On Saturday it will begin again, this mad spectacle of human and canine endurance. Residents of Anchorage know it by the sound, a rising swell of yelps and cries as hundreds of dogs fight their harnesses, crazy with anticipation. For some of the mushers in the Iditarod, especially the rookies, these are dangerous moments. Months of training cannot prepare them for the surge off the start line, the whipsnap of 15 or 16 dogs following a primal directive. Make it out of the chute on Fourth Avenue, over the ice and past the crowds sliding by like scenery out a car window, and the worst is over. But only for a few hours. Ahead lie two weeks of temperatures as cold as 50 below and screaming winds and little sleep.
To survive it, to cover more than 1,000 miles (this year's total is 1,112) and arrive triumphantly at the finish line in the icy outpost of Nome, is to want to do it again. So you devote your life to it and study breeding charts and raise sled dogs and hold second and third jobs so that you can finance your dream.
To those who haven't been up north, who see only a 10-second clip of the Iditarod on the news or read the wallet-sized summary in the sports section, it might not make sense. But talk to 28-year-old Aaron Burmeister, one of only two mushers from Nome in an event increasingly populated by racers from the Lower 48 and overseas, and you'll understand not only why he does the Iditarod but also what this event means to Alaskans.
Alaska is a state apart, both geographically and philosophically, a place so vast and unpopulated that if you were to spread its 627,000 residents evenly across its territory, each would be nearly a mile away from the next. Alaskan culture, long based on hunting, fishing and tribal tradition, changed with industrialization and then with the oil rush of the 1960s and '70s. Today, the past and the present mesh there incongruously. Walrus hunters return home and sit in front of PlayStations. Teenagers in icebound villages who've never seen a black face recite lines from Barbershop.
That's why the Iditarod matters so much. It is a reminder and celebration of the state's history. During the late-19th-century gold rush, dogsleds were the prospectors' main means of transport. They linked villages, bringing in mail and supplies. But by the mid-1960s sledding had faded away, replaced by "iron dogs," as snowmobiles were known. So history buff Dorothy Page teamed with racer Joe Redington to create a competition that would honor the past and reignite the sport of sledding. The first full-length Iditarod was run in 1973, tracing the historic gold rush trail from Anchorage to Nome. It took nearly three weeks for the winner, Dick Wilmarth, to reach the finish line. (Champions now finish in nine days.) Despite being spectator-unfriendly, the event gained momentum. In a state where it gets so cold that, locals say, you can "pee and lean on it," an endurance test over hundreds of miles of desolate, inhospitable terrain was a perfect fit.
Beginning in the late 1980s, a whole economy sprouted up around the Iditarod. Books, magazines and movies—remember Snow Dogs (or better yet, don't)?—brought in tourists and money, which in turn attracted more competitors. Mushers trained year-round. In 1995 Montana's Doug Swingley became the first person from outside Alaska to win the race, and last year Norway's Robert Sorlie became the first person from overseas to win.
The Iditarod has changed, and not always for the better. Just ask Joe Runyan, a onetime trapper who won the race in 1989. "It's more ritualized now, more institutionalized," he said at last year's Iditarod. "We had to break a lot more trail in the early days. Before, it was more outdoors-man. Now it's more sportsman." The race that defined an Alaskan way of life is now being defined by those not from Alaska.
That's what makes Aaron Burmeister so important to the people of Nome: He is a link. He was born into the sport. His father, Richard, ran in the Iditarod twice, in 1979 and '82, finishing 41st born times. Near the end of the first race, he picked up four-year-old Aaron, who'd come out to watch him arrive, and they rode over the finish line together. When a radio reporter asked Aaron what he thought of the race, the boy said, "When I'm old enough, I'm going to do it."
From that day Aaron lived his life for one goal. Richard built him a miniature sled, and within a year he was racing two-dog sleds on the junior circuit. Before Aaron entered high school, his father said: You can race the Iditarod as a senior, but only if you promise to go on to college. So Aaron earned enough credits to graduate in 3� years. He spent the last semester of his senior year racing and became the first high school student to run in the Iditarod, finishing 37th. A few months later he enrolled at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where he got a teaching degree. Not that he forgot about the Iditarod. "My goal has always been to be the first musher from Nome to win," he says. "I wanted to do it for myself, but also for Nome, to give the community something to root for."
And what a community it is. From the air Nome looks like a small cluster of Legos in an expanse of whiteness. It is home to 3,500 souls who brave cold, dark winters; in January the sun makes but a four-hour daily cameo. Come Iditarod time, however, the town becomes, as public-access talk show host Richard Benneville describes it, "Mardi Gras with dogs." Nome's population doubles as volunteers, fans and racing support teams flood in. There are darts tournaments, women's arm-wrestling contests, and even ice golf on the frozen Bering Sea. At night the bars along Front Street are mobbed. The mushers are larger-than-life heroes. Says Burmeister, "Kids ask me for autographs. It's like you're Michael Jordan."