Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Wikipedia.
Related to Iditarod: Iditarod Trail


Iditarod (īdĭtˈərŏdˌ), abandoned town in SW Alaska, site of a 1908 gold rush, on the Iditarod River. The town site and river lie on the Iditarod National Historic Trail, 2,350 mi (3,781 km) long, a gold-seekers' route from Seward to Nome (see National Parks and Monuments, table), and on the route of the Iditarod Race, an annual dogsled competition that runs 1,160 mi (1,868 km) from Anchorage to Nome. The race commemorates a medical mission undertaken by dog sled during a 1925 diphtheria epidemic. First held in 1973, the Iditarod is run in March and draws some 50 drivers and teams, with the winner taking 9–11 days to complete the course.


See G. and L. Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic (2003).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: Begins first Saturday in March
Where Celebrated: Alaska
Symbols and Customs: Red Lantern, Sled Dog Teams, Widow's Lamp


Each year on the first Saturday in March, dozens of the fastest SLED DOG TEAMS in the world assemble in Anchorage, Alaska. They come to participate in the Iditarod, a sporting event that has been called "the last great race on earth." The contest starts promptly at 10:00 a.m., when the racers and their teams of dogs begin their 1,150-mile dash across some of the most rugged terrain in the United States, all the while enduring the coldest weather this continent has to offer. The race ends in Nome, Alaska. These days most teams take anywhere between ten and seventeen days to complete the race.

The Iditarod race follows a close approximation of what was once the old Iditarod Trail. The trail takes its name from the small town of Iditarod, which lies along its route. In 1909, Iditarod was the site of the last gold rush in Alaska. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sled dog teams carried mail, people, and supplies to the towns, villages, and mining camps along this 1,000-mile course. The Alaskan settlers learned how to use dogs for this purpose from the Native American peoples. In those days the average sled dog driver, or "musher," ran a team of about twenty dogs and carried with him a half a ton or more of freight. So important was the Iditarod Trail to the settling of Alaska that the U.S. Congress has named it one of the National Historic Trails.

With the arrival of airplanes in Alaska in the 1920s, the need for sled dog teams began to fade. What's more, the population in some of the old mining towns had dwindled as the days of the Alaskan Gold Rush faded further into memory. Nevertheless, some hardy Alaskans still kept sled dog teams for short runs in remote areas. In the 1960s the arrival of the snowmobile in Alaska dealt a death blow to the custom of sled dog transport.

In 1967 a woman named Dorothy Page, a planner for the Alaska Centennial Celebration, planned the first Iditarod race. Concerned that Alaskans might soon forget this important part of their history and heritage, she arranged for a short sled dog race to be run along a part of the old Iditarod Trail. A similar race was run again in 1969. In the years that followed, with the help of the army, work began on clearing the full length of the Iditarod Trail. In 1973 the full-length race, from Anchorage to Nome, was run for the first time. The course was still so rugged that supplies could not be stored along the way, so each sled carried everything the racer and the dogs would need. The winner took three weeks to cross the finish line.

The decision to set the course of the race along the old Iditarod Trail not only paid tribute to its role in the settling of Alaska, but also to an important event in Alaskan history. In the winter of 1925 an outbreak of diphtheria threatened the town of Nome, Alaska. The local doctors found that they did not have the serum needed to cure this lethal disease. Fresh serum was located in Anchorage, but the winter weather made it too risky for pilots to fly. Moreover, the coastal city of Nome was located so far to the north that it was icebound during the winter and impossible to reach by boat. The authorities decided that the only way to get the serum to Nome was to send it by sled dog team.

The serum traveled the first leg of the journey, from Anchorage to Nenana, by train. After that, twenty mushers and more than 160 dogs transported the serum the rest of the way, passing it from one team to another like a baton in a relay race. In 127 hours, or about six days, the serum traveled 700 miles, directly to the door of Dr. Welch in Nome, Alaska. The brave men and dogs that ran this race did it in temperatures that rarely rose above forty degrees below zero, in winds that sometimes blew the dogs and the sled right off the trail, and in the murk and darkness of the long nights and short days of an Alaskan winter. The icy weather claimed the lives of four of the dogs and crippled several others, but all of the mushers survived. The event was reported across the United States and the lead dogs in the team that ran the last leg into Nome became temporarily famous. Today you can still see a statue that was erected to one of them-Balto-in New York City's Central Park. Today's Iditarod race pays tribute to this earlier, life-saving race, sometimes called the "great serum run."

