Tales of the Last Great Race
By Craig Medred
In the beginning was the struggle from which sprang the camaraderie of the Iditarod Trail and the fabled history yet to unfold.
Nobody knew then whether sled dogs could march 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome. Early in the century, they had trudged north withregularity, but by 1973 the overgrowth of time had swallowed the roadhouses, camps and most of the trail that supported them.
The dogs also had suffered neglect. All over Alaska, the snowmobile was gaining sway as the 1970s began. The snowmobile required oil, gas andminimal maintenance. Dogs demanded food and attention and hours upon days upon months of training.
Still, there remained a handful of people emotionally bound to sled dogs and yearning for the Alaska of old. Among them was a stubbornvisionary named Joe Redington, a former paratrooper from Bucks County, Pa., lured north by "The Call of the Wild.''
These are the modern-day reincarnations of Jack London's Sitka Charley and Malamute Kid confronting the Great White Silence, trusting to theirdogs and their skill, and leaving behind a rich lore:
Every year there were stories like these and more, stories drawn from the shadows of that first Iditarod, when no one knew what would happen to37 men and 400 dogs headed off into the wilderness, unsure where their pursuit of Joe Redington's dream would lead.
There was simply no precedent for an 1,100-mile sled dog race.
In 1973, the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race -- three days of 25 miles a day -- was a long event. Manyconsidered Redington's original idea of traveling 1,000 miles along the gold-rush mail trail from Knik to the ghost-town of Iditarod and back morethan a little wacky.
''Where the hell is Iditarod?'' many asked, ''and why would anyone one want to go there?''
Redington's answer was to suggest racing on through Iditarod to Nome, because everybody in Alaska knew Nome. Never mind that no dog teamhad ever raced near that far.
Even the life-saving diphtheria serum run from Anchorage to Nome in 1925, the historical event on which the Iditarod hung its commemorativehat, had been half done by train. The Alaska Railroad delivered the serum to Nenana. Horses were supposed to take it north from there. But theweather was too cold for the horses, and the few airplanes then in the territory were considered too unreliable.
So it fell to a group of volunteer dog drivers to relay the serum 500 or 600 miles along the frozen Yukon River, over the Kaltag Portage and up theBering Sea coast to Nome.
What they did was monumental, but it was nothing like the proposed Iditarod race. Most of the serum run teams traveled less than 100 miles.''This was way, way out,'' said Rod Perry, one of the first competitors. ''Virtually no one in the sled dog racing community thought it would comeoff. All those guys just thought it was a pipe dream. They didn't give Joe Redington any credibility at all.''
As eventual second-place finisher Bobby Vent remembered years later: ''Nobody figured anybody could make it. But I couldn't stay away.''For Vent and others, there were two attractions: The chance to participate in an adventure many expected to be a one-shot deal, and the promiseof cold, hard cash for those who made it to Nome.
Redington pledged a purse of $50,000 at the finish line. It was the first of many skin-of-the-teeth financial moves by the Iditarod.''When I guaranteed a purse of $50,000, we didn't have a dime,'' Redington later confessed. ''As soon as I guaranteed it, my committee quit. Iwent to banks and they turned me down cold.''
Redington refused to give up. He talked Col. Muktuk Marston, founder of the Eskimo Scouts, out of $10,000, got Bank of the North to loan$30,000 on a note co-signed by Anchorage businessman Bruce Kendall, and raised another $7,000 by going door to door.
The final $3,000 came from third-place finisher Dan Seavey, a Kenai Peninsula school teacher Redington talked into loaning back to the Iditarodhalf his winnings.
Of course, many people figured there would be no need to pay the purse.
''Quite a few people, their attitudes were pessimistic,'' said Cliff Sisson, a spectator at the start. ''It was just such an unknown thing.''
Herbie Nayokpuk, an Eskimo from Shishmaref, was known up and down the Arctic Coast as a wilderness traveler who could take a dog team mostanywhere.
And there was Dick Wilmarth, a hard-working gold miner out of the Iditarod country of the Interior. He needed money for a new backhoe.Nobody knew much about him, but Wilmarth had been studying with sourdoughs who spent the winters roaming the Interior with their dogs. Theyconvinced him the most important thing was to take care of the team.
While many teams were starved and dehydrated because mushers inexperienced at such a distance fed low-quality, corn-based dog food,Wilmarth gave his dogs beaver, whitefish and caribou. He knew from the old-timers that dogs needed a diet high in fat and protein to pull hard allthe way to Nome.
