By Laura Nguyen
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is an amazing experience – everyone who visits in March has to consider watching this race when planning a trip to Alaska!
Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska - My First Iditarod Experience!
Monday 13 March 2023
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is really a reconstruction of the freight route to Nome and commemorates the part that sled dogs played in the settlement of Alaska.
You can read more about the history from the Official Iditarod Sled Dog Race website.
Now you are familiar with the background, I would like to share my view on the Iditarod Race and give a glimpse of what you might experience if you chose to attend the race.
Our Iditarod Sled Dog Race Tour started in Anchorage and so is the official ceremonial start of the Iditarod race! We arrived a few days earlier as I wanted to be prepared and soak in the atmosphere not just the weather ;)
Since no one is paying me to write, I will talk about the uncomfortable things as well! The moment you arrive in Anchorage, if you are not used to cold weather, it is going to be a nice surprise! Fortunately, I have prepared myself for the weather and I think there is an article on this site as well about how to dress up for winters in Alaska. Though the article stresses about the importance of good shoes, I would say you can get away as long as you have water proof boots but the most important thing to have is Hand & Leg Warmers in form of heat pouches. Also remember to air / oxygen them for several minutes before you put them in and that will make a world of difference. I was uncomfortable on first half of Day 1 but once I familiarised myself with this, then it made the rest of the Alaska vacation a lot more enjoyable!
Now, we are done with that, let me talk about the Iditarod race. On Thursday evening, there is a Musher's Banquet and the tickets to the Banquet were organised as part of the tour. It was nice fun to take part in the dinner event and to experience the slot selection process.
As I said earlier, the ceremonial start is in Anchorage on Saturday. Even before you reach downtown Anchorage to watch the ceremonial start, you can already feel it in the air, hear the howling of the dogs and warmed up mood of the crowd. The first time you see the row of parked vehicles where dogs are brought in along with the Iditarod mushers, it is pretty exhilarating. If you are super new to this, don't be alarmed by the howling of the dogs. Fortunately there was a kennel visit organised as part of our tour package which was a very good warm up for what to expect.
The Kennel Tour of a veteran Iditarod Musher, is a very good way to familiarise with the act of mushing, especially so before you watch the Iditarod race start. If it does not fit in the schedule, then it can be done later as well. When we were at the sled dog kennel, I saw and heard for the first time the howling of the dogs, tied to a sled and the dog lover in me was a bit confused. Once the sled got pulled by the dogs then you understand the real reason in the silence that is left behind. The dogs in the kennel as well as the dogs that are pulling the sled are all quiet once the sled gets pulled. These dogs love the pulling of the sled so much, they just want to do it and the ones that are not picked up, they are howling to be picked up! I have never seen an animal wanting something so much.
I was also riding on one of the sleds, as part of the tour. It is something, to experience. The quietness in the snow is surreal. We stopped in between and our musher was nice to let me pat the dogs. And these dogs are some what shy but so full of love! It felt really good to just touch them and play with them a bit. All the dogs have names and there is a very unique and super special bond between the dogs and the musher. I will write more about it when I talk about the race!
Now, back to downtown Anchorage, after my unexpected wandering like a dog, the howling of so many dogs feels exciting once you understand why it is happening. We did walk around a bit as we were almost 2 hours earlier than the actual start time. We tried different places to watch the race start. Though the start location is a lot more crowded, if you walk around a bit, then there are more spots to find to watch the race. One of my favourite spot is the curve at the end of 4th Avenue turning into Cordova Avenue. There could be some action with the super enthusiastic dogs! It was a good couple of hours spent watching all the start action, knowing well that it is the ceremonial start! There were some volunteers distributing free heat pouches which came in handy! Now the body burnt enough calories and a good way to top it up is the very adjacent and always popular Hard Rock Cafe.
Next day, Sunday, was the actual start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Willow. We drove to Willow with a group in a bus. The atmosphere in Willow is quite different than Anchorage. Probably I did not expect it to be filled up given that Willow is considerably smaller than Anchorage. However, the race organisers did a great effort to accommodate all the people who wanted to witness the start of the race. There is food and hot beverages for purchase. You can also, alternatively, take a packed meal, if that is what you prefer. The crowd cheering and festive atmosphere is truly enchanting. There are several spots from where you can watch the start. The actual start point is at a higher place and there is a small turn afterwards which gives plenty of opportunities to have a good vantage point. Please be prepared to walk in a bit of snow as it is not the same as in Anchorage downtown. By now, it is already second time I am seeing it (including the Ceremonial Start), I am getting greedy to feel the action up close and more relaxed. The next place that was organised has quenched this thirst of mine.
Our tour package included a visit to the Iditarod checkpoint at Rainy Pass on Monday. We flew in a small bush plane to Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla Lakes. Now, both of the previous days have given a glimpse of the Iditarod race in a way which is quite satisfying but the skiplane ride to the checkpoint is quite unique. While reaching Rainy Pass, we were able to see some mushing teams from our plane and we also saw Finger Lake checkpoint from the air.
Rainy Pass is a beautiful location with a great Wilderness Lodge which took care of our food and other necessities. Once we are fuelled and soaked the beauty of the place, which is extremely amazing even without the race passing by, it is time to see the dog teams. By the time we arrived at Rainy Pass, there were already some dog teams, which have already reached and getting some rest.
Here we were able to witness the sweet connection between the musher and his dogs. Every musher is very particular about the way they nurture their dogs. Nobody needs to say any words to see this amazing bonding. All you got to do is just look at a stop a musher makes. The first things he/she does and how he/she takes care of them before he even attends to himself/herself. I know this is a bit of touchy topic for some organisations like PETA but I feel that they are missing the bigger picture about the bonding that goes between the dogs and the musher. My view is quite simple - you have a look by yourself and believe what you want to. Sorry to digress.
We even went and stood for a few hours at the entry to the checkpoint. It is all very quiet and you can see a dog team far away and it approaches with a whooshing sound and still the quietness is not really broken and the dog team passes by you. This has to be experienced and probably not described. I am pretty sure that I am doing a very bad job in wording the experience. Probably some pictures might help.
We were at Rainy Pass almost till evening and then took the skiplane back to Anchorage. In Anchorage, it felt like we came back from some mystic experience. Physically that was the last point for me to watch the race but I was in Alaska for some more days to do Northern Lights viewing and so when ever I got a chance I glued myself to the television to get the daily race updates.
After hearing several interesting stories about various past Iditarod races, this is one of those races where you know that the winning or completion or even participation can only happen with pure synergy between the dogs and the musher. I think this pure love and bonding between the dogs and mushers is what charges the atmosphere and makes the race such an amazing thing to experience.