Iditarod and Kids: “Woof, Ruff, Yippeee!”

I remember a story in my fourth grade reader about the Serum Run to Nome during the great diptheria outbreak of 1925. Balto and his fellow pups became forever etched in my mind that day, so when AK Fam made the big move to Alaska in 2005, my first order of business was to introduce my own kids to the magic of sled dogs, mushing, and the Last Great Race: Iditarod.

What I had thought was all about danger and frostbitten paws and one dog turned out to be a teensy bit inaccurate, according to the folks in the know at Iditarod HQ, my first online stop in a quest to understand this whole Far North form of transportation.  The Iditarod (trail) has actually been around since the 1800’s (and even before, with portions used by Native Alaskans), when miners needed a route to punch through the mountains for trading purposes. The whole Iditarod Sled Dog Race began as the brainchild of one Dorothy Page, who wanted to honor mushers with an event just for them. In 1967, with the help of Joe Reddington, Sr. (the holy father of Iditarod), the very first event was held in Anchorage, covered a mere 25miles, and awarded a purse of $25,000. Over the years, Idit has undergone growing and shrinking pains, with society changing and mushers ever-evolving, but the basic premise for recognizing Alaska’s signature sport remains the same. It’s about the connections among dogs, people, and a host of communities, and that’s reason enough for us.

Did you know thousands of people place viewing an Iditarod race on their bucket lists? The race is attracting more than the grownups among us to Alaska each winter; a healthy cadre of kids, too, are begging their moms and dads to please, please, take them to the race. Why? It should be rather obvious, shouldn’t it? Kids-plus-dogs-equals-happiness, all around. We like our kids happy, even more so when their eyes fairly sparkle at the prospect of hearing a team of 22 dogs shriek with delight at the starting line. It’s loud, it’s crazy, it’s excellent fun, and it’s perfect for kids.

Everybody's excited to leave the starting line at Iditarod 2010

Dates: The Iditarod is held the first weekend of March, every year, so for those of you with dog-crazy kids (usually these end up being little girls, for some reason), start planning now for 2013. You’ll need at least a week in southcentral Alaska to experience the race from prep to start, with a little extra fun thrown in. Remember; the Ceremonial Start (when more money is raised and the community of Anchorage gets to cheer and whoop and holler) is in downtown Anchorage on the first Saturday; the Official Start (more serious, a little less showy, and the real-deal) is the first Sunday on the ice of Willow Lake, 60-ish miles north from Anchorage.

Strategies: Begin your Iditarod experience by corraling Salmon Berry Tours in Anchorage for a dog-mushing immersion day. Candice and her experienced group of guides will set you up with a day that goes to the dogs, for sure. Meet a musher and his/her family; learn about the history, equipment, and skills necessary to raise, train, and run a team of dogs the long, desolate 1,110 miles from Anchorage to Nome; then take a spin on a sled, feeling the incredible power of up to 88 legs trotting along the trail. It’s a great introduction to the sport and gives kids a bit of empathy toward mushers and their team.

Children share play equipment with pelts at Willow Community Center on Official Start day

On Ceremonial Start day, be on 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage by 8 a.m. to catch mushers’ arrival and set-up. Race Committee officials will gate the street around 8:30 a.m., but that early in the morning, it’s still quite possible to chat with mushers, meet their dogs, and give a few high-fives in exchange for autographs in the Mushing Guidebook. You will notice, however, that downtown becomes quite choked with people, so we usually bolt for quieter streets of Cordova, Northern Lights, and Tudor/Bragaw streets (don’t worry, a map lays all this out for you). We also enjoy spending the afternoon at Campbell Creek Science Center, the finish line for this day (a total distance of around 11 miles). Science Center staff and Iditarod volunteers provide directions, a shuttle, hot chocolate, and some kid-friendly activities in the building. This is the spot to watch with children; plenty of space to roam and play in the snow in between teams, and lots of supervision everywhere you look. We always bring a picnic and thermos of hot drinks to sustain us along the forested trails, and feel quite like we’ve stepped back to the 1800’s.

It's a great day for racing!

Next morning, be up and on the way to Willow by 7 a.m. for the Official Start. Depending upon weather, the drive can take up to two hours. Or, do like many happy race-watchers and head up to our favorite Talkeetna Roadhouse the night before and enjoy hospitality, good food, and a shuttle to the Official Start on Sunday. Salmon Berry Tours also offers transportation from Anchorage with their Iditarod package, but this trip fills up early, so plan ahead! Bring extra clothes, food, drinks, and sleds, snowshoes, or Nordic skis, since Willow Lake is perfect for a little winter recreation while watching teams fly by. The Willow Community Center is open for bathrooms and a little craft fair, and kids always play on the playground amongst fur pelts and the cotton candy truck. This is a decidedly different experience from Anchorage, and we love it to death. Plan to spend several hours watching and listening to the cacophony; it’s worth it.

We listed lodging and dining options in our post last week about Fur Rendezvous, the precursor to Iditarod and Anchorage’s signature wintertime event. As then, do make arrangements well in advance for Iditarod weekend.

DO tune in to the Alaska Travelgram Show today; Erin McLarnon, Communications Director for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race will be joining us in the studio to elaborate on all things Idit. We’re quite looking forward to chatting with Erin, and hope you’ll join us on KOAN 95.5 FM, 1020 AM, or streamed live at 1020koan.com.

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