Monday, February 25, 2008

Anchorage, Alaska Gearing Up For The Start Of The 2008 Iditarod Sled Dog Race; Legally-Blind Musher Rachael Scdoris Making An Encore Appearance

What is often referred to as "the last great race" will be starting in Anchorage, Alaska on Saturday March 1st, 2008. The 36th Annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race will be kicking off its normal ceremonial start, before officially re-starting in Willow the next day. Wikipedia contains a good overview of the history and methodology of the race.

Coverage of the race will be available from the following sources:

(1). Official Iditarod website. Flash map showing the route and listing the mushers' standings HERE.
(2). Anchorage Daily News Home Page.
(3). Anchorage Daily News Iditarod Page, which includes a mushers' gallery and interactive trail map.
(4). KTUU Channel 2 Anchorage Iditarod Page.

The ceremonial start and the initial run to Willow does not count towards the recorded time on the trail. Consequently, this part of the run is like a warmup for the mushers and their dogs. In the past, the official re-start was held in Wasilla, just 40 miles north, but lack of snow in recent years has caused the re-start to be moved further north to Willow.

According to the official Iditarod website, the Iditarod Trail, now a National Historic Trail, began as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior mining camps at Flat, Ophir, Ruby and beyond to the west coast communities of Unalakleet, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain and Nome. Mail and supplies went in, gold came out. All via dog sled. Heroes were made, legends were born.

In 1925, part of the Iditarod Trail became a life saving highway for epidemic-stricken Nome. Diphtheria threatened and serum had to be brought in; again by intrepid dog mushers and their faithful hard-driving dogs. So the Iditarod is a commemoration of that achievement, a not-so-distant past that Alaskans honor and are proud of.

After the official re-start, the mushers leave the land of highways and bustling activity and head out to the Yentna Station Roadhouse and Skwentna and then up through Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, over the Alaska Range and down the other side to the Kuskokwim River — Rohn Roadhouse, Nikolai, McGrath, Ophir, Cripple, Iditarod and on to the mighty Yukon — a river highway that takes the teams west through the arctic tundra.

The race route is alternated every other year, one year going north through Cripple, Ruby and Galena, the next year south through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik. Since 2008 is an even-numbered year, the Northern Route will be used. The only difference between the two routes is the 300+ mile stretch betwen Ophir and Kaltag. The Southern Route goes south from Ophir through Iditarod and Anvik, then back to Kaltag. The Northern Route extends from Ophir through Ruby and Galena to Kaltag. The purpose of rotation is to spread the impact a bit more evenly through the Interior. You can see the routes for yourself on this page of the official Iditarod website.

Once at Kaltag, the mushers head for Unalakleet, then follow the coast through Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain and into Nome where a hero’s welcome is the custom for musher number 1 or 61 (96 this year, if they all finish)!

This year, a total of 96 mushers are signed up and ready to go. A complete list of mushers is displayed HERE. Of these, 60 are from Alaska, and 15 from foreign countries (none from Jamaica, though; Jamaica may produce bobsled teams, but they haven't produced any mushers). Thirty-two mushers are rookies. Among the familiar names included this year is the legally-blind Rachael Scdoris, who was allowed to compete in the 2006 Iditarod despite the fact that she needed an assistant, or visual interpreter, to help her navigate the trail. And she has an expert in Joe Runyan, who won the 1989 race.

According to an article in the Bend (OR) Bulletin, Scdoris was born with congenital achromatopsia, a rare vision disorder that limits her to seeing blurry shapes of objects more than a few feet away and makes her acutely sensitive to bright lights. She is colorblind and has 20-200 vision: She sees at 20 feet what a person with normal sight can see at 200 feet. She was first denied the opportunity to compete in 2004; after the threat of litigation, the Trail Committee reached a compromise where she could use a visual intepreter in the race without gaining an unfair advantage over her competitors. She scratched in 2005, but entered again in 2006, finishing 57th out of 72 teams that did finish.

One familiar name absent from the roster is that of four-time champion Doug Swingley, who, according to, has chosen to retire. Three of Swingley's victories were in consecutive years (1999-2001), which is an incredible accomplishment considering the difficulty in preparation, logistics, and execution of this race. In the 2007 race, Swingley broke some ribs after sliding off an icy trail into some trees, and the pain forced him to scratch by the time he reached Puntilla Lake. But in a previous, a broken rib did not stop him from winning. In 2004, Swingley was forced to scratch when his corneas were frosted by cold, windy weather in the Dalzell Gorge, severely blurring his vision. So the years and the injuries caught up with him, but he was a true gamer, considered a "musher's musher".

The Ultimate Iditarod website has information useful for those not familiar with the mechanics of dog mushing. See their pages on Anatomy of a Dog Team and Anatomy of a Dog Sled for more information. Contrary to negative propaganda put out by animal rights extremists like the Human Society of the United States and PETA, dog safety is considered of paramount importance. See the official rules of the 2008 Iditarod to satisfy yourself that this is the case. Mushers have been penalized for mistreatment of dogs or even for negligence.

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