It's an epic challenge for man and man's best friend: the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins Saturday, is a grueling 1,150-mile trek in which a human captain (or musher) and an average of 16 dogs brave Alaska's frozen tundra and icy forests to compete for $69,000, a new truck, and the honor of conquering one of the country's last frontiers.
The modern Iditarod, which for more than a week winds from Anchorage to the isolated town of Nome, began in 1973. When settlers rushed to Alaska in search of gold around the turn of the 20th century, the Iditarod Trail for which the race was christened served as the primary artery for ferrying mail and supplies. Given the frigid conditions, the route was often impassable except by dog sleds. (See pictures of the Iditarod.)
Given its centrality to Alaskan life, mushing emerged early on as both a popular sport and a vital necessity. In the winter of 1925, an epidemic of diphtheria ravaged Nome, which lacked the medicine to combat it. The nearest supply of antitoxin serum was in Anchoragenearly 700 frozen miles away. In what has become known as the "Great Race of Mercy," 20 mushers and some 150 dogs teamed up to deliver the drugs in under six days, quelling an epidemic that threatened to decimate the town. Balto, the lead dog on the final stretch of the relay, earned national acclaim and a statue that still stands in New York City's Central Park for the feat, though many cite musher Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog, Togo, as the the effort's unsung champions.
The emergence of air travel blunted the Trail's importance in subsequent decades. But in the 1960s, a Wasilla resident named Dorothy Page moved to memorialize its importance by staging a race during Alaska's centennial celebrations in 1967. The inaugural title was won by Isaac Okleasik, who pocketed $25,000 for speeding through the abbreviated 27-mile jaunt. After a one-year hiatus due to lack of snow, the modest second running in 1969 drew just 12 mushers and paid out a mere $1,000. (See TIME's Top 10 Endurance Competitions.)
That lackluster turnout failed to dissuade Page and venerable musher Joe Redington Sr., who mortgaged his home and sold a piece of land to help finance the event's start-up costs. Their efforts helped persuade officials to stage the first full-length Iditarod in March, 1973, in which Dick Wilmarth and his lead dog, Hotfoot, triumphed by covering the inhospitable terrain in 20 days. Since 1983, the Iditarod the word is said to mean "distant place" in indigenous Alaskan dialects has steadily grown in popularity, becoming both the most popular sporting event in the state and an international touchstone renowned for both the stamina it requires and the desolate beauty of the unforgiving terrain it covers.
Success in the race has minted heroes out of many ordinary Alaskans. Among the giants of the Iditarod are five-time champion Rick Swenson; families like the Redington, Seavey and Mackey clans, who have captured multiple championships and together have placed an entrant in every race since the event's inception; and four-time winners Susan Butcher and Martin Buser, who owns the record for the event's fastest recorded time (8 days, 22 hrs. and 46 mins). To prepare for the rigors of the journey, mushers spend months prepping their dogs, who are subject to drug screenings and tracked using collar tags and microchips implanted under the skin. And while the competition is intense, participation counts: organizers present the last-place musher with the "Red Lantern" award as a tribute to his persistence. (The slowest Red Lantern winner, John Schultz, took more than 32 days to reach the finish line.) Each finisher also receives more than $1,000 to defray travel expenses. (See pictures of the science of snowflakes.)
The race has predictably drawn fire from animal rights groups like PETA and the ASPCA, attention that only worsened after veteran musher Ramy Brooks was given a two-year ban in 2007 for abusing his dogs. But most Alaskans steadfastly defend the event as a celebration of the state's heritage. This year, the greatest threats posed to the race come from other directions. A heavy snow recently blanketed parts of the Alaska, burying the trail in deep drifts and forcing mushers to break out their snowshoes. And just as it has in the Lower 48 states, the economy has cast a pall over the Land of the Midnight Sun. Due to higher operating costs, entrance fees have spiked 33% to $4,000 despite a shrinking prize pool; between food, supplies and preparation, the cost of running the race can reach $30,000. Meanwhile, mushers have griped about the salaries doled out to event executives, which dwarf their own comparatively meager paychecks. "We are the most underpaid professional athletes in the world to do what we do," two-time defending champion Lance Mackey told the Associated Press. "Most people wouldn't even consider it. We are literally working for welfare checks."