The Iditarod Challenge; Then and Now


One of the greats in the history of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, Dick Mackey, shown here with his wife Kathy, was inducted during a ceremony this summer into the Knik Musher’s Hall of Fame.  He won the race in 1978 by the closest margin in the history of the event. His son Rick Mackey won the race in 1983 and another son, Lance Mackey won four consecutive races between 2007-2010.

As a newly-arrived youth in Anchorage during the early 1960s I recall my two favorite events of the winter carnival known as the Fur Rendezvous held in February: The fur auction and the dog sled races. These were thrilling activities which symbolized my newly adopted northern lifestyle.

For hours I watched as raw furs stripped from the carcasses of animals caught in steel traps were hoisted above the heads of auctioneers who spoke in excited chants inviting members of the audience to buy until the huge rack of dead animal skins was empty.

The World Championship Sled Dog Race held during Fur Rondy to this day starts downtown on 4th Avenue and cycles all around the area to conclude at the same spot. Tons of snow is brought in with city trucks and dumped on various roads blocked off to accommodating the athletes. Back then some mushers had whips, and some kicked the dogs and yelled at them. But this midwinter event was a chance for men of the north to come to town with their dogs in boxes on the back of rusty trucks, to sell the product of their lonely trapping endeavors, perhaps race their dogs for possible winnings, get good and drunk at least once–and maybe get some poon-tang–before heading back to the remote log cabin to begin preparation for spring.

As a youth it was a glorious guy-thing for me.

sled dog racing is believed to date back to the gold rush era of Nome, where the
Nome Kennel Club held races such as the All Alaska Sweepstakes (408 miles) and
the Borden Cup Marathon (26 miles) from about 1906 until 1916. When gold mining
activities declined in the area, Alaskan sled dog racing turned to the
Interior. A 57-mile race was run between Ruby and Poorman, and in 1927 the
Signal Corps race was created in Fairbanks by the Washington-Alaska Military
Cable and Telegraph System. The Signal Corps races initially followed a trail
of some 58 miles between Fairbanks and Chatanika, which reached 2,240 feet in
elevation near Summit. In 1931, the contestants ran two 30-mile heats, and in
1935, it became a mid-distance race to the Salcha bridge and back. In 1935 a
musher named Bob Busky won the race for the third time and retired the


Dr. Roland Lombard during Fur Rendezvous

of dog teams pulling sleds began in Alaska and is associated with Alaska
throughout the world even now that it has become an international sporting

I didn’t know the history of sled dog racing as I watched those sprint teams in Anchorage during the 1960s, but
one year the sport I only witnessed during Fur Rendezvous changed, with the
entry of an Outside veterinarian named Dr. Roland Lombard. I remember
him on the street with his dogs, as a crusty mild-mannered guy who treated his animals
like they were his cherished children. He didn’t scream in threatening tones,
he didn’t have a whip, he didn’t kick them, and he won the race!

From Wayland, Massachusetts,
Doc Lombard won the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race eight times
in the 1960s and 1970s and was known for bringing innovative ideas about dog
care to Alaska.2

I also recall some people grumbling
at bush flying operations on Merrill Field at the fact he came up here from
Outside and beat all these long-time Alaskans, but over the years Doc Lombard
became a beloved favorite of the Rondy public and part of the community of
mushers who wanted to see the sport improve with humane treatment of the animals
and better purses for winners.

The Iditarod Dream

Joe Reddington, Sr.

During the early 1970s a new
dog racing event was proposed by Knik musher Joe Reddington. I was in
attendance during one of his heartfelt presentations seeking sponsorship from
Alaskans for an event originally set in 1967 to celebrate the Alaska centennial, and the 1925 dogsled run to Nome with lifesaving
serum to save that community from a deadly diphtheria epidemic.

The only serum available at
that time was in Anchorage and the engine of the only aircraft that could
deliver the medicine was frozen and would not start. The serum was transported
by train to Nenana, where the first musher began the rush to save Nome. More
than 20 mushers took part, facing a blizzard with -20F temperatures and strong
winds. News coverage of the event was worldwide.3

This is part of our Alaskan
heritage. As Alaskans we cherish dogs who serve in so many ways, from pulling
sleds to serving as police, fetching downed ducks to service animals for people
with disabilities.

In 2019 Reddington is long
gone, but his dream of a race from southcentral to Nome has been realized
annually more than 45 years. Since the first race of the modern iditarod in 1973 I have watched it
every year. Just as horses are used for travel in much of the world, dog sleds
are a reliable means of transport in our northern climate, especially when a
machine is frozen. Because of Iditarod a revival in dog mushing has occurred in
Alaska and around the world. As a teacher I promoted the Iditarod race among my
students and to colleagues in and out of Alaska. At one time Iditarod generated curriculum was used in over 6,000 schools nationwide and the education program continues forcefully. 

Dogs, raised as if they were
children of the mushers, demonstrate with their exuberance how much they love
to participate in this grueling but fulfilling annual marathon.

How Iditarod has changed.

