For many mutt-mushing enthusiasts, this year’s Iditarod race may have felt especially bittersweet. Though the sporting event was one of a handful that went on as scheduled amid a spate of COVID-19-related cancellations, fans were urged to cancel travel to Nome—the city where the race famously concludes—as Alaska’s businesses slowly shuttered and its snowy streets emptied.
But those nostalgic for the land of the midnight sun can still seek some solace online. Fairbanks, Alaska, is among the many cities that have digitized some of their biggest attractions—including, in this case, dog sledding and the dazzling Northern Lights, both of which are available to explore as 360-degree “tours” on the Explore Fairbanks website.
While these virtual offerings can’t completely replace the in-person experience, they at least offer a sliver of the world’s wonders and wilds to those currently weathering the pandemic at home. Participating from one’s couch also ensures armchair travelers don’t have to shell out for a pricey plane ticket, or pack an extra layer of long underwear.
As Andrea Romano reports for Travel and Leisure, the digital dogsled ride—available to view on YouTube—is especially exhilarating, transporting the viewer into a frosty forest. The video is shot from the perspective of the musher, so depending on the size of your screen, it can feel quite lifelike.
Visions of dogsledding may feel particularly nostalgic during a period of isolation and limited travel. As Kristen Romey reported for National Geographic in 2016, cold-loving canines have been tugging along humans and their cargo for millennia, providing both companionship and strength to people traveling—often solo—across hostile, barren stretches of land.
“Think about how dogs could have affected human migration and the speed at which it could be done,” archaeologist Robert Losey told National Geographic at the time. “It’s very different when you have sled dogs than when you’re just moving on foot or by boat.”
A boon to human survival, dog-driven travel got its start as a necessity for those living in frigid northern climates. But recreation has long been a part of its history, too, eventually giving way to the first formal sled races in Nome in 1908. Most famous of all is the Iditarod, which held its first event in 1973. The competition’s 1,000-mile route was inspired by a harrowing trek made by 20 mushers and more than 100 dogs tasked with delivering life-saving medicine to diphtheria-stricken children in 1925.
Nearing its 50th anniversary, the race—a cultural mainstay for Alaskans—carried on amid the evolving outbreak. This year’s Iditarod started prior to the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, as well as before the first case of the new coronavirus in Alaska had been confirmed. As such, the event’s organizers found themselves caught between pausing the race midway, with mushers and their mutts already vying for the finish line, or allowing it to play out as planned.
“Mushers are already on the trail,” Kris Busk, a Unalakleet City Council member, told Nathaniel Herz of the Washington Post in mid-March. “I think we’re a little too late to have them turn back.”
Officials took precautions to minimize crowding, canceling celebratory events normally held to celebrate mushers at the finish line and moving rest stops away from cities that had closed their facilities to the public, according to Anchorage Daily News’ Aubrey Wieber. Spectators were also encouraged to cancel “nonessential travel to the Nome finish.”
This year, just a few hundred fans stood at the finish line—an eerily quiet and spare crowd compared to the typical thousands that arrive to bookend the race’s start and end.
But under the extreme circumstances, even longtime supporters were willing to make the sacrifice.
“I think that the people in Nome are at a really high risk if they were to be highly exposed to [COVID-19],” Margaret Maixner, wife of Big Lake musher Kelly Maxiner, told Heather Hintze of local broadcast station KTVA. “I am sad it’s not this normal party atmosphere in Nome … but I understand this is the way things are and I’m ready to do my part.”