“Five, four, three, two, one … they’re off!” Horns tooted and hundreds of spectators cheered as the world’s most prestigious dog sled race got under way in downtown Anchorage. Well, sort of. 

Only three participants glided along Fourth Avenue behind teams of brown and white huskies. Fifteen blocks later, they reined in the dogs, jumped from their basket sleds, loaded dogs and equipment into pickup tricks and drove out of town. 

In a race where time is measured in days and hours, these mushers had completed the first leg, er, toe, of the fabled Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome in eight minutes.

The next day, a rougher, tougher Iditarod would officially begin when the 75 contestants left from Willow, 80 miles north of Anchorage. Beyond that lay miles of serpentine trail that once served as a mail and supply route to the old mining camps. The 1,049-mile race (honoring Alaska’s status as the 49th state) rates only sporadic sound bites in the “lower 48″ but it’s Alaska’s version of March Madness and the Super Bowl. 

Hourly “Iditarod Updates” on radio station KICY keep fans informed of who’s in the lead and who’s scratched. Newspapers feature front page coverage of trail and weather conditions. Throughout the frigid fortnight, a local icon named Hobo Jim gets cocktail crowds stomping their feet at Anchorage’s Knik Bar when he belts out his signature song, “I did, I did, I did the Iditarod trail!”

Yet truthfully, not many people can sing that song. Since its official start in 1973, only several thousand mushers have completed the Iditarod.

Why so few participants when dog sledding is a time-honored mode of transportation here, if not the state sport? What motivates these men and women mushers to spend nearly two weeks in remote Alaskan wilderness where razor-sharp winds, sudden blinding whiteouts and cantankerous moose augment the already clear and present danger? 

These questions peppered my thoughts as I boarded a six-seater bush plane on the second day of the race for a bird’s-eye view of the intrepid contestants out on the trail. Below me stretched miles of snow-covered forests studded with birch and spruce, yet seldom a house or utility line.

“Iditarod” is an Ingalik word meaning “distant place.” From 750 feet above the trail, distant place understates the vast landscape outside Knik where the mushers leave roads and civilization to begin their wild adventure. 

Suddenly, in a clearing, I spotted a team sprinting along a wide trail leading to a frozen river. From the air, they looked like ants in a glass-sided colony. The dogs appeared tiny and delicate, almost fragile, yet I could sense their sinewy strength as they leaned into the curved path pulling driver and sled through virgin snow.

Later I glimpsed another team emerge from a spruce thicket, startling a herd of 10 brown moose that quickly loped away over a hillock. We flew over a dark gray Quonset hut with 20 red snowmobiles parked alongside, one of 26 checkpoints along the trail to provide veterinarian support for the dogs, emergency communications, plus food and supplies for the animals and their drivers.

Otherwise, this primeval land was devoid of human presence, revealing a deeper challenge of the Iditarod that eclipses the whim of winter weather or the fortitude and strength of the dogs. Ultimately, this becomes a contest of human strength and determination, tapping every nuance of a musher’s grit and wit as he (or she) braves some of the harshest terrain in all of North America. 

“Attitudes change when the mercury drops and the wind begins to blow and you’re hundreds of miles from your destination,” competitor Stan Smith told me. “But there is little on earth that can match the inner pride of succeeding in a battle with Mother Nature and feeling that deep inner peace that only comes from finishing the Iditarod.”

To race, a musher might spend upwards of $20,000 (the cost of dog food and supplies, plus a $3000 entry fee) for the chance of winning $70,000 — and the admiration of all Alaskans. 

But money and fame are apparently the least of motivators. “It would become obvious to anyone who attempts to make money racing sled dogs that there are easier ways to get rich,” Rick Swenson, six-time winner, told me. “The raising and training of the dogs, plus the everyday work with them in the outdoors are my reward.”

The only negative clamor about the Iditarod comes from animal rightists who view the race as cruel for the dogs, despite the fact that these professional sled dogs are carefully bred for the sport, are trained and nourished better than Olympic athletes, and are treated with more affection, pampering and veterinary attention than most dog owners shower on their own Fidos.

Finally, after eight, nine or 10 days on the trail:  the finish line! 

Nome, Alaska sits on a treeless promontory overlooking Norton Sound, a gust or two from the Bering Sea. At this time of year Nome’s tundra base is frozen solid and blanketed with a thick crust of snow.  (Average trees in Nome measure 4-feet-tall.)

Wind chill can send the temperature down to minus-50 degrees in Nome during March, but most of the 4000 thermal-clad residents who call Nome home will brave the elements to stand along Front Street and cheer in the mushers and huskies.

 Two-time Iditarod finished Bill Jack told me, “It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Despite the preparation, something always goes wrong and there’s no one to help when you’re out on the trail. So why did I do it? For the experience and I’m proud to be a finisher.”