading out on the trail. Once the first team leaves the starting mark, members of the public can still line the streets, holding the Anchorage Daily News Iditarod guide that identifies each musher, allowing people to cheer on each musher by name.
Given the very public nature of the Iditarod, there are always other things going on that take advantage of the publicity. Usually, someone from the Alaska congressional delegation and/or the governor are there to perform some official function. In 2008, Governor Sarah Palin was on hand to sign into law a bill that commemorates the first Saturday of March as Susan Butcher Day, named after a four-time winning musher who died of cancer in 2006. There is always someone waving a protest sign, promoting some issue of local concern. And frequently some corporation is passing out swag to promote product recognition, like when Target first came to Alaska and had a crew there in force.
But the ceremonial start of the Iditarod is just one part of the festive atmosphere in Anchorage. The dog teams mush down through town, along the Chester Creek trail, through Far North Bicentennial Park, and over to the Campbell Creek airstrip on BLM land in the heart of the city. All along the way, fans line up to look for their favorite mushers and to cheer teams as they tour through town. I can think of no other major sporting event where people of the public have such access to the event participants. It is an openness and accessibility that is rather fitting for Alaska, and Anchorage, where the land is open and people are free to pursue what they enjoy doing in the outdoors.
To follow the progress of this year’s Iditarod, visit the official Iditarod website.