SCoM text logo

Belfry Meeting 8th February - Iditarod Dog Sled Race - A Slide Show and Talk By Max Hall

By Elaine Donnelly

This was one of the most fascinating talks that I have attended at the Belfry and Max kept us spellbound for 2 hours.

This husky race is unlike any other event in the world. It is as tough as they come and cannot be compared to any other competitive event. The teams (12 - 16 dogs and their musher) race 1169 miles across Alaska, in March, crossing three mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon, dense forest, desolate tundra and windswept sea ice. This is frozen wilderness - there are no roads! Satellite navigation systems and mobile phones are not allowed. In fact any form of outside help results in disqualification. Add to these conditions, temperatures well below zero and wind chill! The team of huskies is not driven by reins but by spoken commands, the lead dog must understand all that is said to him and guide the others accordingly. There could be three or more highly intelligent lead dogs in a team to take turns.

Because of the arduous nature of the race, mushers have to qualify. Trials, training and getting to know the dogs takes place in the summer in Montana, and then final preparation begins. There are certain items that each team must have. Highly nutritious food for the dogs is packed into sacks; colour coded and then dropped by air at each of the checkpoints along the route. Regular changes of bootees for the dogs to protect their feet against cutting ice and hard packed snow injuries are required, musher food, snowshoes, an axe, batteries for torches and an arctic parka.

After a week of briefing, lectures and vet checks the streets of Anchorage are lined with snow for the start of the race. This however is staged for the press. The official start is when the dogs have been rested and begins further into the Alaskan range. 60-70 teams set off at two-minute intervals and hope to arrive at the finish about 20 days later.

Every musher has a different tactic. Max likes to run his dogs at night when the temperature could be 50 degrees below and then let them sleep in the sun to warm their three layers of fur.

Equal hours of running and resting (6 hours) seem to suit his dogs best. There are about 80-100 miles between checkpoints but could be 210 miles for a long stretch. There is a race official, a vet and bales of straw for the dogs. The dogs have top priority and always come first. They are fed with hot food (snow melted and boiled to provide the liquid for the dehydrated meal) supplemented with oil. There is no doctor on the entire course. At wilderness checkpoints, which are tents, the musher sleeps on the sled. As proof of human habitation there should be an orange stick every three miles to mark the route. Sick or injured dogs are left at the checkpoints to be flown to the local prison. It is a privilege for prisoners to look after these dogs until the musher's backup team arrives to collect them. After the halfway point the weaker dogs or those that are not pulling their weight are dropped off the team. The musher only needs eight dogs to race and so less dogs means much time is saved creaming their feet, replacing their bootees and feeding them.

The dogs are very excited at the start of a run - they want to race - but a 24-hour stopover is in the best interest of the dogs. There is no free ride for musher or lazy husky. When the going gets tough the musher is expected to get off the sled and push! The lead dog stops and waits for action. On a sharp bend the musher cannot see the lead dog or what is round the corner so if the team stops it could be trouble. Moose! Shooting is not allowed in Alaska and so flares are used to scare them off otherwise they will charge. The bears are still hibernating.

Once a team has reached the approach to the finish line at Cape Nome (similar to the Great Orme) there is a police escort and a sense of great achievement. The dogs are upset at the end of the race and lie sulking with their paws over their noses. They are rested at the harbour, placed in to sky kennels and flown back to Montana. These are racing dogs and like athletes cannot just stop! The summer trials begin again.

Max illustrated his talk with anecdotes thorough out the years he has been racing. There were lovely photos of the huskies, Churchill with his head in his paws, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers cuddling together, 16 dogs sleeping in a great pile, dogs completely covered in snow.

There are about 80 husky puppies born in his kennels in a year and in their first year run they race as puppies. This is for experience and is not competitive. They have a good time and the year after go into the race with enthusiasm.

The Iditarod is not just a dog sled race, it's a race in which unique men and women compete. Mushers enter from all walks of life and pit their wits along with 16 huskies against the wild Alaska. Sadly, Max has given up racing - he decided it was for the best - his back was not taking kindly to the jarring of over 1000 miles on a sled. Sadly also, Max did not bring a husky!