Today, dogs with friendly faces teach us a lesson
about excellence. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
More than 1200 dogs line 4th
St. in Anchorage, Alaska. They're tuned like violin
strings and ready to run. Their yelps knife the
cold air. This is the 20th running of the Iditarod
The race begins here and ends 1160 miles to the
northwest, in Nome. The first race took 20 days in
1973. Two years ago, the winner -- a woman -- took
just over 11 days.
The word Iditarod is Indian. It means
far-away-place. The Iditarod trail was a network of
dog-sled paths around the faraway town of Iditarod.
But that's not what this race is about.
This race celebrates a life-saving mission to Nome.
In 1925, two Eskimo children died of diphtheria
there. The doctor only had a few units of serum.
Without a fresh supply, Nome faced an epidemic.
Anchorage had serum. But Anchorage might as well
have been on another planet.
Nome was ice-bound in the Bering Sea. No ship could
get in. Bush pilots couldn't fly their open-cockpit
planes in 40-below weather. A train ran from
Anchorage to Fairbanks. But from there west lay 700
miles of wilderness. Nome's only access to the
outer world was a pony-express system of dog sleds.
As diphtheria claimed more lives, doctors in
Anchorage prepared a package of serum and sent it
by train to Fairbanks, Meanwhile dog-sled mushers
choreographed a desperation run to Nome. Twenty
mushers set up dashes that would range from 20 to
90 miles in temperatures now diving to 56 below.
They got the serum through in 5½ days. They
saved Nome. No one else died. Afterward, Nome
erected a statue -- not to any musher, but to a
lead dog, Balto. Balto's trail-wise good sense had
saved the serum on the last leg of the trip.
Now I walk 4th Avenue, petting these wonderful dogs
-- these beautiful friendly beasts with their
oriental faces and glacier- blue eyes. One nuzzles
against me while I talk to a lean young Swede. He
came to Alaska 18 months ago and fell in love with
the dogs. He's running his first Iditarod race
I give the dog a last scratch under the chin. Now
he leaps to his traces for a far more grueling run
than the one he celebrates. For this is the Last
Great Race. It's a peculiar harmony of highly honed
survival technology and human aspiration -- coupled
with the special love that binds animal and human.
In the end, these splendid creatures call us down
from the strutting and posing of human athletics.
These gleeful dogs remind us that accomplishment is
worthless if it's for anything less than the sheer
joy of doing it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Schultz, J., and Sherwonit, B., Iditarod: the
Great Race to Nome. Anchorage: Alaska
Northwest Books, 1991.
See also issues of the Anchorage Times
just before and during this race, which began on
February 29, 1992.
The Iditarod race takes different routes in
alternate years. This year it goes north through
Whiskey Creek and covers 1161 miles. The other
route goes south through Iditarod and covers 1163
miles. The original serum run didn't go through
Iditarod, although it used part of the Iditarod
Trail. Unlike the mushers and dogs in the 674 mile
serum relay the ones who finish this race are the
same ones who begin it.
As this first goes to air, the 1992 race is only
four days old. Twenty percent of the entrants are
women. The race seems to be a great gender leveler.
The two favorites this year are four-time winner
Susan Butcher and five-time winner Rick Swenson.
The Swedish Rookie I spoke with was Tomas
The dogs are not pure-bred. Many of them are
Malamute husky breeds. But each musher has his own
favorites. One musher tried to race with poodles.
They did badly. By the way, every dog must return
to a checkpoint. If one tires or falls ill the
musher has to bring him in on the sled or forfeit
I can't say enough for those winsome dogs. They are
the most graceful, playful, and affectionate beasts
I've ever met. And it is they who draw mushers to
Scenes from the running of the 1992 Iditarod
Photos by John Lienhard
Stereopticon image courtesy of
An early-20th-century dog sled North of the Arctic
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of
Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
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