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A Dogged Race With sled teams mushing 1,112 miles, the Iditarod celebrates Alaska's history and makes the state even more distinctive

March 08, 2004
March 08, 2004

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March 8, 2004

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A Dogged Race With sled teams mushing 1,112 miles, the Iditarod celebrates Alaska's history and makes the state even more distinctive

On Saturday it will begin again, this mad spectacle of human and
canine endurance. Residents of Anchorage know it by the sound,
a rising swell of yelps and cries as hundreds of dogs fight
their harnesses, crazy with anticipation. For some of the
mushers in the Iditarod, especially the rookies, these are
dangerous moments. Months of training cannot prepare them for
the surge off the start line, the whipsnap of 15 or 16 dogs
following a primal directive. Make it out of the chute on
Fourth Avenue, over the ice and past the crowds sliding by like
scenery out a car window, and the worst is over. But only for a
few hours. Ahead lie two weeks of temperatures as cold as 50
below and screaming winds and little sleep.

This is an article from the March 8, 2004 issue Original Layout

To survive it, to cover more than 1,000 miles (this year's total
is 1,112) and arrive triumphantly at the finish line in the icy
outpost of Nome, is to want to do it again. So you devote your
life to it and study breeding charts and raise sled dogs and hold
second and third jobs so that you can finance your dream.

To those who haven't been up north, who see only a 10-second clip
of the Iditarod on the news or read the wallet-sized summary in
the sports section, it might not make sense. But talk to
28-year-old Aaron Burmeister, one of only two mushers from Nome
in an event increasingly populated by racers from the Lower 48
and overseas, and you'll understand not only why he does the
Iditarod but also what this event means to Alaskans.

Alaska is a state apart, both geographically and philosophically,
a place so vast and unpopulated that if you were to spread its
627,000 residents evenly across its territory, each would be
nearly a mile away from the next. Alaskan culture, long based on
hunting, fishing and tribal tradition, changed with
industrialization and then with the oil rush of the 1960s and
'70s. Today, the past and the present mesh there incongruously.
Walrus hunters return home and sit in front of PlayStations.
Teenagers in icebound villages who've never seen a black face
recite lines from Barbershop.

That's why the Iditarod matters so much. It is a reminder and
celebration of the state's history. During the late-19th-century
gold rush, dogsleds were the prospectors' main means of
transport. They linked villages, bringing in mail and supplies.
But by the mid-1960s sledding had faded away, replaced by "iron
dogs," as snowmobiles were known. So history buff Dorothy Page
teamed with racer Joe Redington to create a competition that
would honor the past and reignite the sport of sledding. The
first full-length Iditarod was run in 1973, tracing the historic
gold rush trail from Anchorage to Nome. It took nearly three
weeks for the winner, Dick Wilmarth, to reach the finish line.
(Champions now finish in nine days.) Despite being
spectator-unfriendly, the event gained momentum. In a state where
it gets so cold that, locals say, you can "pee and lean on it,"
an endurance test over hundreds of miles of desolate,
inhospitable terrain was a perfect fit.

Beginning in the late 1980s, a whole economy sprouted up around
the Iditarod. Books, magazines and movies--remember Snow Dogs (or
better yet, don't)?--brought in tourists and money, which in turn
attracted more competitors. Mushers trained year-round. In 1995
Montana's Doug Swingley became the first person from outside
Alaska to win the race, and last year Norway's Robert Sorlie
became the first person from overseas to win.

The Iditarod has changed, and not always for the better. Just ask
Joe Runyan, a onetime trapper who won the race in 1989. "It's
more ritualized now, more institutionalized," he said at last
year's Iditarod. "We had to break a lot more trail in the early
days. Before, it was more outdoorsman. Now it's more sportsman."
The race that defined an Alaskan way of life is now being defined
by those not from Alaska.

That's what makes Aaron Burmeister so important to the people of
Nome: He is a link. He was born into the sport. His father,
Richard, ran in the Iditarod twice, in 1979 and '82, finishing
41st both times. Near the end of the first race, he picked up
four-year-old Aaron, who'd come out to watch him arrive, and they
rode over the finish line together. When a radio reporter asked
Aaron what he thought of the race, the boy said, "When I'm old
enough, I'm going to do it."

From that day Aaron lived his life for one goal. Richard built
him a miniature sled, and within a year he was racing two-dog
sleds on the junior circuit. Before Aaron entered high school,
his father said: You can race the Iditarod as a senior, but only
if you promise to go on to college. So Aaron earned enough
credits to graduate in 3 1/2 years. He spent the last semester of
his senior year racing and became the first high school student
to run in the Iditarod, finishing 37th. A few months later he
enrolled at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where he got a
teaching degree. Not that he forgot about the Iditarod. "My goal
has always been to be the first musher from Nome to win," he
says. "I wanted to do it for myself, but also for Nome, to give
the community something to root for."

And what a community it is. From the air Nome looks like a small
cluster of Legos in an expanse of whiteness. It is home to 3,500
souls who brave cold, dark winters; in January the sun makes but
a four-hour daily cameo. Come Iditarod time, however, the town
becomes, as public-access talk show host Richard Benneville
describes it, "Mardi Gras with dogs." Nome's population doubles
as volunteers, fans and racing support teams flood in. There are
darts tournaments, women's arm-wrestling contests, and even ice
golf on the frozen Bering Sea. At night the bars along Front
Street are mobbed. The mushers are larger-than-life heroes. Says
Burmeister, "Kids ask me for autographs. It's like you're Michael
Jordan."

Well, Michael Jordan without the money. Burmeister funds his team
by working in the summer for a company called Quality Asphalt and
Paving. It's not easy on him or his fiancee, Mandy Michels, who
stays in Nenana, more than 450 miles from Nome, to tend to the
dogs. Aaron says he brings in about $120,000 a year--only $10,000
to $15,000 of which comes from sponsors and contributors--and
invests most of it in his team. "Within five years I hope to not
have to work in the summer," he says.

He's making progress toward that goal. Burmeister ran a young
team to a 16th-place finish last year. His goal this year is to
finish in the top 10. It will be the last year of racing for his
lead dog, eight-year-old Mojo, who has been nominated for the
Golden Harness award--given to the top lead dog--in the last two
Iditarods. It will also be the 31st year that Richard Burmeister,
now on the Iditarod board, has been be part of the event.

Barring setbacks the Burmeisters will be at the finish line
sometime in the next two weeks, paying tribute to a race that, in
these parts, is far more than a race.

For more about sports in Alaska and the other 49 states, go to
si.com/50.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF SCHULTZ/ALASKASTOCK.COM ICY STARE Musher Charlie Boulding's lead dog has the blue eyes of Siberian huskies.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF SCHULTZ/ALASKASTOCK.COM NOMEWARD BOUND Iditarod teams get a rousing send-off in Anchorage (here in 2003), then proceed in virtual solitude until reaching the finish in Nome.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF SCHULTZ/ALASKASTOCK.COM IT'S ELEMENTAL Windstorms are one of the weather hazards the dogs must take in stride.

In a state where it gets so cold that, locals say, you can "pee
and lean on it," an endurance test over desolate, inhospitable
terrain was a perfect fit.