“One Iditarod” to the Northwest

When traveling north, many people, past and present, have undergone transformations to their character and outlook on life. Arctic explorers, past and present, feel the call of the north. Many mushers talk about how racing the Iditarod is a transformative experience.  The Iditarod Trail winds from Anchorage, northwest across interior Alaska, through mountains and along the Yukon River, and northwest into Nome. My route from Houston to Anchorage also followed a northwesterly trajectory.  Let’s explore more about going northwest.

As I flew from Texas, first to Minneapolis, and then to Anchorage, Alaska, I felt that I was leaving one world behind and entering another.  My flight lifted off from a newly greening landscape. As the earth passed beneath my airplane, the green turned to brown, and then white.  By the time the plane landed in Minneapolis, the land was covered in snow.  Already, the air was more crisp.  Anchorage has been blanketed with multiple layers of snow so far this winter. I was in a world of ice, slush, low clouds, evergreens dripping with snow–a far different landscape than the one I left.

Driving across an icy Alaska landscape. 2/20/24 Photo: K. Newmyer

Over the centuries, many explorers and settlers reached for northern lands of ice. Since the fifteenth century, explorers have been searching for “the northwest passage,” a sea route from Greenland to Alaska across the top of Canada. Travelers like John Muir came to Alaska to experience and write about the snowy landscape. When gold was discovered along the Yukon River in 1896, thousands of people came to Alaska to try to get rich–or at the very least, begin an exciting new life.  Many of this year’s mushers grew up in other places besides Alaska, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Idaho. They had to travel northwest to Alaska to make their Iditarod dream come true. 

When you go to a new place, you experience new things and have to overcome new challenges.  It is like this with mushers and their dogs during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  The route winds mostly northwest. This year, they will travel the northern route, which stops at old mining communities like Ruby, where gold was discovered in 1907, and Cripple, which marks the halfway point of the northern route. The first musher to reach Cripple wins a halfway trophy and gold nuggets.  Galena is the northernmost point on the this route, where lead sulfate ore was found, giving the town its name.  As the mushers travel northwest, they enter new lands and encounter new challenges until they reach Nome, their final destination, situated on the Bering Sea.

View of the long climb from the Yukon River to the checkpoint in Ruby. Photo: Iditarod Media

Look on a map and find a road or highway that goes northwest. Can you trace a route that takes you 975 miles (the distance of the northern route according to Zuma) away from your school or home? Where would you end up? Research what it’s like there. Even if your route ends in the middle of a lake or ocean, you can still find out about the environment.  What kind of plants grow there? What kind of animals live there? What is the climate like? Would you still be in your own state or country, or in a new one? What are the people like? What interesting history does the place have, and what fun activities can  you do there?  What challenges would you have to overcome? 

As you research a location that is “one Iditarod” northwest of your home, think about how traveling to this place by dog team would challenge and transform you. What would you see along the way?  Would you have to cross any rivers? Go over mountains?  What new things would you have to do, such as wear different clothes or eat new foods? For example, I traded my sandals for snow boots and street tacos for moose chili! I drove on an ice road for the first time. 

The road made of ice. 2/20/24 Photo: K. Newmyer

Traveling to a new place is always an exciting prospect–whether you are in an airplane, armchair, or dogsled. The Iditarod can help us understand how it feels to travel northwest and experience a new part of the world. Where will your “one Iditarod” to the northwest take you? Email me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com.