Welcome to Alaska, a state well known for its foreboding mountain ranges, endless tundra, impenetrable forest and rugged coastline. Its terrain is challenging, even for the best equipped motor vehicles, but it offers an altogether tougher challenge for those wishing to cross the country by sled.
But gruelling terrain doesn't stop scores of teams arriving in Alaska every year to compete in its annual Iditarod race. Battling sub-zero termpatures, visibility-impairing winds and long hours of darkness, mushers and their dog teams must navigate over 1,000 miles as quickly as they can in bid to win what is generally agreed to be the toughest race on earth.
Starting in the south-central town of Anchorage and working cross-country to Nome on the west coast, the Iditarod Trail began life as a mail and supply route in the 18th century, running from the coastal towns to the interior settlements where many were mining for gold.
Dogs were an indispensable part of life in Alaska during the long, cold winters, and the mushers who drove and cared for them were considered local heroes for the tough conditions they battled. But with the invention of the snowmobile, mushing began to slip from the forefront of Alaskan life until 1973, when Joe Redington Sr decided that this great tradition and the huskies that went with it were worth saving.
"A challenge not to be taken on lightly"
The Iditarod Trail has been raced every year since and today, as when it started, it is not a challenge to be taken on lightly. It takes mushers a full year to prepare for such a race, putting hundreds of hours into training dogs, raising money for equipment and getting into physical shape.
Each team is made up of one musher and at least 12 dogs, or a maximum of 16. At least 5 dogs must remain to pull the sled by the end of the race, with the rest of the pack riding on the back of the sled with the musher.
The Iditarod's cermonial start takes place in downtown Anchorage, this year on March 4, before participants prepare for the restart, or 'official start' which is scheduled for March 6 in Fairbanks. With 73 teams registered for the race this year, and all 10 of last year's top 10 finishers, the 45th Iditarod promises to be nothing short of heart-stopping.
Once the race begins, the teams are on their own. Leaving Fairbanks behind, they will head away from the highways and out in Skwentna before making their way up through Finger Lake, Rainy Pass and over the Alaska Range. Over the other side of the range, they will meet the Kuskokwim River and eventually the Yukon, a highway which guides the teams through the arctic tundra and on to the west coast.
It can take mushers as little as nine days to get their dog teams across the 1,000-mile course. The current record for the fastest time is eight days, 11 hours, 20 minutes and 16 seconds, set in 2016 by Dallas Seavey.
Most spectactors flock to Fairbanks, where the race is set to officially begin, and which provides easy accessibility coupled with plenty of accommodation options. Visitors can choose between regular flights from all over America, as well as train services or private vehicles, whilst hotels and Airbnb make it easy to find the right room for you.
February in Fairbanks is also a haven for children and parents. As well as reindeer sightings and a chance of glimpsing the Northern Lights, the city also welcomes the BP World Ice Art Championships, which always puts on an incredible display of sculptures and play structures all made from ice.
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