No one knows how many dogs died that year, in part because of poor nutrition. Veterinarians who joined the race for the first time in 1974 havespeculated it was many more than a dozen. High numbers of deaths persisted for several years as mushers learned to care for their dogs over theimmense distance of the Iditarod.
Some dogs toppled while pulling in harness. Others succumbed at checkpoints before the Iditarod developed a workable system to care fordropped dogs. Perry lost his best young leader, Gerdine, when she slipped away from checkers after being dropped at Rohn.
''In the early days, it was a horrendous situation. It was so haphazard and shoddy,'' Perry said.
Animal-protection groups protested the dogs' treatment. Sponsors threatened to pull out. Race managers started to track dog deaths and injuries,and wrote rules to protect the animals. Veterinarians volunteered to help along the trail.
Dog care improved. The death rate fell to about four of 1,000-plus dogs -- a rate race veterinarians contend is near normal even for a sedentarycanine population. But in the mid-'90s, the Humane Society of the United States renewed the animal-protection attack, saying, ''In a perfect worldthere would be no Iditarod.''
A major national sponsor, Timberland, pulled out, but Alaska businesses stepped in to fill the $450,000 hole in the Iditarod's $1.4 million budget.Wilmarth couldn't have guessed at this future when he won the first race in 20 days, 49 minutes and 41 seconds. Within 24 hours, three moremushers, including Attla, had followed him in.
Trail weary, Wilmarth promptly retired from long-distance racing. Attla tried once more and quit for good, too. But plenty of others were alreadypossessed by the idea of winning ''the grueling Iditarod sled dog race.''
Of the first finishers, Seavey, Nayokpuk and Mackey devoted years to trying to win just once. Only Mackey succeeded.
After five years of finishing no better than sixth, he secured a still-discussed victory in 1978 when he topped Swenson in the ''photo finish.''
That was the year the two mushers, almost side by side, sprinted up Front Street toward the famous burled arch. Mackey's lead dog crossed thefinish line first, but his sled ended up stuck short. Swenson's team and sled passed beneath the arch and into the finishing chute as Mackeywatched helplessly, but a race judge ruled that victory in a sled-dog race belongs to the musher whose lead dogs cross the finish line first.
A gracious Swenson accepted the precedent-setting rule and congratulated Mackey, who never seriously challenged in another Iditarod. Swenson,meanwhile, went on to a total of five victories and 20 finishes in the top 10, a feat unlikely ever to be matched.
Swenson was alternately admired and loathed as he became the only front-running musher to successfully make the transition from the friendly,camp-a-lot Iditarod of the '70s and early '80s to the cutthroat competition of the mid-to-late '80s and '90s.
By the time he quit the race in 1996, in a controversy about the accidental and unavoidable death of the only dog he'd ever had die in theIditarod, Swenson had led the transformation of the Iditarod from a leisurely 16-day race to a hotly contested 10-day event.
Speed improvements came by breeding long-distance trotters suited to weeks in the wild; borrowing training strategies from marathon runners;developing diets that could provide 10,000 easily digested calories a day; cutting rest time, particularly for the mushers; and incorporatinglightweight, high-tech gear.
In 1985 , relying more on guts than proven racing ability, a 28-year-old Riddles dashed into and out of a storm for the storybook finish that vaultedthe Iditarod into the international spotlight.
Butcher's first victory the next year fixed it there.
She had hoped to be the first woman to win, but her 1985 run was destroyed by a moose that stomped into her team not far out of Anchorage.Two dogs died; several were injured. Only the timely arrival of a well-armed Dewey Halverson prevented worse carnage.
An emotionally shaken Butcher withdrew, only to return the next year with a better team and the help of soulmate Dave Monson. A lawyer,musher and a fifth-place finisher in the 1982 Iditarod, Monson was Butcher's business partner, best friend and husband.
Together, they went up against Joe Garnie of Teller. Garnie was the last, best Native musher, heir to the legacy of Isaac Okleasik and the mushingtradition of Peters, Riley and 1974 champ Carl Huntington of Galena, the only man to win both the Iditarod and Fur Rondy sprint championship.
Before 1986, Butcher had never won a major sled dog race, though she had finished second in many, including two Iditarods.
By the time the race reached White Mountain on the coast, Garnie was the only man standing between Butcher and her breakthrough victory.Over the next 80 miles, a determined Butcher -- often off her sled, head down, jogging behind the dogs -- set a new standard.
Her team reached Nome in 11 days, 15 hours and 6 minutes -- almost 17 hours faster than Swenson's long-standing 1981 record. Garnie finishedless than an hour back, the last Alaska Native ever to challenge for an Iditarod victory.
