Emmitt Peters: A 'fox' behind a dog sled

BOB HALLINEN / Daily News archive 2008

For its first two years, the event could just as well have been called the Iditarod Trail Camping Trip With Dogs. The journey wasn't easy, but it wasn't fast, either. The mushers required 20 days to travel the thousand miles. Then emmitt Peters, the rookie from Ruby, burst onto the trail, cutting six full days off the time and setting a speed record that stood for five years. An Athabascan, Peters grew up with sled dogs and brought a lifetime of knowledge to the race.

"Peters was ahead of his time in the 1970s with his strategies for resting and running his team and in dog care and training, " Daily News reporter Scott Heiberger wrote in 1990.

The victory was no fluke. For the next five years, Peters was never out of the top 10. His ability to stay among the leaders even in years when his team wasn't the strongest earned him the nickname "The Yukon River Fox." But his fellow mushers remember more than his competitiveness.

As the years went on, top mushers got big-money sponsors, ran big dog lots and bred faster dogs. Peters couldn't keep up. Then, in 1986, he shattered a knee in a freak training accident. Although he ran the race a few more times, he did not finish near the top. None of this seems to have marred his reputation in the slightest.

"Even after retiring from the race, Emmitt has served as the checker in Ruby, " nominating committee member John Tracy wrote. "Probably the only checker more famous than the mushers. Most of the racers don't consider their race complete unless they've shaken hands with The Fox in Ruby."

Peters came out of retirement to run the race again in 2000. At 59, he turned in his fastest time ever and was voted the most inspirational competitor by his fellow mushers. Time had not dulled The Fox's skills or his effect on the other racers.

Inducted 1997 Greatest accomplishment In winning as a rookie, he cut the race by six days and set a record that stood for five years. Vital stats Born: Ruby Hometown: Ruby Age: 68 Best finish 1st -- 1975 Fastest time 2000 -- 12 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes Race record 1975 1st 1976 5th 1977 4th 1978 3rd 1979 2nd 1980 9th 1981 12th 1982 4th 1983 19th 1984 17th 1985 12th 1990 41st 1992 Scratched 2000 40th Awards Rookie of the Year -- 1975 Golden Harness (to outstanding lead dog) --1979 Halfway -- 1982 Most Inspirational -- 2000