The mushers who race 1,000 miles across the snow-covered Alaskan wilderness may be all that's left of the gritty endurance of 19th-century arctic explorers. This is what they're like.
Billy Snodgrass, a 59-year-old kennel owner and musher from Wyoming, is packing his sled. The next day he will embark on his fifth Iditarod Sled Dog Race, from Willow near Anchorage to Nome on the Bering Sea. While he works, he's telling me a story about the last time he ran the 1,000-mile race, back in 2011.
"It was 50 degrees below, and I pulled off the trail to rest. I laid out some hay for the dogs, and then I got a big ol' pile of spruce to get a big fire going," the musher says, spreading his arms as if he's carrying a bundle of wood. "I was just surviving, you know? So I took my sleeping bag over by the fire, put it over my head and went to sleep. When I woke up, I pulled it off and could see blue sky behind a puff of white stuff." Snodgrass squints and waves his hand around in front of his face. "Goose feathers from my sleeping bag! I had burned a hole in the thing, and feathers got all over my face and in my nose and my ears. When I got up I spooked the dogs—I looked like the abominable snowman."
You can't drive a team of sled dogs a thousand miles across Alaska without losing some of the conventions held by modern society. As he pulls a brand new headlamp out of a bin, still in the packaging, Snodgrass transitions into describing the cheesecake he brought along last time. "It's a good food to bring on the race. It stays relatively soft in the cold, but it's like ice at 50 degrees below. So, I'm hacking away at this piece of cheesecake with my axe, pieces are flying everywhere, and the dogs start to go for it. I'm groveling around with the dogs, going for the cheesecake, and I hear a sled and look up."
Billy blows air through his teeth to imitate the sound of a sled sliding across the snow. "It was real quiet, and the guy's just looking at me on the ground, covered in goose feathers. You know he got to the next checkpoint and went, 'Snodgrass has lost it out there, better go pick him up.'"
The Last Great Race on Earth
Long-distance sled dog racing is like no other sport in the world. The men and women who run the Iditarod—85 entered this year, and about a third of them are women—are hardened outdoor survivalists. The 1,000-mile trail throws subzero temperatures, whiteout blizzards with gale-force winds, and untamed Alaskan wildlife at the mushers and their dogs as they trek through the heart of the Last Frontier. This March I got to see it for myself at the 2016 Iditarod, which concludes this week.
The first Iditarod ran in 1973, and every year since then, mushers from all over the world have made their way to Anchorage to compete. The trail alternates between a southern and northern route every other year, taking mushers through different terrain in the middle section of the race. Whatever the route, the trail leads mushers through thick snowbanks, across rivers, over a 35-mile stretch of barren tundra known as the Farewell Burn, across the frozen surface of Norton Bay, and along the windy coast to the finish in Nome.
You might compare the Iditarod to the Tour de France. Both make use of nonmotorized vehicles to cover hundreds of miles, and both are rich in history. But the Tour de France is a meticulously calculated affair, where slipstream aerodynamics separates winners from losers and weight is analyzed down to the gram. The Iditarod is a trek through the Alaskan bush in late winter, where sleep-deprived and hallucinating mushers collapse on piles of hay in the snow for a few hours of rest before pressing on. Tour de France champions win $400,000 and become international celebrities. Iditarod winners get about $70,000, a new truck, and the adoration of Alaska.
You might compare the animal care, breeding, and training aspects of dog mushing to major horse races like the Kentucky Derby, since success in either competition rests on caring for your animals and knowing how hard you can push them. But the Derby is highbrow to the core, a place where graceful animals race for two minutes to the delight of aristocrats clad in sun hats. The Alaskan huskies that run the Iditarod are scrappy and energetic mutts that run for hours on end and are guaranteed to fight at some point along the trail.
The men and women who drive them are equally rugged, and eccentric. During this year's Iditarod, a drunk snowmobile rider rammed into two of the leading mushers at an estimated speed of 80 mph. The incident, which occurred around 2 a.m. local time on March 12, left one of Jeff King's dogs dead and injured two more, as well as one of Aliy Zirkle's dogs. It was shocking, horrible news, and the kind of thing that could only happen in a high-profile race that ventures so far out into the wild.
The two mushers pressed on, still with hopes of winning.
A Different Kind of Tough
ESPN wrote in 2010 that Lance Mackey, a four-time Iditarod champion, "." Rarely could such a plaudit be considered an understatement, but consider the following.
In 2001, when he crossed the Iditarod finish line for the first time, he immediately collapsed into his wife's arms and told her he needed to go to the hospital. Doctors removed a softball-size malignant tumor, as well as his saliva glands, right molars, and a significant amount of flesh around his throat. The radiation treatment that followed fried his gums and jaw and left him with dead or damaged nerves in multiple fingers and toes, causing him constant pain even today.
