The Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship sled dog race was the Super Bowl of Anchorage sports long before there was an actual Super Bowl. Created the year after World War II ended, the Fur Rondy championship quickly gained popularity for its dramatic finishes, its colorful, inspiring champions and, of course, its powerful, fast-moving dog teams.
The three-day race through Anchorage’s city streets and wooded trails is the centerpiece of the Fur Rendezvous multi-day festival held every February since 1935. The race became part of Fur Rondy in 1946, when Earl Norris of Willow organized a one-day,17.5-mile race between himself and two other drivers. An enthusiastic crowd gathered at the finish line, guaranteeing the race’s return the next year.
Over the next few decades, the Open World Championship riveted Alaska. Mushers drove big, speedy teams — often 20 or more dogs, often hitting speeds of 15 mph — on a 25-mile loop that started and ended on Fourth Avenue.
Villages sent their best mushers and their best dogs to the race. Fans flooded downtown. Those who couldn’t attend listened to live, statewide radio broadcasts.
Fur Rondy etched the legacy of George Attla, the Huslia Hustler who won a record 10 titles from 1956 to 1982. And it produced one of the greatest rivalries in Alaska sports — Attla, the village musher, versus eight-time champion Roland Lombard, the big-city veterinarian from Massachusetts.
When the race’s popularity dimmed in the late 1980s, overshadowed by the Iditarod and overlooked by a growing city with expanding entertainment options, Rondy survived.
When a changing climate yielded less snow and led to five cancellations in a 16-year span from 2001-16, Rondy survived.
Because when it’s February in Anchorage, sprint dogs and Fourth Avenue go together like gee and haw.
– Beth Bragg