In honor of the endless winter of 2013-'14 and the hearty souls who venture forth for recreation in the harsh conditions, we set out to see who was tougher, Iditarod sled dog racers or world-class, diehard ice fishing fanatics.
Both are cut from the same salty cloth. They don't merely endure below-zero temps and bitter wind chills, they revel in the fierce challenges of the northern winter. Mushers race nearly 1,000 miles across the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome. World-class ice anglers sally forth on frozen lakes and rivers across the North. Both endure Arctic blasts, sub-zero temps, bitter windchills, and must battle through deep snow and slush to reach their destinations. Whether you call it grit or blame it on a seasonal lack of sunlight, there's no denying that both camps embrace winter's wrath while more delicate souls hunker by the hearth.
To gauge which group has more gristle, we considered the following 10 criteria. We list the winner of each point at the end of each item, and the overall champion at the conclusion of our final challenge. So snuggle up somewhere warm with your laptop, tablet, or mobile device, and read on see whether stoic mushers or diehard anglers deserve the title of toughest winter sports enthusiast.
Be sure to tune in to The Sportsman Channel to watch the Iditarod Unleashed beginning March 25th at 7PM ET. View Schedule!
Due to the flesh-freezing cold involved in their respective sports, neither anglers nor mushers routinely expose appreciable amounts of skin. This would put the frostbite factor at a tie, except for the fact fishermen frequently have to bare their fingers to land and unhook fish, tie knots, and make countless other minute adjustments to gear that just can't be accomplished wearing gloves. Worse, their frigid digits are often repeatedly dunked in icewater while landing and releasing fish. Anglers score a point.
While both mushing and fishing can be solitary pursuits, each sport also fosters a unique fraternity among its faithful. Mushers rub elbows and share stories with fellow sledders at rest areas along the trail, while anglers often gather in the cozy comfort of a quasi-permanent icehouse to launch joint assaults on the underwater world. This one's a tie.
Iditarod racers have dogs, sleds, and their own two legs to propel them to the finish line. All are reliable, but decidedly low-tech. Anglers, on the other hand, enjoy a never-ending evolution of Space Age accouterments, from underwater cameras and fish-finding sonars to GPS mapping worthy of a battleship. For their undying dedication to old-school deprivation, mushers win this one.
Granted, mushers tote plenty of gear across the tundra. But let's face it, the dogs do the pulling. Hardwater warriors, meanwhile, are often forced to lug leaden augers, electronics, buckets, and other necessities by hand, sometimes through hip-deep snow and slush. Score one for the icemen.
Granted, huskies have choppers. But they don't bite the hands that feed them. At least not more than once. Fish, however, will. Especially big, mean, nasty predators like northern pike, whose malevolent maws are filled with razor-sharp teeth ready to inflict serious payback on the paws of the icemen who forcibly plucked them from their watery homes. Advantage, anglers.
Ice anglers enjoy some pretty breathtaking scenery on the North's frozen fishing grounds. As they battle their way along the Iditarod Trail, mushers do, too. But the scene from the runners is never without a bobbing string of canine posteriors. In other words, if you're not the lead dog, the view never really changes. Mushers get this one.
The Iditarod Trail is, well, a trail. Keep your dogs between the ditches and you know what to expect. Anglers, meanwhile, are free-ranging explorers who carve their own passages over off-grid fisheries across the Ice Belt. Despite a fisherman's best safety precautions, water hazards such as springs, currents, and even schools of fish can create dangerously thin ice. Another point for the anglers.
A rising tide raises all boats. Likewise, improvements in winter attire benefit anglers and mushers alike. High-performance cold-weather garments ranging from moisture-wicking baselayers to incredibly heat-stingy outerwear help keep dog sledders and fish squeezers toasty despite the big chill. Call this a tie.
Ice anglers can escape the hubbub of daily life on the frozen icepack. Except for the occasional whine of a snowmobile or whir of a power auger somewhere in the distance, all is quiet on the hardwater front. Mushers, meanwhile, are accompanied by the nonstop yaps, yelps, and yips of their canine companions. Thanks to this unending sled dog serenade, mushers win this one.
There's no sidestepping the fact that a hard-charging team of 10 to 12 sled dogs the size of small ponies generates a fair amount of trail bombs. Such processed dog food is admirably biodegradable and environmentally green. But woe is the musher who doesn't watch his step. No cigar, here, anglers. Chalk up another point for husky fans. Not including the two categories where our competitors tied, this leaves our final tally at four points for diehard anglers and four for the mushers. Given the extreme conditions and challenges each group overcomes to enjoy their favorite winter pastimes, we think it's fitting that they share the crown of toughest winter sports enthusiasts.
Anyone interested in a dog sled ice fishing adventure? In-Fisherman staffers have done it--Check it out!
Murphy's Border Country Adventures
Ely Dog Sleding