Seven years later, on his way to a second Iditarod victory, Mackey felt his throat starting to bother him. Without saliva glands, he needs to constantly carry water to keep his mouth and throat from drying out. Determined not to stop to grab a fresh bottle of water, Mackey bent down, grabbed a handful of snow, and shoveled it into his mouth. Without any saliva to melt the snow, Mackey immediately started to choke. He fell off the back of his sled and just barely managed to shove his fingers down his throat to pick out the snow so he could breathe, moments before he surely would have blacked out.
Mackey doesn't even have a seat on his sled, a luxury that most mushers take advantage of. Why subject yourself to these hardships? "I don't want to be comfortable out there," he says. "Not many bosses let you sit around and be lazy." Lance gestures toward his dogs. "My bosses are expecting me to go to work."
Back where Snodgrass's trailer is parked, I ask him about the worst injury he sustained in the Iditarod. Without hesitation, he tells me about the time he sunburned his privates.
"I stopped behind a shed and laid out some hay for the dogs. I hadn't slept in four days, and I hadn't taken off my clothes either. It was nice and warm, 50 or 55 degrees, so I stripped down completely naked and fell asleep on a pile of hay for five hours. When I woke up, I was badly sunburned where the sun don't shine. I had to cover myself in zinc oxide and baby powder just to put on my long johns."
Another Iditarod musher, Elliot Anderson, had to shoot a moose that had wandered into the kennel with his dogs two nights before the start of the race. The 24-year-old musher heard the dogs going crazy in the middle of the night, and went out to find a moose stomping around. He shot the large animal to protect his dogs and called the Alaska State Troopers the next morning to come get the carcass to be butchered and donated to communities that could use the meat.
Just another day in Alaska.
Wired Up in the Wilderness
The Iditarod is a mishmash of old and new. Synthetic fibers have made their way into the mushers' clothing, bags, and the ropes they use to harness the dogs. Just 5 years ago, the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) allowed mushers to bring personal GPS devices on the race to track their pace and location (the committee pins another tracker to each of the sleds that tracks them for fans and doubles as a distress beacon in case of an emergency). Still, many traditionalist mushers eschew the tracking devices.
Some mushers still race on wooden sleds, though the serious racers have switched to more durable and lighter materials such as aluminium or carbon fiber. Hockey-stick blanks are a common material used for stanchions in dogsled construction, sometimes coated in fiberglass or carbon fiber for increased durability. Sled Dog Systems makes racing sleds that use a hinged parallelogram design so the sled can lean and turn aggressively.
"They're always talking about how new sleds can do this and that," Snodgrass told me while he was packing up his own aluminum sled—the first time he was using something other than white ash to run the Iditarod. "But let me tell you, the sled is going wherever those dogs are going."
Maybe so, but the lighter weight has allowed racers to make the trek faster than ever before. Dallas Seavey set the record for fastest time this year on a homemade sled constructed from composite hockey sticks: 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes, 16 seconds.
Channeling Your Inner Shackleton
About a third of the Iditarod mushers enter the race to win, and familiar names populate the leaderboard year after year. Defending champion Dallas Seavey, for example, claimed his fourth Iditarod championship in five years when he crossed the finish line first in the early hours of the morning on March 15. In 2013, Dallas's father, Mitch Seavey, took the title. During the five-year reign of the Seavey family, Aliy Zirkle—one of the mushers slammed into by a snowmobiler—finished in second three times.
But the great dogsled race is like a marathon. Most mushers can't compete with the best for the championship; they simply want to finish, earning the brass belt buckle that is a badge of honor for dog mushers. In any given year, as many as 30 percent of the racers will scratch and drop out of the race. Exhaustion, cold weather, sled damage, and worn-out dogs can all lead to a musher dropping out.
Elliot Anderson (the moose gunman) scratched in 2014 with just about 100 miles to go in the race—about a day's worth of mushing. During a particularly brutal part of the trail, the Farewell Burn, where Alaska's largest wildfire ravaged a million and a half acres in 1978, he was forced to unharness some of his dogs just to make it through.
"I had too much power, so I let 10 dogs run free and just had six pulling the sled. You're not supposed to do that, but I wasn't thinking about the race at that point, I was thinking about survival."
Even so, Anderson had a calm, almost Zen mindset in the days leading up to the 2016 race. He didn't seem to be anxious about the task ahead, and the unseasonably warm weather that had all the mushers worried about trail conditions didn't bother him, at least visibly. He was perfectly engaging and polite to talk to, but somehow seemed distant, consumed by single-minded focus.
"It was eating me up," he said after talking about the 2014 race. "I had to try again. I have to finish this year."