YORKTON - There are numerous iconic sporting events in the world, the Tour De France an example of such an event recognizable by most, even if you are not a fan of bicycle racing.
Here in North America another iconic race is set to begin March 5, when some 50 mushers and their sled teams will begin the famed Iditarod.
“Since 1973, mushers have challenged themselves in a race nicknamed The Last Great Race on Earth®, racing each March from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska,” relates iditarod.com. “Nearly a thousand miles in length, mushers and teams travel over mountain ranges, through monotonous, flat tundra, to the western Alaskan coast and finally to the town of Nome, established when gold was discovered there in 1898.”
Interestingly, as the race is celebrating its 50th anniversary no musher from Nome has won the race.
Aaron Burmeister is hoping to change that.
Certainly the Nome racer has been in the hunt in recent years. He finished fourth in 2012, third in 2015, and was second in 2021 when he crossed the finish line in 7 days, 17 hours, 23 minutes and 5 seconds, about 3.5 hours back of top finisher Dalla Seavey.
So is this the year for Burmeister?
“It could be,” he told Yorkton This Week in a recent interview. “We’ve got an amazing dog team.”
Burmeister said the goal of any race is to finish with “a strong, healthy team,” but he added he really wants to win the famed race “and bring a victory to Nome, to be the first musher from Nome to win it.”
To accomplish the goal this year, the 50th for the race would add to the experience.
Of course every Iditarod is an experience, and for Burmeister that is a lot of experiences since he began racing the event in 1994.
“I can remember everything from that race,” he said, adding no race is like the first, but after that as a musher you start to focus on the trail, the dogs, and how to get the team performing at its peak.
“Every year there’s different challenges,” he said, noting some years it’s too warm, other years’ mushers and dogs face minus-50-60F conditions. Sometimes it’s too little snow, sometimes too much snow, this year will likely be a case of the latter.
“We’ve got more snow than we’ve had in years,” said Burmeister adding the race will of course go on. “We just mush right through it, whatever Mother Nature throws at us.”
It was a year of thin snow which created the highlight of Burmeister’s career to-date.
It was the 2015 race and the route changed taking the mushers into the community of Huslia at the halfway point of the races. Burmeister was leading the race at that point so he was the first musher into the small community.
“The community is very much a mushing community,” he said, noting Huslia is a community with a huge tradition of racing including being the home of the late George Attla a champion sprint dog musher, who won 10 Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Championships and eight North American Open championships..
A large portion of Huslia was out to welcome Burmeister.
“It was an amazing experience . . . Seeing the pride, the first for dog mushing,” he said.
While Burmeister is a veteran of the race, he notes he was actually racing before he was born.
“I was on the back of the runners (on a sleigh) in mom’s stomach when she was racing,” he said, so racing is very much a family tradition. He said many racers are second and third generation, but there are other racers who head north and pick up the sport, which has helped keep the sport vibrant.
“In Alaska it’s something that’s grown a lot the last few years,” he said, adding it’s a sport with its roots dating back to the early 1800s, with portions of the trail following old gold rush routes.
“The route that most of the race follows is a trail that was created long before the race became a race. Used by Native Alaskans for hunting and travel to various villages, the Iditarod Trail was cleared in 1908 by government employees, but it wasn’t until the 1910 gold discoveries in Iditarod which is a ghost town now, Ruby, Ophir, Flat, Nome, Elim, and other villages, that it became regularly used as a means of supplying miners and settlements with mail and supplies, delivered by dog team,” details the race’s web page. “It also provided the route for gold to be sent out of Alaska when the Bering Sea was frozen, preventing ships from reaching Nome for months at a time. Dog sled teams carried gold to the ice-free bay at Seward to be loaded on ships there.
“Before the time of airplanes delivering mail and supplies to remote Alaskan areas, dog teams did the job. Alaskan Natives had been using dog teams in their way of life, a subsistence lifestyle which depended upon hunting, fishing, and gathering to provide food. Dog teams helped them travel, carry game they hunted, and carry food and water. People who lived in and who explored Alaska used dog teams to survive and explore.”
The history of the trail is part of the allure of the Iditarod said Burmeister, noting that while there are numerous other races, some sprints only 30-40 miles, and other long distance ones such as the Yukon Quest, the big one is Anchorage to Nome.
“It’s the Indy 500 of dog races, the Super Bowl,” he said, adding it is the place to race the “dogs you bred and raised against the best dogs in the world. You get to be able to get out there with the dogs you’ve raised from puppies, that you’ve trained … And see what they can do.”
While the 2022 field will only be around 50 teams, typically 75 start the race, about 25 per cent pull out before completing the race. It’s a cruelling challenge, but racers still come from across Alaska, Canada, the lower 48 states, and even countries such as Norway and Sweden to take on the 1000 miles of snow.
Burmeister said he is ready for the challenges of the race, a couple of warm-up 300-mile races under their belts to sharpen the team “ahead of the main event,” and he does hope to carry a win home to Nome when the final flag waves later in March.