Experiencing a ‘three dog night’ during the Iditarod is not, as most might imagine, tuning in to the aging rock band. In the world’s toughest ultra-marathon for sled dogs it is a suvival term for how many dogs it takes to retain your bodily warmth and survive the night. In this case; one on your legs, one on your stomach and one on your head. As mushers begin the Iditarod with upwards of fifteen dogs, you start to get an idea of what the interior of Alaska can throw up in the depths of winter.
In central Alaska no one really notices the temperature until Celsius and Fahrenheit meet – that’s 40 degrees below zero. According to the ‘old sourdoughs’ (gold prospectors ‘sour’ on Alaska with no ‘dough’ to get out) it’s not ‘really’ cold until its minus 75 or there abouts. Then they say, ‘you can spit and make it bounce’ or, if you have a mind, ‘piss and lean on it’. From there it just gets down right ridiculous when the added wind chill from a polar storm can plunge temperatures to an unimaginable 130 degrees below. This is the realm of mad dogs and mad dogs alone, any Englishmen have long since had the good sense to make themselves scarce.
Twenty-five years ago when one such ‘mad dog’, a stubborn visionary named Joe Reddington, staged the first Iditarod to commemorate the diphtheria serum run of 1925, most people doubted that dog teams could cross 1161 miles of arctic wilderness. His route, far in excess of the 75-mile events of the day, followed the abandoned gold rush mail-trail from outside Anchorage via the ghost-town of Iditarod (which means ‘a distance place’ in the Ingalik language – a decided understatement) to Nome. Reddington, now in his eighties and still taking part, proved them wrong and each year fifty or more mushers and around a thousand dogs continue to make the run through the ‘world’s largest freezer’.