In 1973, 34 sled dog teams lined up in Anchorage, Alaska for the adventure of a lifetime: competing to be the first team to reach Nome, about 1,000 miles to the northwest. It was the inaugural Iditarod, and at the time no one knew for sure how long it would take to complete the treacherous journey through sub-zero winds and dense snow. While the US Army volunteered to help clear some sections of the road, the mushers were largely responsible for breaking their own trails, while hauling their supplies in their sleds.
The race course was so dangerous and desolate that it was not uncommon to go days without seeing another soul; a third of the competitors gave up before reaching the finish line. In the end, it took winner, Dick Wilmarth, a 29-year-old miner and trapper, about three weeks to cover the distance, trapping beaver for food and using snowshoes in some sections to help clear the trail for his dogs. He revealed in 2001 maintenance that he entered the race on a whim because he thought it would be “a pretty neat thing” to do.
In the five decades since, a lot has changed. Today, mushers rely on GPS to stay on course and are in constant communication with their support team, which helps coordinate supply deliveries to designated and scheduled checkpoints. veterinary examinations for dogs. the road is also well defined by beacons and signs, and helicopters follow overhead to keep your eyes on the ground and respond to emergencies. (Teams take what is called the “Northern Route” in even years and the “Southern Route” in odd years.) Subscribers to the Iditarod Insider even have access to a live stream of the event online.
“In the first race, people were wondering if anyone would even make it to Nome,” says race director and longtime Iditarod marshal Mark V. Nordman. “Now people finish it in less than nine days. Like any sporting event, there are always improvements like the equipment and the quality of the trail put in place. I don’t want to say that the care of the dogs has improved. , it’s just that we’ve improved our veterinary program so much – it’s really about taking care of the dogs.”
nordman has a long history with racing, completing its first as a musher in 1983 in 18 days followed by four subsequent entries between 1991 and 1996. It served in its current capacity for decades and saw the Iditarod evolve from ‘a little-known race in the Alaskan wilderness where radio amateurs would give the stroke-by-stroke of the race over the AM waves to the the longest and arguably the world’s most iconic annual sled dog race, drawing teams from Alaska and beyond to test their mettle against the often unforgiving elements.
“When it started, a lot of people thought it would be one and done,” he says. “But there is a passion for it across the state. It’s our Stanley Cup. It’s our Super Bowl.
Traveling with dog teams has long been part of Alaskan Legacy. Since much of the state is unserved by roads and highways and remains inaccessible, residents in remote areas have come to rely on dog sleds to get them from point A to point B. However, with the introduction of the “iron dog”, or snowmobile, in the 1960s, the need for dog teams began to diminish. The end Dorothee G. Page and Joe Redington, Sr., affectionately known as “The Mother and Father of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race”, created the event as a way to help preserve and protect sled dog culture and the working dogs that define it. . The original race monitoring the old postal dog-sledding route Iditarod Trail, forged in the early 1900s, that stretched across the state; today’s route goes through several mountain ranges and crosses many frozen streams and ice packs (sea ice).
This year race, which begins on March 5, is particularly relevant as it marks the 50th anniversary of the event. The 50 teams registered at the time of writing will follow the usual 1,049-mile course of the race. (Due to the pandemic, the race 2021 was shortened to an 852-mile round trip and did not have its typical ceremonial start.) In order to participate this year, all competitors, as well as volunteers and other staff, must be fully vaccinated.
Like Nordman, Jon Van Zyle, an acrylic painter who has lived in Alaska for 43 years, also has a long history with the breed. Van Zyle competed in 1976, completing the race in just over 26 days without the aid of a compass (or any of the other bells and whistles mushers use today). The following year he approached the race committee, which he jokingly describes as “three people and a dog”, to create a poster to help promote the event.
“At that time, very few people knew about it,” says Van Zyle. “I had the idea to raise funds, because my works were starting to become popular in the United States.”
This 1977 attach, a mixture of a landscape and a portrait of an Inuit man, was enough to earn him the title of “official artist of the Iditarod”. Van Zyle has now made dozens of posters and other artwork for the race, which have become collector’s items in their own right, often featuring sled dogs and mushers in action, always with l Alaska in the background. His work has also earned him a place in the Iditarod Hall of Fame. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Iditarod, he created a limited edition poster mixing a racing scene with the likeness of Iditarod co-founder Joe Redington, Sr.
“Growing up, my mom had kennels, so I’ve been with sled dogs for most of my life and had been sledding long before the Iditarod,” he says. “I paint what I know, and what I know is Alaska.”
Recently, Van Zyle teamed up with another icon in the dog racing community: Jeff Schultz. As the “Official Photographer of the Iditarod”, Schultz has been documenting the race from start to finish since 1981.
“I was still in my twenties and could only afford to hire a driver to take me halfway through the race,” Schultz said. “I donated my photos to the committee and they came back and asked me to do it again next year, [this time providing me with adequate transportation]. It was a handshake. »
Over his decades-long career, Schultz’s photographs have become synonymous with Alaska. In 1990, he founded the state’s largest stock photo agency, Alaska Stock Images, and its to work has been featured in everything from the pages of Outside magazine to Wells Fargo ad campaigns.
For most people, their only experience with the Iditarod is through Van Zyle’s paintings and Schultz’s photographs, and over the years the artists’ imagery, used to promote the event, has become so iconic. than the sled dogs and Alaskan terrain that define the race. . Many of their prints and posters have been featured in art galleries and as collectibles they sell for auction for hundreds of dollars.
“I’ve had people write me letters saying they heard about the Iditarod from me,” Schultz says. “I’ve heard from people who were kids when they first saw my footage, and now they’re racing the Iditarod.”
Last year, the creative couple released a book, co-authored by their wives, Jona Van Zyle and Joan Schultz, who are also actively involved in the dog sledding community. Double Vision Alaska contains over 120 photographs and paintings, including a collaborative series in which Van Zyle applies acrylic paint to Schultz’s photos. The painter, for example, added mushers, dog teams and cabins to a snowy sunset scene photographed by Schultz. In another, he painted a red Cessna Skywagon over a photo of rugged snowy peaks.
In their combined 87 years with the Iditarod, Van Zyle and Schultz have had a front row seat, witnessing the evolution and growth of the race.
“The race has changed by 5,000%,” says Van Zyle. “When I ran it in the early years, it took us 25-30 days to complete. now there is airlifted straw at every checkpoint Of course the clothes have changed, then you have better communication systems with tracking devices on the sleds, and the trail is now a proper trail instead of snowshoeing in front of our dogs all day. At one point there was a pilot carrying supplies, but that was only if he made it. The rest was catch-as-catch -can.
And yet, one thing has remained the same: that sense of adventure felt not just by the mushers and their dogs, but by everyone who attends the event, from fringe spectators in Alaskan villages to readers of the new artists book, hundreds of miles away.
“I’ve been on the Iditarod trail for over 40 years and it’s a total adventure that can last a lifetime,” says Schultz. “I like being between the checkpoints, when it’s just the dog team and the scenery, and the only thing you hear is the panting of the dogs. This aspect is phenomenal. You travel through small native villages where everyone comes out to greet the mushers and dogs. On the track, you discover that glory every day for ten days in a row. It’s a disappointment once you get to Nome.”