Rich and Poor in Palermo

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race pushes participants to the brink on an unforgiving trek to the end of the world. And, as one writer who tracked the race by air discovers, that is exactly the point.

Writing: Amanda Haxton
Photography: Christopher Smith

A Lot of Ways to Die

Prologue

For the mushers of the Iditarod, the Farewell Burn, as the region became known, was a nightmare. The race had been founded only four years earlier, as a way to commemorate the importance of sled dogs to Alaska. Large expanses of the state had, for much of its history, been unreachable by other forms of transportation. Now dog teams were forced to navigate through blackened stumps and fallen limbs, along a trail that was often impossible to follow. Many years, the Burn accumulated little precipitation. Sleds intended for snow and ice had to be dragged across hardened mud and gravel. Runners broke; tree shards snagged tug lines; speeds dropped to 3 or 4 miles per hour.

In 1984, the Alaska Bureau of Land Management cut a swath for a better trail. But even then, a seasoned musher could need 12 hours or more to cross from Rohn to Nikolai, the checkpoints on either side of the Burn — a passage that would frequently be made in darkness, through heavy wind and extreme, subzero cold. The novelist Gary Paulsen, who ran the Iditarod twice in the 1980s, describes the Burn as a place where mushers literally go mad. “It was beyond all reason,” Paulsen writes in his Iditarod memoir Winterdance. “I entered a world of mixed reality and dreams, peopled with the most bizarre souls and creatures …” At one point he thinks he’s on a beach in California; at another he pulls out a real ax to fend off

Moose are found throughout Alaska and are often seen during the Iditarod. Dog teams often use trails also occupied by moose, which can lead to attacks.Illustration by Jack Unruh

an attack from an imaginary moose. When he comes to, his dogs have vanished; he’s alone in the landscape. He stumbles across them 100 yards away. He has built a fire and bedded them down without knowing it.

The Iditarod Trail runs across the Burn for around 35 miles of its total length. The total length of the Iditarod Trail is more than 1,000 miles. The Burn is not the most difficult section.

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