The Iditarod is run along a slightly different course in even and odd numbered years. This gives different towns along the trail the chance to participate in what has become an important commemoration of Alaskan history, as well as a significant moneymaking event.

The first races attracted local Alaskans, many of whom were among the few people left in the state who still knew how to run sled dogs and survive in the tough conditions the trail had to offer. As the fame of the Iditarod spread, it attracted mushers from the lower forty-eight states as well as foreign countries. Nowadays more than sixty teams compete each year. The first place winner takes home a purse of around $75,000. Significant cash awards also go to those who finish in the other top twenty places. Everyone else who finishes receives $1,049, to help defray the costs of returning home.


Red Lantern

Race organizers award a red lantern to the musher and team that cross the finish line last. The first red lantern award for a last place finish in a sled dog racing competition was awarded in the Fur Rendevous Race in 1953. Although it began as a joke, the red lantern prize has come to symbolize the sheer endurance that characterizes all long distance sled dog racers.

Sled Dog Teams

Each musher runs a team of twelve to sixteen dogs. Many mushers breed and train sled racing dogs throughout the year. Hardy northern breeds, like huskies and malamutes, are among the mushers' favorite animals, but many top racing dogs are mutts. In the early years of the race, harsh conditions led to the deaths of a number of dogs. In more recent years, regulations aimed at protecting the dogs and humans that run the race have made dog deaths a more rare occurrence. For example, mushers are required to provide booties for their dogs' feet and must submit all of their dogs to a number of veterinarian checks along the course of the race. To ensure that the dogs are properly fed, mushers send food for themselves and their dogs on ahead to various stopping points along the route.

Widow's Lamp

In the days when sled dog teams carried mail and freight to many of Alaska's remote towns and villages, a series of roadhouses along the sled dog routes provided safe havens for the mushers and their dogs. When word reached the roadhouse that a team had set out in their direction, a kerosene lamp was lit and hung outside to guide the musher and his dogs safely to their destination. The lamp also signaled the local people that there was a sled dog team out on the trail. The lamp was not extinguished until the musher and his team had arrived safely and taken shelter.

To honor this old Alaskan tradition, Iditarod organizers light a kerosene lamp in Nome at the time the race begins. This beacon, known as the Widow's Lamp, is hung on the burled arch that serves as the finishing line of the race. Race organizers keep it burning until the very last racer has crossed the finish line.


Beeman, Susan. "The Iditarod." Alaska Geographic. Vol. 28, No. 4, 2001. Miller, Debbie S. The Great Serum Race. New York: Walker and Company, 2002.


The Official Site of the Iditarod
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
References in periodicals archive ?
This past week, she finished her 18th Iditarod, placing fourth after holding the lead for a large portion of the early race.
"This is a really low-tech event when you look at it from that perspective, but high-tech research has always been a huge part of the race," he said Wednesday during a tour of the Iditarod's hotel command post.
Alaska Mushing School is "a small group of professional dog mushers who have raced in distances from 100 to 1,000 miles, from the Iditarod to the Yukon Quest to the Kuskokwim 300 and more." They offer sled dog rides all year, including in the summer and fall.
"The Iditarod Trail Committee believes that the highest level of dog care must be achieved not only in its event but throughout the year," officials with the Iditarod Trail Committee said at the time. Neff won the Quest twice, in 2012 and 2016.
The roots of the Iditarod can be found in the winter of 1925, in a race called the "Great Race of Mercy." That year, many children in Nome were suffering from diphtheria, a highly contagious respiratory disease.
Iditarod veteran Each year, the husky-sled race crosses 1,000 miles of jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast.
She said after that initial experience, she crossed the Iditarod off her bucket list and put it on her to-do list.
The 2016 Iditarod was delayed because too little snow had fallen at the starting line in Anchorage.
Mineral Mountain (MMV-TSX.V), a publicly traded mining company, has acquired the Iditarod Gold project located 35 miles from the Donlin Creek gold project held by Novagold and Barrick Gold in the Kuskokwim Gold Belt of Southwest Alaska.
Critique: A superbly crafted mystery replete with unexpended twists and turns, "Murder on the Iditarod Trail" clearly denotes author Sue Henry as a master of the mystery/suspense novel and flair for keeping a reader's total and rapt attention from first page to last.
About 500 dogs have been rescued, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member Vern Halter, a former Iditarod musher.
For only the second time in its 42-year history, this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was forced to change its course due to dangerous conditions in some areas caused by a lack of snow.