In his comprehensive book
about the first 10 years of the Iditarod, entitled “The Last Great Race,” Tim
provides an overview of the organization sponsoring it and details of
the 1982 race checkpoint by checkpoint, including the “Official 1982 Rules
& Interpretation, Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race” prepared by
the Iditarod Trail Committee, Inc. (ITC)4

It is a quaint set of rules,
providing for the start to be in Anchorage regardless of weather conditions and
that all teams will leave at staggered times starting at 10 a.m. on the
designated March race day. All teams are required to stop for one 24-hour rest
at any time they choose, and a checkpoint official must be informed of intent
to take the required break. Entry fee was $1049.00. Rookie mushers were
required to submit the recommendation of two known dog mushers or a dog mushing
organization to be considered by the ITC for approval to run.

Mushers under those rules must
start the race with no less than seven dogs, no more than 18, and they must
finish the race with no less than five dogs on the towline. (Today the rules
simply say no more than 14 dogs in a team, finish with minimum 6 at the end.) Dogs may not be added to a team
after the start of the race. The sled or toboggan used was up to the musher,
but it was required to be able to haul any injured or fatigued dogs and
necessary equipment. Harnesses were required to be padded.

Only one musher was permitted
per team and that musher required to finish with that team. Dogs could not be
switched between teams after they officially left Anchorage and, teams were
forbidden from being tied together, nor a substitute musher allowed to take
over any team.

Specifically, under Rule 14,
the rules are particularly emphatic: “THERE WILL BE NO CRUEL OR INHUMANE

Further rules provide for the
orderly running of the race when participants camp along the way, never
tampering with another musher’s dogs, food or gear; forbidding outside
assistance between checkpoints, prohibition against motorized vehicles
including pacing of racers, unless an emergency is declared by the race

Iditarod is understood to be a
northern dog race requiring participants to apply skill and endurance with teams of
dogs to cover what was then 1,049 miles of Alaska wilderness. The rules
recognized that men or women who were able to compete in such a race were
unique individuals who had a tremendous investment in the animals chosen to
take them this distance.

One friend of mine related recently
the fact he covered the first Iditarod as Business Reporter for the Anchorage
, investigating whether ITC had the money needed to pay the winner’s
purse. While the race continued over several weeks ITC was able to get backing
from Marvin R. “Muktuk” Marston, who pledged a piece of land for collateral
and assured the winner was paid.

Participants in the Iditarod Education Program ( were recognized and new Teacher on the Trail Brian Hickox introduced during the annual volunteer picknic held at Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla this summer.

Heart and soul of a
lot of Alaskans have gone into this race over the years.

In the 1983 rules, mandatory
gear under race rule 23 includes eight booties for each dog either in the sled
or in use and in the sled. A minimum of four pounds per dog per checkpoint of
food, plus the musher’s food were required, which had to be shipped to
necessary official checkpoints by a designated date before the race. Provisions
were made for best accommodation of injured, fatigued or sick dogs. This
included shipping dropped dogs, accountability for expired dogs, and
responsibility of each musher to care and feed dogs between checkpoints.

These thoughtful rules
demonstrate the focus and enduring commitment of ITC and the many employees and
volunteers who make this event possible. Expectation of the ITC is summed up in
an explanation of Rule 36: “All mushers will conduct themselves in a civil and
sportsmanlike manner during the entire racing event.”

Explanation: The race depends on the
assistance of hundreds of volunteers who help out through their own generosity.
A musher’s conduct is a direct reflection on the Iditarod Trail Committee and
the public reputation of the event. The entire racing event includes the awards
presentation in Nome and all money winning teams are expected to attend.

More than three decades later,
the 2019 Iditarod race rules take up 18 pages and the organization has a
comprehensive web page.

Among other statements in the Preamble
to the rules is the following:

The object of the race is to
determine which musher and dogs can cover the race in the shortest time under
their own power and without aid of others. That is determined by the nose of
the first dog to cross the finish line.


Policy Intent—The intent of
these rules is to ensure fair competition and the humane care of sled dogs. The
race should be won or lost by the musher and dogs on merit rather than
technicalities. Race officials appointed by the ITC are responsible for
interpreting and enforcing the rules in keeping with that intent.

Entry fee is now $4,000. In
addition to the 24-hour mandatory stop, one of three required 8-hour stops must be the Yukon river. Rules to enhance care and comfort of dogs have
embellished those originally set. A “Good Samaritan Rule” provides:

A musher will not be penalized
for aiding another musher in an emergency. Incidents must be explained to race
officials at the next checkpoint.

Under Rule 30 mushers are
tested for drugs and alcohol.

Alcohol or drug impairment,
the use of prohibited drugs by mushers, and positive results on drug or alcohol
tests administered during a Race are each prohibited.

