The 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual event celebrating Alaska and the irrepressible spirit of its canine athlete teams. Held the first full weekend in March, the Iditarod is a longtime favorite of winter visitors to Alaska, and a symbol of the Last Frontier’s dedication to its people. Of course you all know about the 1925 Serum Run, whereby teams of sled dogs and their mushers had to fight horrible weather, deep snow, and treacherous trail to bring needed diphtheria serum to the community of Nome, nearly a thousand miles away. Planes couldn’t fly — the weather was too bad. Trains could only run north or south from Fairbanks or Anchorage to the town of Nenana. So that’s where teams met the serum and hauled it north and west to Nome.
In the 1960’s, many “sourdough” (old timers) Alaskans felt that the traditional ways of life in the Last Frontier were dwindling. Snow machines were replacing dogs, and modern conveniences were making people “too soft.” So in 1973, after hours of work and weeks of clearing sections of the Iditarod Trail’s historical routes, the first race was run, with the winner, Dick Wilmarth, reaching Nome in three weeks (by comparison, top teams can take less than 10 days).
Today’s Iditarod is all that spunk and more, with a ceremonial start still held in Anchorage, no matter what. For families young and old, it’s a chance to be part of a cacophony of noise, sights, and smells (no kidding), and for most of us, we wouldn’t miss it.
So where can a family catch the teams as they trot by during the ceremonial start? I have my favorite places and several well-practiced tricks that have guaranteed a fun day that is, truly, all about the dogs and the people who love them.
WHEN: The race kicks off at 10 a.m. on 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage. Teams will depart every two minutes after. The first teams are, however, the winner of Junior Iditarod and a ceremonial team representing the old-school sleds and serum run of 1925.
WHERE: Downtown is cool, but so, so crowded for kids, so if you must be in the middle of the action, head to Cordova Street and farther south from 4th Avenue. The views are great, lots of kids are there, and mushers are happy to slap a high five or fist bump. Other good spots:
- Alaska Native Medical Center/U-Med area. Park in the vast parking lots, be prepared to walk a bit toward University Lake and surrounding trails. Matson shipping company will be there with goodies, and the general access for families is good, especially those with littles. Hint: The sharp turn into the tunnel near the medical center and University Lake junction is always a tricky one, and some teams have trouble, so watch carefully!
- Campbell Tract. <—– This is my favorite. Not only will you have nearly-endless forest to walk through, you’ll also have several areas of quiet trail where teams and their Ididarider can relax, chat, and get out of the frenzy. Follow the Old Rondy Trail, being careful to pay attention to volunteers keeping an eye out for teams, and duck into the forest. Stay away from the trail at all times, and tell kids, too. Teams cannot stop quickly and it would be a bummer to cause a crash because you weren’t paying attention.
- Campbell Airstrip. Still part of the Campbell Tract, the Airstrip needs its own category because it is simply the best place to “Tail-gate” or “Trail-gate.” Heh. Grab a shuttle from Abbott Loop Community Park or Kassun Elementary, bring a picnic, warm drinks, sleds, skis, or snowshoes, and get dropped off at the top of the airstrip. Set up camp along the trail and watch teams come in for the first day’s finish. It’s relaxed, it’s fun, and the photo ops are incredible.
- Find the Campbell Tract shuttle schedule HERE. <—- The first teams show up in this area around 10:30 a.m. The last teams arrive around 1 p.m. KEY: Download and print this map! Staff from the Campbell Creek Science Center will also be on hand with race info and the center will be open from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. for warm-ups.
WHAT TO WEAR: Saturday, March 7, 2020 looks to be warmer, with snow showers and temps rising into the 20’s (F). Dress for standing around, for kids to dig in the snow and get wet, and for easy access to food, beverages, and camera shutter buttons. Bring handwarmers, cocoa, and extras for all.
WHAT TO LEAVE AT HOME: Do not bring your dog. Seriously. You think your pup is a well-mannered thing? Great. But sled dogs are generally not. Your dog won’t even care. Trust me. If a diversion or worse, a fight, breaks out between your dog and a sled dog, it won’t be pretty.
EXTRAS: Check out this really cool opportunity provided by BLM and the Campbell Creek Science Center. Become an Agent of Discovery and win a prize! (see instructions above.)
For littles, see if they can solve this AKontheGO scavenger hunt while along the trail!
Enjoy, and celebrate the spirit of Alaska!