Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Since we celebrated Seward's Day in Alaska this week, I thought I would add some Alaska history about the Iditarod Trail. There were about 30 serious gold rushes in Alaska between 1880 and 1914, and they were a major part of the history of Alaska. The last old-fashioned, frontier-style gold rush in the United States came to life at Iditarod in 1909. Iditarod was located 629 trail miles west of the future site of Anchorage and half the distance to Nome. In 1910 Iditarod briefly became the largest city in Alaska with about 10,000 people. There were several banks and hotels as well as a newspaper, all of which were supplied by boat service up tributaries of the Yukon River, including the Iditarod River. By the early 1920's, settlers were streaming to Alaska by boat to Seward and Knik, two coastal towns; then they traveled by land to the gold fields. They followed a trail that is now known as the Iditarod Trail, which is one of the National Historic Trails designated by the United States Congress. The original Iditarod Trail started at Seward and wound along Turnagain Arm through the area known as Girdwood, over Crow Pass, down the uninhabited Eagle River Valley and northward to the tiny trading post of Knik. After leaving Knik, the trail went west through the wooded valleys of the Susitna and Yentna Rivers, climbed over Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range, and went across the Kuskokwim Valley to the hills west of McGrath to the town of Ophir. From Ophir, the trail went southwest through the Kuskokwim Mountains to the town of Iditarod. From there it went northwest to the Yukon River and then directly north to Kaltag. At Kaltag the trail went back southwest along the 90-mile Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet. From there it went north and then west through Shaktoolik, Koyuk, and Golovin. About fifty miles out of Nome, the trail dropped down to the beach and ended on Front Street in Nome. The Iditarod Trail soon became a way to travel through Alaska and was used to carry mail and people from place to place as well as transporting supplies. In the winter, the only means of travel was by dog team, particularly for judges, ministers and priests who traveled from one village to another. Dog teams were the standard mode of transportation for many years. When the gold mining began to lessen, the people went back to their homes, and there was far less travel along the Iditarod Trail. In the late 1920's airplanes began carrying the mail and passengers. The appearance of the snowmobile in Alaska ended the use of dog teams, and people soon forgot about the Iditarod Trail and the important part of Alaskan history played by dog teams. In the late 1960's, the late Dorothy G. Page, a resident of Wasilla, recognized that Alaskans needed to remember the importance of the Iditarod Trail and the dog teams that traveled along it. She presented an idea for a race along the Iditarod Trail to Joe Redington, Sr., a dog musher who lived in the Knik area. Redington and his wife liked the idea and helped promote the first Iditarod Race, which was held in 1967 and covered the first twenty-seven miles of the Iditarod Trail. A $25,000 purse was offered in that race. A second race was held in 1969. The organizers planned to have the race go to the ghost town of Iditarod in 1973. When the US Army reopened the trail as a winter exercise in 1972, the decision was made to take the race to Nome, a distance of more than 1,000. There were many people who thought that it couldn't be done and that it was ridiculous to send a bunch of mushers out into the Alaskan wilderness. The race took place, and twenty-two mushers finished that race. Since 1973, over 400 mushers have finished traveling the Iditarod Trail to Nome. Mushers have come from Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Japan, Austria, Austrailia, Swe3den, and the Soviet Union as well as about twenty different states in this nation. Dorothy Page is known as the "mother of the Iditarod," and Joe Redington is known as its "father." There are a couple of interesting traditions with the Iditarod Race. One tradition is the "Red Lantern" which is awarded to the last musher arriving in Nome. This tradition started as a joke but has become a symbol of "stick-to-itiveness" to people in mushing circles. The other tradition is the "Widow's Lamp." When sled dogs were freighting and carrying mail along the Iditarod Trail, the mushers relied on the roadhouses located between the villages. Word was relayed along the trail that a musher was coming so a kerosene lamp was lit and hung outside the roadhouse. The lamp was not extinguished until the musher arrived safely at his destination. Following this tradition, the Iditarod Trail Committee lights a "Widow's Lamp" at 10:00 a.m. on the first Sunday in March at the trail's end in Nome. The lamp is attached to the Burled Arch, the official finish line, and remains there until the last racer reaches Nome. The extinguishment of the "Widow's Lamp" signals the official end of the Iditarod Race each year. When my children were in elementary school, they would each choose a musher to "follow" along the Iditarod Trail, and we went to downtown Anchorage several times to see the ceremonial start of the race. The official start of the race takes place in Wasilla the following day. This year our oldest daughter had the opportunity to ride on a friend's sled for the first few blocks of the race, and her friend won the "rookie of the year" award this year.