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Though most long-distance travel in bush Alaska is accomplished by snowmobile, the dog sled continues its local sporting and recreational traditions, and there is no place like Fairbanks to watch, ride, or mush a dog team.
Fairbanks is home to several annual sled dog races that attract mushers from around the world. In February, the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race or "Challenge of the North," alternates annually in direction from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The route takes competitors through sparsely populated and remote wilderness in challenging winter conditions, testing the endurance and skills of musher and dog. Depending on weather, snow conditions, river overflow and temperatures, the race can last from 10 to 14 days.
While the race takes participants through some of the most remote parts of the region, spectators can view from the road or can fly into checkpoints along the course. Fairbanks fans gather in downtown on even-number years for the start staged on the Chena River in downtown and on odd-numbered years, await the arriving mushers as they head in.
Unlike long distance races, spring mushing focuses on speed rather than stamina. The three-day Limited and Open North American Championship Sled Dog Races happen each March. Just like it sounds, limited teams gear to mushers with smaller kennels and competition is in 4-, 6- and 8-dog classes. The Open, billed as the "Granddaddy of Spring Races," takes place the following weekend with unlimited sled dogs, with two 20-mile heats and one 30-mile heat. You can catch other local action at the races throughout the winter from December through March.
Dog mushing is not just for the hardy Alaskan long-distance or sprint racer. It is a way for visitors to connect and experience an Alaskan tradition first-hand. The season in Fairbanks begins as soon as there is a sufficient layer of snow settles on area trails, typically by November and lasts often into early April. You can choose your mushing adventure - a ride in the basket, a half-hour ride, a half-day mushing school or a week-long guided excursion. Whatever you choose, you can't miss the energy of these dogs.