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Out in the Great Alone

5/27/2015

In the summer of 1977, a fire swept across the wilderness of interior Alaska, west of Mount McKinley. Tundra burned to rock; 345,000 acres of forest — more than 530 square miles — disappeared in flames. When the smoke cleared, it left behind a weird scar on the map, a vast, charred crater littered with deadfall. In the winter, when temperatures in the interior dive to 40 below, the skeletons of burned trees snapped in the cold or were ripped out by powerful winds. The tussocks of tundra grass froze as hard as bowling balls.
Every year in early March, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sets out from Anchorage, in the south-central part of the state, and runs northwest toward the finish line in Nome, on the coast of the Bering Sea. In its early stages, the trail runs upward, into the mountains of the Alaska Range, then plunges down, into the interior, where it enters the fire's scorched country.
For the mushers of the Iditarod, the Farewell Burn, as the region became known, was a nightmare. The race had been founded only four years earlier, as a way to commemorate the importance of sled dogs to Alaska. Large expanses of the state had, for much of its history, been unreachable by other forms of transportation.

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