Early on the March 4 start day on a frozen lake, the clamor of mushers, veterinarians, race officials, and large crowds of dog-loving spectators had started in earnest for the world's longest sled-dog race – the Iditarod. The focus through the fray was the true heroes of the race: the dogs.
Words were lost in the increasing air of excitement as dogs were harnessed by the racers. But the wordless bonds were visible: Paws were "bootied," and kisses and ear-scratches bestowed, last minute, on the canine athletes who were leaping and pulling at the parked sleds, eager to get moving.
This love fest is the annual kickoff of the grueling 1,150-mile odyssey that guarantees challenge, triumph, and heartbreak as it winds through the Alaskan interior. This year only 58 of 82 starting teams finished – the last arriving in Nome in Friday after 16-1/2 days. One musher was disqualified for beating his dog team – adding to a controversy, complicated by the unexplained death of one of his dogs, that has brought increased scrutiny from animal rights groups who consider mushing a cruel dog sport.
The popularity of the sport in this sled-dog-crazy state – where mushing has its roots in indigenous Arctic cultures – is often at odds with what gets magnified in news reports in the lower 48, say locals. Unbecoming epithets about the Iditarod – like "Ihurtadog" – are unfair, they say.
"[Sled] dogs are just as excited to run as a Lab is to retrieve," says four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, speaking of sled-dog breeding for endurance, strength, and speed. If a dog doesn't want to pull a sled, it won't, he says. Further, according to official race criteria, a sled dog must "demonstrate a willingness to be harnessed and desire to participate in the activity for which it is harnessed" to be considered for the race.
The average one to two dog deaths per Iditarod must be put in context, adds Mr. Buser. With more than 1,000 dogs starting the Iditarod every year, he figures, "that's an acceptable level of risk. We haven't figured out how to avoid human deaths in sports, but we're not gonna stop [playing] sports."
Nor is he gonna keep those dogs from pulling, except at mandatory checkpoints along the trail, where every dog receives a physical examination by an official race vet.
Iditarod champion Lance Mackey best summed up the athletic prowess of the dogs after winning the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race in 2005: "They was all waggin' their tails ... they actually started barking to go," even though the race was over.