ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Mushing in Fairbanks: Hot Spot for a Cool Sport

A Guide to Fairbanks, Alaska

    Envision yourself racing across the snow by the light of the stars and the moon, while the blue-green aurora swirls in the sky overhead. The brisk wind in your face and the soft padding of dogs are the only sound you hear above the hiss of the sled runners on packed snow.

    For centuries, this is how Alaska Natives and pioneer settlers alike traveled from village to village: standing on the back of a dog sled, with food and survival gear stowed safely inside the basket, and the silence of the snow-blanketed forest as a constant reminder of the solitude of the Alaskan bush. Today most long-distance travel in bush Alaska is accomplished by snowmachine, but the dog sled has become a local sporting tradition, and there is no place like Fairbanks to watch, ride or learn to drive a dog team for yourself.

    Fairbanks is home to several annual sled dog races that attract mushers from around the world. The races begin in early February with the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, a 1,000 mile journey billed as the Challenge of the North. The course takes competitors through sparsely populated wilderness in harsh winter conditions that test outdoor survival skills. Depending on the weather and the snow conditions, the race can last for 10 to 14 days. Each year, the Quest alternates directions.

    While the race takes participants through some of the most remote parts of the region, there are numerous spectator viewpoints that can be accessed by road. Fairbanks fans gather around downtown Fairbanks on even-numbered years to wish the teams well as they depart, and on odd-numbered years, they come to greet arriving mushers as they pull into town at the end of the race. The race has become one of the most festive winter occasions in Fairbanks, and locals eagerly follow news of the race in the papers and on the radio and TV.

    Unlike long-distance races, sprint mushing focuses on speed rather than stamina. The Limited North American Championship Sled Dog Race is a three-day series of sprint races that takes place on March 10-12, kicking off the week long Fairbanks Winter Carnival. Mushers compete in 4, 6 and 8 dog classes. Skijorers, skiers pulled by dogs, compete in 1, 2 and 3 dog classes.

    The Open North American Championship Sled Dog Race also takes place in March, and is the oldest continuously run sled dog sprint race in the world. Known as the the Granddaddy of Sprint Races, the Open North American Championship race takes place over a three-day period, March 17-19, with two 20-mile heats and one 30-mile heat that begin and end in downtown Fairbanks.

    Dog mushing is not just for the hardy Alaskan long-distance or sprint-racer. It is also a way for the curious visitor to experience an Alaskan tradition that few visitors ever see in person. The season in Fairbanks begins as soon as a sufficient layer of snow settles on area trails, usually by November. The snow does not turn to slush until warm spring temperatures arrive in early to mid-April. Between those times, over a dozen mushing outfits are available to take guests on everything from a half-hour ride to a week-long wilderness excursion.

    Whether you ride in the basket, drive the team or cheer mushers from the sidelines, you can find out more about the Alaska state sport in Mushing, a bimonthly magazine produced near Fairbanks. Mushing contains stories about all aspects of the sport, including dog care; training tips; interviews with local mushers; and details about upcoming competitions. The magazine is widely available in the Fairbanks area.

    For more information, visit the FCVB web site at www.explorefairbanks.com.

Copyright Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used here with permission.