High-Tech Mushing on the Iditarod Trail
The Susan Butcher-Rick Swenson gender rivalry has given way to computer chips, animal rights - and record finishes
TWENTY years ago, Joe Redington unleashed an Alaskan revolution. The Knik, Alaska, resident cobbled together a shoestring budget and a group of fellow adventurers and embarked on a 1,160-mile trek they called the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The idea of Anchorage-to-Nome race was to commemorate a 1925 medicine mission that used dogsleds along an old wilderness supply and mail route. But Redington's true motive was to revive dog-mushing in Alaska Native villages being inundated by snowmobiles.
Today, the Iditarod is the world's most famous sled-dog race. It is the world's best-known sports contest in which men compete against women on equal terms. It has a $2 million budget, a $400,000 prize pot, diverse corporate sponsors, and international media coverage. Sleds are now aerodynamic Kevlar creations, not clunky wooden models; dogs are tracked with computer microchips (to ensure that no dogs are added along the trail) and top mushers model eye-catching, state-of-the-art arctic gear. Sponsor Tim berland spent about $1 million on the race and plans to introduce a musher-tested "Iditarod Extreme Mukluk" for $275 this fall. (Its $250 "Iditarod Superboot" is already an unexpected fashion hit among urban youths.)
"It's nationwide. It's international. It almost feels intergalactic," says Burt Bomhoff, the Iditarod Trail Committee's executive director.
Last week, just after midnight Wednesday, Jeff King of Denali Park, Alaska, reached the Iditarod finish line here in 10 days, 15 hours, and 38 minutes, beating the record set last year by nearly four hours - and nearly halving the 1973 winner's time of 20 days, 49 minutes.
For King, who has won every other major long-distance sled-dog race in Alaska but finished no higher than sixth in the Iditarod until now, the race's fame was intimidating until this year.
"There is something mystical and magical and a little dreadful - for a guy who's not superstitious, that's a mouthful - about the Iditarod," King said after his victory. "I had to get over that."
DEEDEE JONROWE, a rising dog-mushing star, finished just 32 minutes behind King in one of the closest Iditarods ever. The 11-day barrier, once thought impenetrable, was broken by three more racers, a feat even more remarkable because new rules boosted mandatory musher layovers by 10 hours this year. Sixty-eight teams began the race; a week after the winners arrived in Nome, four teams were still on the trail, slowed by a Bering Sea storm.
The Iditarod's transformation from backwoods endurance test to professional wilderness extravaganza probably started in 1985, when Libby Riddles dashed into a fierce storm to become the first woman to win.
For years the Iditarod was dominated by the War of the Sexes as waged by four-time champion Susan Butcher and five-time champion Rick Swenson. Until now, Swenson or Butcher - the event's only multiple winners - finished first or second in all but three races since 1977. Their rivalry was marked by year-round taunts and T-shirts touting Alaska as a land where "Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod."
They command the race no longer. Butcher was fourth this year, slowed by her dogs' fatigue and a team pared to the legal minimum of eight. Swenson finished ninth, and said that heightened competition means that only a "perfect" run will win the Iditarod. The new leaders play down gender rivalry.
"I get a lot of questions about that," says Swiss-born Martin Buser, the 1992 champion. "You know, `Get it for the guys.' I don't get it for the guys. I get it for the dogs, because they're the real athletes."
But the passing of the Butcher-Swenson era is greeted with mixed emotions. "I don't know whether that's good or bad, because a lot of people watched the race to see whether it would be Rick or Susan. It was sort of a soap opera," says Peggy Stout, Jonrowe's mother.
THE Iditarod's coming of age has brought other complications.
Animal-rights groups view the race suspiciously. Saying long-distance sled-dog racing in the harsh Alaska weather is a cruel anachronism, some have showered Iditarod sponsors with protest letters and boycott threats.
The Humane Society of the United States sent its vice president, David Wills, to observe the race for the third straight year. He says he is trying to work cooperatively with mushers to make the race safer, suggesting new rules and tracking dog care.
"Mushing is the world's fastest-growing sport," Wills says. "The Iditarod is the flagship event. Our goal is zero dog deaths." But as of Wednesday, six dogs (out of 1,278) had died in the race from accidents or illness, making it one of the deadliest races ever.
Wills says his complaints are not with the elite mushers, who provide meticulous dog care, or back-of-the-pack mushers, who treat the Iditarod as a leisurely camping adventure. It is with mid-level, over-ambitious racers pushing themselves and their dogs unnecessarily, he says.
Musher reaction to Wills has been mixed. Some say the Humane Society should leave Alaska issues to Alaskans. But Butcher, her husband Dave Monson, King, and other top racers have reacted positively. They formed a dog-care group called Providing Responsible Information on Dogs' Environment (PRIDE) to set guidelines for dog care. They plan to publish an exhaustive handbook on kennel management, says Monson, himself an accomplished sled-dog racer.
"There's only about 70 people running the Iditarod, and there's thousands and thousands of kennels," Monson says.
Critics say the Iditarod's modernization has bypassed old-time Native and rural mushers. Few from the "Bush," the vast area off the state's abbreviated road system, can afford the estimated $30,000 minimum needed to run the race. Only three Alaska Natives and eight mushers who live off the road system entered this year's Iditarod.
But others defend the race as a showcase of rare, positive role models for young Natives and rural Alaskans.
And, nostalgia notwithstanding, the Iditarod holds its traditional appeal for Swenson.
"It's still a race where it's the dogs and the musher," he says. "Running and training dogs is still very basic."