Swenson will run Iditarod

Mike Campbell

The winningest musher in the history of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will point 16 dogs toward Nome once again next year.

Five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers on Tuesday signed up to start his 32nd Iditarod, which begins March 5 on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage. He's finished 30 of them.

But the once-feared musher, whose mere presence used to alter every competitor's race strategy, will be 60 years old on race day. He hasn't had a top-10 appearance since 2004.

Since then, his average finish has been 22nd.

Last year, a noticeably slimmed-down Swenson, coming off hip-replacement surgery, was 20th, but his time was a sterling 9 days, 22 hours, 53 minutes -- the fourth fastest of his career.

"He weighs about one dog less than he used to be," Swenson's partner, Kelly Williams, joked on Fourth Avenue at the ceremonial start.

And this year, Swenson's perch atop the heap of Iditarod champions may be threatened as never before as Lance Mackey of Fairbanks aims for his fifth straight victory to punctuate a run of dominance unmatched in race history.

Martin Buser of Big Lake will also be seeking a fifth championship, but Buser hasn't won since 2002.

For Swenson, the championship drought is even longer -- back to 1991.

The dominant force in the race in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Swenson slumped as the late Susan Butcher rose to power in the mid-1980s. At the end of that decade, the two fought epic duels to the finish, but Swenson always came up short.

Then came the legendary race of 1991. Butcher led the competition out into a storm in the Topkok Hills between White Mountain and Nome on the Bering Sea coast. She had an hour lead and looked to have the strongest team. But fate held a wild card.

Butcher and her team disappeared into a white, swirling hell. Swenson and his team found her there. For a time, the two veteran mushers helped each other work north through a maelstrom Swenson later compared to being stuck in the draft of a semi going down the highway at 60 mph.

Eventually, the two separated. Butcher turned back. She met former Iditarod champ Joe Runyan, then from Nenana, and Tim Osmar of Clam Gulch along the way and told them it was too dangerous to go on. All three thought Swenson might well die.

He was willing to take that gamble. He was, he said afterward, on a kamikaze mission. His reputation as the best in the Iditarod was tarnished and he was just plain tired of hearing about "Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod" following Butcher's succession of victories.

"(The weather) was as bad as I've ever seen it anywhere, " he said last year. "There were times I couldn't see my leaders. There were times when you couldn't even see the ground."

Swenson went to the front of the team, tied himself to the lead dogs and started hunting for scratches of old snowmobile tracks on the tundra. He found just enough to guide him ever so slowly toward Nome. The team followed. They shocked everyone with their arrival out of the storm.

That was Swenson's last victory. Fourth is the best he's managed since.

Gone now is his record of winning in every decade of the Iditarod's existence.

"I want to win this thing so I can quit," he said last year.

Since his rookie year of 1976, Swenson has started every Iditarod except 1997. In addition to his five victories, he's notched 24 top-10 finishes -- a record no other musher approaches. Buser has 18.

Swenson still lives in one of Alaska's mushing meccas, Two Rivers, located between Mile 13 and 27 on the Chena Hot Springs Road.

But for decades, the first Saturday of March has always found the former Minnesotan on Fourth Avenue, of late wearing the pink duds supplied by his sponsor, Eubankea.

And, in one sense, he's still a young pup

Race founder Joe Redington Sr. finished his final Iditarod at age 80.

Information from a 2009 story written by former Daily News reporter Craig Medred was used in this report. Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.