Who could have expected in
1974 that mushers in remote parts of the state might some day carry small
electronic devices that told their exact positions and allowed two-way audio
and video communication? For a long time the use of cell phones or GPS were
forbidden, but in the 2019 rules they are allowed under Rule 35:

A musher may carry and use any
two-way communication device(s), including, but not necessarily limited to, a
cell and/or satellite telephone. Use of such devices may not be used for any
media purposes during the course of the race unless expressly approved in
advance by ITC. A musher may also carry an emergency locator transmitter (ELT),
a Spot™, or other similar satellite tracking device. However, activation of any
help or emergency signal, including accidental activation, may make a musher
ineligible to continue and may result in an automatic withdrawal from the race.
Use of a GPS is also permitted.

Again, safety of the mushers
and their dogs is the pre-eminent concern.

Veterinary Issues and Dog Care
Rules are listed from Rule 37 to 46. They include specific provisions for Dog
Care, Equipment and Team Configuration, Drug Use, Pre-Race Veterinary Exam,
Jurisdiction and Care, Expired Dog, Dog Description, Dog Tag, Returned Dogs, and
Hauling Dogs.

These rules have evolved. For
instance, the running of a team of poodles caused the description of dogs
allowed in the race to become “Only dogs suitable for arctic travel will be
permitted to enter the race…
” because the nature of poodle hair caused the
animals to become frozen to the ground when they bedded down on ice.

In the case of an expired dog
the rules are explicit:

Any dog death that occurs
during the race results in immediate scratch or withdrawal, except only unless
the death was caused solely by unforeseeable, external forces.

Any dog that expires on the
trail must be taken by the musher to a checkpoint. The musher may transport the
dog to either the checkpoint just passed, or the upcoming checkpoint. An
expired dog report must be completed by the musher and presented to a race
official along with the dog. At this time the musher shall scratch or be
withdrawn from the race, except in the case of death due to unforeseeable,
external forces. All dog deaths will be treated as a priority, with every
effort being made to determine the cause of death in a thorough and reliable

Persons offended by brutal
nature see only the unforeseen events out of the control of man or dog and
react. Iditarod has suffered by such insufferable people.

A PETA Protest in Downtown Anchorage during the Iditarod start was countered by a member of the Alaska Trapper’s Association passing counter-literature.

The Iditarod Race is under
attack now for many years, as the organization that runs it struggles to
respond to a predator organization while also conducting a phenomenal multifaceted
sporting event. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has
chosen the Iditarod Sled Dog Race as one of its primary fund-raising targets,
pouncing on this Alaskan event–as one politician might attack the slip of the
tongue by another hapless politician–for a fundraising bonanza.

They have hurt Iditarod.

The latest shrill PETA
fundraising effort declares: “Eight Reasons Why the Iditarod Race Should Be
Terminated Will Leave You Outraged.” They include: “1. Dog deaths at the
Iditarod are so routine that the official rules blithely state that some “may
be considered unpreventable,” 2. If the dogs don’t die on the trail, they’re
still left permanently scarred, 3. There’s no retirement plan, 4. Dogs pull
mushers’ sleds up to 100 miles a day, 5. As many as half the dogs who start the
Iditarod don’t finish, 6. No dog would choose to run in this arctic nightmare, 7.
Thousands of dogs are bred each year for sled racing, and 8. Dogs at sled-dog
breeding compounds have died of numerous ailments.”6

New Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach
has determined he will encounter PETA in hopes common ground might be found
after all the damage done by that group. He even went hat-in-hand to Los
Angeles to meet with the president of the predator organization on October 17.
Another video by some wackjob declaring “What I Saw as a PETA Observer at
Iditarod Champions’ Dog Yards” was posted on the PETA blog October 21.

PETA sees Iditarod Sled Dog
Race blood on the snow.

PETA is an enemy combatant.
Any sponsor of Iditarod who pulls support based on PETA is complicit with these
ignorant people. These are the companies PETA brags about convincing to drop support
for Iditarod:
 Coca-Cola, Costco, Jack Daniel’s, Maxwell
House, Nestlé, Pizza Hut, Rite Aid, Safeway, State Farm, and Wells Fargo.

sponsors need to step forward. Urbach’s real mandate is to engage companies who
stand strong for American tradition and spirit.

Many businesses have been harmed by PETA. They should be interested in supporting Iditarod. Businesses harmed by PETA’s charges against their support of Iditarod are rewarding the preditor organization by withdrawing support.

Workings dogs die. Some are injured.
The ITC works hard to assure the animals receive the best possible treatment,
but the inevitable can happen and PETA exploits the exceptions to condemn the
event overall. It is a ruthless tactic used against many worthy organizations and endeavors.

With half-truths and lies PETA
writes as if it were speaking for the animals after consulting with them about
what they think. It is propaganda to target people easily influenced by
emotional appeals who are incapable of critically evaluating what is being said
and why.

Iditarod is an honorable
pursuit. By declaring war on Iditarod, by association PETA has declared war on Alaskans, who live a northern lifestyle with working dogs of all kinds, fur parkas, and
meat in our diet. We don’t fit PETA’s California mind-set.

And, we cannot let those crazy
people win.




Jones, Tim, The Last Great Race, 1982 Madrona Publishers



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