Bearss Blog: The evolution of the Iditarod
When I started in this sport 22 years ago, Jeff King was still celebrating his second Iditarod victory.
Dog sleds were almost universally made of wood, aluminum brackets and sheets of plastic. D-cell batteries powered the fragile incandescent filament lights that illuminated the trail for mushers. Race fans followed the standings of the race via TV news, radio broadcasts or by calling into the race headquarters.
Time and modern technological advances have changed the landscape of this race dramatically. As I mine the Internet for information on Sunday's race, I am reminded of that over and over.
Today alone, I was able to read posts from nearly a dozen family members or friends of mushers reporting stories or relaying trail conditions. Much of this information is coming through the use of cell or satellite phones. I also was able to watch multiple live broadcasts of teams coming into checkpoints and impromptu interviews as mushers minded their dog chores.
This kind of access to the race was never available until very recently. TV or radio reports would be bare bones reports of the top ten placing teams. Unless you were a family member or close friend, interest in the race waned shortly after the start and would surge again as the leaders approached the finish when local television stations would provide live coverage.
Thanks to the GPS Spot trackers, spectators can virtually fly over and watch the progress of teams minute by minute. With this technology, I’ve also been able to dig into individual race strategy and make better-educated guesses of trail conditions and weather. It’s possible now to identify if a musher is just having a super slow, problematic run or if they stopped for a rest along a run.
Prior to the Spot trackers, you would be left to wonder and worry if your musher was delayed checking into the next checkpoint. The Spot trackers aren’t without their flaws, Mitch was just seen traveling 140mph on the way to Unalakleet and there has been some concern that by having the “help” button on the sled mushers will become soft and less self-reliant.
Early headlamps were a heavy, clunky apparatus that required pounds of batteries to be shipped out on the trail and carried by the musher. Great care had to be taken for the fragile bulbs, which at a moments notice would burn out and required a change in sub-zero temperatures in the dark. It wasn’t a fun procedure and required the dexterity of a surgeon while wearing winter gloves. Even when all was functioning well with these headlamps, you were left with a beam of light that barely lit the tail end of your lead dogs.
By 2006, when I ran my first Iditarod, LED lights were becoming more and more popular and with a little McGyver work, I created my own LED light that lit the trail 20 feet in front of my leaders. Now, there are commercially produced LED lights that are bright enough to light up the trail better than most car lights. This advancement has dramatically reduced battery waste and makes mushing safer for dogs and mushers alike. Now we can see every dog in the team with crystal clear precision and identify trail obstacles and turns quicker.
When I think of how sleds have changed, the most dramatic example would be the full carbon fiber bodied sled Dallas Seavey raced last year. Gone -- but not forgotten by all -- are the days of homemade wooden sleds. Today’s sled runners are made of aircraft grade aluminum with a track that accepts runner plastics of different molecular densities engineered for different temperatures. Stanchions are now carbon fiber to provide a combination of strength and weight savings. Carbon seems to have taken over the mushing world. Beyond sled parts, there are now food ladles, axe handles and snowshoes made of carbon.
Jeff King has had a hand in innovating with the addition of the caboose to sit on while mushing. Before this, if a musher wanted to rest their feet, it required sitting on a bicycle seat cantilevering out between the sled runners distorted by the weight of the musher. Then the introduction of the tow behind trail added options for carrying gear and which Dallas perfected carrying four at a time and cycling through them on each run.
I would argue that these are four of the most significant changes in the most recent history of this race. I have little doubt we will continue to see advances.
Gladly, the one change I do not foresee is to the dogs. The Alaskan Husky is genetically an amazing machine. So much so, even the U.S. government has invested money into the study of the dogs before, during and after the race.
The Iditarod was started by Joe Redington Sr. because there was fear of the breed and the sport was being lost and replaced by the Iron Dog snowmachine.
I cannot predict Joe’s reaction to all the other innovations, but he would be proud of where the sport has gone internationally and the overall strength of the breed.
Bryan Bearss trained Iditarod race teams full time from 2003 to 2009 and raced the Iditarod in 2006 and 2015. He is currently an elementary school teacher and marathon canoe racer.
Opinions expressed are those of the author and not of KTVA 11 News.
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