The Great Iditarod

There's nothing more famous in Alaska than the Great Iditarod Dogsledding Race, the largest annual sporting event in the state.

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American English Podcast

By Shana Thompson

To learn ONLY about the Great Iditarod Dogsledding Race, start listening at 10:30.

Let’s move on to today’s fun fact. Today, we’ll be talking about the Great Iditarod, which is the largest annual sporting event in Alaska.

Did you know that Alaska makes up 17.5 Percent of the United States? Almost one fifth of the United States is Alaska and yet only about 750 thousand people live there. That’s 1.28 people per square mile. Today, the only city with over 100 thousand residents is Anchorage. Other residents are dispersed in little communities within the state. Small towns heavily rely on their neighboring communities for goods, supplies and services. It’s a matter of survival, and over the past century, Alaskans have figured out how to utilize air, land and sea to thrive. But before the widespread use of airplanes in the 1920s, and before the invention of snowmobiles in the sixties, dog sleds were the most common form of transportation in rural Alaska.

A sled, is a type of vehicle that can be used to move people or goods on snowy or icy surfaces. In dog sledding, dogs wear harnesses and are connected to a sled, which they pull. The musher, who is the individual (the human) who stands on the sled, is the driver.

Today, dogsledding is not only a common sport in Alaska, it’s also common in Canada, Greenland, Russia, Norway and other arctic countries around the world. So where did dog sledding begin?

According to National Geographic, many archaeologists believe that dogs have been used to haul people and material goods across the Arctic for thousands of years. In Ust-Polui, Siberia, archaeologists have excavated two thousand year old relics of dogs wearing harnesses next to dog bones with similar bone structure to Siberian huskies.

It’s believed that the Inuits, or the natives of northern Alaska, originally crossbred various breeds of dogs with wolves in order to create the famous Alaskan malamute. Their thick fur, padded feet and stamina, were thought ideal for long distance travel. When Siberian huskies were introduced to Alaska in the early 1900s, they quickly became the racing dog.

This is where the story gets interesting.

In the 1920s, diphtheria, an infectious disease, swept through the United States and killed between 13 to 15 thousand people, many of them children. In January of 1925, there was an outbreak of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska, which at the time was the most populous city in the Northeast. When local doctors ran out of antitoxin to treat patients and prevent the spread of the disease, they cried for help.

But who was going to help them? During the winter, the nearest port was surrounded by ice. Steamships couldn’t enter, pilots and airplanes were not readily accessible. The only way to get to Nome before the outbreak killed off a good number of its residents was by taking the Iditarod trail on dog sled.

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Shana - ESL Teacher

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