Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Archive for December 14, 2013

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

One of the most well-known sled dog races in the world, the Iditarod is a test of will, survival, and endurance that brings human mushers together with their loyal sled dogs. Let’s take a closer look at the Iditarod, its history, and what truly makes it the Last Great Race on Earth.

A Brief History

While the 1,131-mile route—starting in downtown Anchorage and finishing in Nome—is mainly known for the annual dog sled race, the Iditarod trail actually proved a much more functional, practical use back in the day. The same trail was a popular mail-supply route and was used in the gold rush of the early 1900s, allowing travelers to reach mining towns. In 1925, the trail helped sled dog teams transport precious serum throughout Alaska during the diphtheria epidemic.

Skip to the 1960s. Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr., unhappy with how sled dogs were being replaced by motorized snowmobiles, decided to honor the great tradition with a short 50-mile race. But in 1973, Page and Redington chose the path from Anchorage to Nome, giving birth to the now famous race. The trail was chosen in particular for its 1925 diphtheria run.

The race has seen various changes since that first race. More safeguards were put in place for the sled dogs. The record time to win the race—originally 20 days—was shortened to just 9 days in 2002. The biggest change is the addition of an alternate southern route. Each year, the Iditarod alternates between the northern and southern routes, adding even more challenge.

The Team (or Should we Say Pack?)

A team competing in the Iditarod race comprises one musher, a team of up to 16 dogs, and all kinds of gear to stay warm, make food, and survive in the Alaskan wild.

Mushers definitely need to be fit and have strong leg muscles on top of good balance, but the race really requires mental stamina and endurance. It’s a rough, physical journey, riddled with extreme weather and periods of sleeplessness. In fact, aside from the mandatory rest—one 24-hour rest and two 8-hour rests—most mushers push themselves to stay awake and win the race.

Required equipment for the race includes:

  • A sleeping bag
  • Snowshoes
  • A cooker with fuel for boiling water and cooking food
  • An ax

Then there’s the food. Mushers certainly need to eat a lot to sustain themselves in the extreme conditions, but the dogs doing all the running require so much more food. Each dog must consume at least 10,000 calories a day, which translates to nearly 2,000 pounds of food for the team for the whole Iditarod race. Dogs get snacks every few hours and are fed full meals, consisting usually of meat, fats, vitamin supplements, and dry dog food, at each checkpoint.

Awards and Honors

Mushers who participate in the Iditarod split a large cash pot. The first place winner takes the most money and each successive finisher receives a slightly reduced amount. So even if you’re not first, you’ll still receive something.

And then there’s the Red Lantern Award. This is given to the team that finishes last and symbolizes perseverance, pride, and accomplishment. The Red Lantern is often confused with the Widow’s Lamp. Well before the conception of the Iditarod, dog drivers relied on roadhouses that were scattered between destinations. When a musher was on the trail, roadhouses would hang kerosene lamps outside, which helped mushers find their destinations at night and signaled that there was a team still on the trail. The lamp wasn’t extinguished until the last musher reached his destination.

In the Iditarod, the committee extinguishes the Widow’s Lamp only after the last musher has crossed the finish line, signaling the official end of the race.  The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is truly a sight to behold.

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Nazi-Turkish Treaty of Friendship. Ankara, June 18, 1941

Fitting, since Hitler cited the Armenian Genocide as justification for invading Poland.

As early as the Fall of 1944, Stalin gave orders to prepare legal justification for annexing the Armenian lands seized by Turkey to the Soviet Union. This was not as much an attempt to right a historic wrong, as it was a desire to punish Turkey for being a passive ally of Germany throughout the war. An official document confirming the alliance between Berlin and Ankara was signed on June 18, 1941, just weeks before Germany invaded the USSR. On that day Franz von Papen, the former German chancellor and Fuhrer’s envoy on special assignment, signed the non-aggression and friendship treaty with the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Sukri Saracoglu in Ankara. The treaty was clearly within the context of Germany’s impending invasion of the Soviet Union. Many historians claim that this agreement – just like the Soviet-German Pact of 1939 – included secret protocols containing timelines for the Turkish invasion of the USSR and ensuing division of the Transcaucasus.

Ankara was counting on getting Armenia and South-Western Georgia. Pan-Turkic ideology had returned to the surface. Following the efforts of Azeri immigrant activists, a special committee pursuing the goal of creating a single Turkic state was formed in Erzerum. Not everyone among the Fuhrer’s supporters approved of this scenario. Although the Nazis wanted Turkey as part of their military bloc, Berlin refused to grant all of Ankara’s requests. Saracoglu brought the issue of the Reich’s attitude towards Armenians to the table while negotiating the agreement with von Papen in April of 1939. It was made clear that the likelihood of an agreement with Turkey would increase dramatically, if the Fuhrer were to add Armenians as Semitic people that needed to be killed or deported. Active underground work of the Turkish lobby in Berlin resulted in printing an anti-Armenian article in Der Volkischer Beobachter – the official publication of the Nazi party. The author claimed that the Turks were right, that Armenians originated from Jews and should share their fate. The Armenian community in Germany had to make a monumental effort to convince the Nazi’s main ideologist Alfred Rosenberg that such Turkish propaganda could not be allowed to be officially sanctioned. In the end, Rosenberg gave the green light for the University of Berlin’s Professor Artashes Abeghyan to publish an article in the same paper, proving Armenians’ Aryan, Indo-European roots. To Hitler, his arguments seemed more convincing than the Turks’ allegations.

Returning to Turkish plans to invade USSR, it is important to note that Franz von Papen and the Turkish foreign minister Fevzi Akmak decided that the Turks would invade as soon as Germans defeated Russians at Stalingrad. Ankara was diligent about following its pledges as an ally. In early August of 1942, Turkish military forces approached the Armenian border and started large-scale maneuvers in the area. In his essay “Turkey Deals a Blow to Russia” American historian John Gill writes that Marshall Chakmak was ready to attack with the second and fourth armies, and 14th corps. The third and fifth armies followed immediately behind, with the objective of occupying Armenia and Georgia.

The convincing victory of the Red Army at Stalingrad ruined Turkish plans and put Ankara in an uncomfortable position, to say the least. Joseph Stalin was not going to forgive Turks for making him keep 26 divisions at the Southern border when those troops were desperately needed on the Western front. The Soviet dictator used Armenians to exact his revenge. Soviet Armenia’s administrators and organizations in the diaspora knew that this was a historic chance to win back some of the lost Armenian lands. At the end of 1944, the head of the newly established People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs in the Armenian SSR, Sahak Karapetyan, received a directive from Moscow: he was to prepare a historical survey of Western Armenia with legal justification for the Soviet Union’s claims on these territories. Two months later the document was on the desk of the Commander-in-Chief. Sahak Karapetyan suggested three possible scenarios. In the first, only Kars and Ardahan –regions that were part of the Russian Empire until 1914 – were to be returned to Armenia. In the second scenario, the border was to be drawn according to the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano. This way the Aleshkert Valley and the city of Bayazet would also become part of Armenia. The third scenario presumed the return of Van, Erzerum, Mush, and Bitlis in addition to the regions listed above. Historians to this day are not sure which plan Stalin approved.