The rising cost of racing squeezed out Native mushers, who had dominated the race in its early years. To stay competitive, the modern musher hadto have tens of thousands of dollars for the best dogs, dog food, gear and training. The race suddenly favored the independently well-to-do and ahandful of Iditarod professionals who could attract major sponsors.
At that Butcher proved as adept as she was at training and leading dogs. Blunt and driven on the trail, she proved a graceful spokeswoman ontelevision. Most of all, though, she knew how to hang onto the spotlight that belonged to the Iditarod champ.
Over the course of four races from 1987 to 1990, Butcher was almost unstoppable. She dueled Swenson to a dead heat in Safety in '87, then lefthim there when his dogs refused to go on. Butcher's team marched to Nome to take another 12 hours off the Iditarod record they'd set the yearbefore.
In 1988, Butcher's team ran away from everyone. Swenson finished second, a long 15 hours back. In 1989, Joe Runyan of Nenana sneaked past adueling Butcher and Swenson, but that only made Butcher train harder.
The next year, she set yet another Iditarod speed record and secured her fourth championship, tying her with Swenson. No one else had ever wonmore than once. The stage was set for 1991.
Butcher again dominated. Shadowing her north were Runyan and Tim Osmar of Clam Gulch, Dean's son. Just behind were Swenson and MartinBuser of Big Lake.
At White Mountain, a blizzard blew in. Butcher set out for Nome first, her sled loaded lightly for what is normally a quick run. Behind her cameSwenson, Runyan, Osmar and finally Buser.
In the dark, in a howling wind and blowing snow, Swenson caught Butcher as she hunkered down in her sled, her dogs sleeping on the trail.''Come on Susan,'' he yelled, ''get out of that goddamned sled bag and let's have a race.''
She rose to the challenge. They began plodding along the trail together. Swenson's headlight burned out. Butcher helped him fix it. They tookturns leading, searching for the trail in 10- to 20-foot visibility.
Then, in darkness, the teams veered apart. Swenson pressed on. Butcher turned back, as did Runyan and Osmar.
Swenson and Buser, both of whom had packed extra dog food and gear figuring they might have to camp in the storm, kept going.
Putting the long-haired dogs on the upwind side of the team to shield the shorter-haired ones, leading the team with a leash, sometimes down onhands and knees searching for snowmobile skid marks, Swenson struggled through the storm to victory.
Buser, the pragmatic immigrant from Switzerland, finished second. It was the closest he had come to grabbing the golden ring since coming toAmerica in 1980 to run Siberian huskies for dog-breeder Earl Norris of Willow.
But Buser was just hitting his stride.
The Swiss horticulturist won for the first time the next year, leading a new wave of well-educated technocrats to the Iditarod fore. Together, Buser,Jeff King of Denali Park and Doug Swingley of Simms, Mont. -- the only Outsider ever to win an Iditarod -- over the next five years shaved anamazing two days off Butcher's record.
Buser won in 1992 and again in 1994. King claimed the championship in 1993 and 1996. Swingley ran away from everyone in 1995. Their timeswere amazingly fast, but a lot had changed over 25 years.
''They're getting it down pretty good,'' Wilmarth said in 1996, ''(but) the thing is they've got a nice road now. We didn't have any road at all.''
No more do Iditarod mushers labor in front of their dogs on snowshoes breaking trail. Rarely do they wander lost in search of trail markers. Nowthey drive a snowmobile-packed highway.
Swenson wonders if all the improvements in Iditarod gear and dogs over the years really mean anything, or if the really big difference is simply thetrail.
Maybe, he said, the newer, faster Iditarod is just getting back to where sled dog racing was in 1910 when a muttish-looking Siberian husky namedKolyma led John ''Iron Man'' Johnson over the 408 miles of the All-Alaska Sweepstakes trail in 3 days, 14 hours and 22 minutes. Johnson's teamaveraged almost 114 miles a day in what was then the world's longest sled dog race. That pace would make Iron Man and Kolyma competitive intoday's Iditarod.
"We've learned a lot,'' Swenson said. "There's a jillion changes, but how many of them are really improvements? We've taken a lot of old ideasand brought them back. People quit traveling with dogs. The dogs went. A lot had to be relearned.''
Which is almost exactly what Joe Redington hoped would happen 25 years ago when he came up with the crazy idea that came to be knownworldwide as The Iditarod.
© Copyright 1997 Anchorage Daily News -- All Rights Reserved -- This article appeared originally in Iditarod 25: Tales from the Last Great Race, published as a special section to the Anchorage Daily News on February 23, 1997.
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