In the early 1900s, Nome’s residents learned how to have fun during the long, dark winter months. Skiing and skating were popular and kids found heroes in long-distance runners (who would run laps in the local gym) and sled dog racers. Racing events were veritable holidays, with schools and businesses closed early (or all-together) and courts adjourned.
The first notable sled dog race the All Alaska Sweepstakes, held between 1908 and 1917. Sponsored by the Nome Kennel Club, the 408-mile race went from Nome to Candle and back. The course was laid out along a telephone line so that bulletins from the race could be transmitted back to Nome and posted in public places. The All Alaska Sweepstakes offered purses between $3,000 and $10,000, and made household names of its champions, notably Scotty Allan and Leonhard Seppala.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race carries on the racing tradition started in those early days. It commemorates those intrepid mushers (including Seppala) and their dogs, who fought through blizzard conditions to bring a life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925. And it also captures the spirit of a long-ago mushing lifestyle, which began to fade away as airplanes and snowmachines made travel between villages and larger towns faster and more convenient.
Joe Redington Sr., known as the “Father of the Iditarod” and Dorothy Page (Chair of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee) started advocating for an Iditarod Trail race in the late 1960s to preserve the trail, which historically connected remote Alaskan villages and served as their main supply route in winter. They also wanted to keep mushing and sled dog culture alive. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is the product of their vision and persistence. For 10 days each March, the 1,049-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome turns the world’s attention on today’s sled dog heroes and the Iditarod National Historic Trail.
As in Nome’s early days, the whole community celebrates during Iditarod week. Activities pack the schedule – educational talks, sporting competitions (pool, poker, golf, basketball arm wrestling), concerts, dances, and more. These days, technology makes it easy for everyone to track all the racers from checkpoint to checkpoint. The excitement grows to a fever pitch as the lead racers near Front Street, just as they did during the All Alaska Sweepstakes.
Experience the Iditarod yourself, from three locations in Alaska: in Anchorage for the Ceremonial start, in Willow for the re-start, or at Nome’s Burled Arch for the finish. When in Nome, you can learn more about both the Iditarod and the All Alaska Sweepstakes at the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum.