March 4, 2016 — Tomorrow is the ceremonial start of the Iditarod, the iconic Alaskan sled dog race, and for the third year in a row Alaska Railway freight trains are shipping in huge containers of snow from other parts of the state so that the start in Anchorage will have snow and ice.
The world-famous race is an homage to the 1925 Great Race of Mercy, when sled teams were needed to get diphtheria antitoxin through to a snow-bound Nome, where an epidemic was threatening the city and environs. Native populations had no resistance to the disease, and a death toll of 10,000 people was a serious possibility.
It was too late in the year for ships to get through the ice that had frozen Nome’s harbor, and plane travel could not be attempted due to blizzard conditions. Alaska’s Territorial Governor Scott Bone approved a relay, with 20 mushers and approximately 150 sled dogs covering 674 miles. Temperatures during the trek often hit 50 degrees below zero. Americans listened to the updates over the radio as the teams made their way across Alaska. The last leg of the trip usually would take 15-20 days. The Great Race of Mercy covered the distance in a record 5 days and 7 hours and saved the city and surrounding area from widespread epidemic.
Although many dogs were used (and several died) during the run, Balto, the lead dog of Gunnar Kaasen’s team which crossed into Nome first, became a national hero. Some feel Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo should have been the ones honored. They had raced the greatest distance and covered the most treacherous terrain. However, a statue commemorating Balto and all of the other teams that helped in the run stands in New York City’s Central Park. The plaque at the base of the statue reads “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin 600 miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.”
It concludes with “ENDURANCE FIDELITY INTELLIGENCE”
Kaasen would say of his lead dog, “I couldn’t see the trail. Many times I couldn’t even see my dogs, so blinding was the gale. I gave Balto, my lead dog, his head and trusted him. He never once faltered. It was Balto who led the way. The credit is his.”
The modern-day Iditarod is still used to promote health awareness in Alaska.
Among the 85 listed entrants in the 2016 Iditarod is Lance Mackey, 4-time winner of the race and subject of Greg Kohs’ award-winning documentary The Great Alone. The film followed Mackey during a comeback race — Mackey had to drop out one year when it was discovered that he had cancer. He would eventually win four Iditarod races in a row. This year he will attempt to become only the second person ever to win the race a fifth time.
Updates on the current race standings will be available March 5 through the end of the race on March 18.