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40th Iditarod poised to start with nod to race, trail history

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Sixty-six mushers and their dogs will line up on Saturday for the launch of the 40th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an event that has grown from an obscure contest many considered a one-time lark into a world-famous, big-money sports extravaganza.

The human contestants, many of whom have made the Iditarod their full-time career, have spent tens of thousands of dollars each in preparations. And the 16 dogs hitched to each of the high-tech sleds for the bulk of the race are the product of generations of scientific breeding, training, nutrition and veterinary care.

Corporate sponsors will display their logos prominently on the uniforms of dog handlers, the mushers' decorated dog trucks and banners hanging over the meticulously groomed snow trail through Alaska's largest city.

News coverage of developments on the 1,100-mile trail will be followed around the world.

It's a far cry from the very first Iditarod in 1973, when 35 mushers and their dog teams competed.

One of them was Dan Seavey, a history teacher and recreational dog musher from the seaside town of Seward. When he and his dogs reached the finish line in Nome that year, he declared that the sparsely funded race was unlikely to be repeated many times.

"I made the bold and astute prediction that we'd be lucky if it lasted five years," Seavey, now 74, told Reuters. "I don't suppose anybody envisioned that there'd be a 40th race."

Seavey, who is running this year's contest, has become part of Iditarod lore. His family in 2001 became the first to have members of three generations competing. In 2004, Dan's son, Mitch, won the race.

This year, the elder Seavey is sponsored by the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance. The nonprofit group and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are winding up a four-year celebration marking the trail's use a century ago as a Gold Rush-era travel route.

Back then, the trail from Nome to Seward on the Gulf of Alaska coast was the equivalent of a superhighway, said Kevin Keeler, the BLM's Iditarod National Historic Trail coordinator. It was used by thousands of people each year traveling between mines, villages and ports, he said.

Many drove dog sleds, some even rode bicycles, but most hiked the trail, which was dotted with roadhouses, he said. "You could basically walk 20 miles a day and have a roof over your head and a meal, more or less, in your belly," he said.

The trail's heyday as a Gold Rush-era route lasted only about 15 years, ending when many mines were played out and the airplane became the preferred mode of rural transportation. Now the trail is most famous for the sled-dog race that bears its name.

The race has evolved from its low-budget roots into a $2.5 million operation that doles out more than $550,000 in cash prizes annually. Wooden sleds have been replaced by aerodynamic plastic models. Formulated dog diets have replaced the fish and beaver meat fed to the mushers' teams in the past. And compared to the past, today's contestants move at blazing speed.

In the first years of the race, it took the top mushers and their dogs nearly three weeks to reach Nome, and the trek was sometimes likened to a 1,100-mile group camping trip. Last year's champion, John Baker, ran the course in a record eight days, 18 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds.

Even urban sprawl has altered the race.

Saturday's run through Anchorage is merely ceremonial, due to a rule change made several years ago because of safety concerns in the crowded, heavily trafficked city. Timed competition starts Sunday in Willow, a tiny community about 80 miles north of Anchorage and well away from urban development and vehicle congestion.

But, Seavey said, some things about the Iditarod never change.

"It's basically the dogs and the person, the trail, the weather and the distance," he said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Thomasch)