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Honoring the Dogs of the Iditarod

March 9, 2011


Kotzebue’s John Baker wins the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Not only did he win in a record time of 8 days, 18 hours and 46 minutes, he is the first Inupiaq to win the race in its 39 year history! Baker and his dogs had to travel over 100 miles a day to win in record time. Congratulations to these amazing dogs and their driver! As the Fairbanks Daily News Miner puts it: “Baker [and his dogs I would add], who has been a top-10 finisher for many years, always appeared to have that extra edge that would someday make him a champion. This year, he fulfilled the hopes of many people across Alaska by proving it. And while he might have enjoyed good conditions, he nonetheless was breaking new trail.”


The Iditarod trail race is underway in Alaska and it’s a good time to remember both the athletes of the competition and the reason for the commemorative race. Unlike the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race that traces an imagined Gold Rush legacy from Whitehorse, Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska, the Iditarod follows a much more microbial route, starting in Anchorage and running to Nome. It is also known as “The Great Serum Run” and marks not only a chapter of Alaskan history, but also the beginnings of a modern global connection to the North American Arctic. The industrial production of antibiotics was just getting underway in the early 1900s when Diphtheria hit the remote coastal community of Nome (a community built around mining) and the telegraph was an up and coming communication technology that allowed a new sense of national unity that encompassed the far-flung reaches of the United States and Territories. New Yorkers, especially, followed the running of the serum up from Seattle to Anchorage by boat and then across the snowy wilds of Alaska by dog sled with baited breath, dispatches from each checkpoint bringing both the antibodies closer to the infection center and the remote territory closer to a national body. If you visit Central Park, you will find a statue of Balto, the lead dog for the team that made the last leg into Nome, in a blizzard no less (as the story goes). There is also an older history sedimented in the trail that we cannot overlook. The trail was in use by Athabaskans, Yup’ik and Inupiat long before settlers came on the scene and turned the route into a performance of nationality.

There is more to be said about the histories of imported diseases, colonial mining operations, and national amnesias in Alaska, but for now, let’s salute the heroes of the trail, the dogs who love to run and their humans who love their dogs. The following is a picture of four-time defending champion Lance Mackey and one of his beloved runners:


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