Pilot, trailblazer join the Iditarod Hall of Fame

Beth Bragg,Mike Campbell

Two men who made the preposterous notion of racing dog teams from Anchorage to Nome a possibility, one by land and one by air, are the newest members of the Anchorage Daily News' Iditarod Hall of Fame.

Though their names might be familiar only to fans whose memories are long or research is thorough, Unalakleet trailblazer Doug Katchatag and Bush pilot Larry Thompson helped solve two enormous logistical problems in the early days of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Without Katchatag, segments of the historic trail might still be obscured by trees.

Without Thompson, dogs and mushers might have gone hungry at checkpoints.

Katchatag, 63, was in on Joe Redington Sr.'s grand scheme from the get-go, offering advice about dogs, providing connections in villages along the race route and taking charge of the effort to open the trail from Kaltag to Nome.

Thompson, who died in 2004 at age 69, was a one-man Iditarod Air Force in the early years of the race, ferrying supplies from Anchorage to the Susitna Valley in his Cessna 180.

Iditarod race photographer Jeff Schultz, a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee, called the two men "unsung heroes." Channel 2 photographer Eric Sowl, another member of the panel, said their volunteer efforts helped turn the Iditarod into Alaska's signature event.

"Doug and Larry are two people who helped the race move forward every year," Sowl said.

Doug Katchatag: Clearing the route

Salmon brought Joe Redington Sr. and Doug Katchatag together back in late 1960s, but it was dogs that bound them for life.

Katchatag comes from a long line of fishermen and dog drivers in Unalakleet, a village on the northwest coast where Redington worked as a fish buyer for a co-op.

Redington dreamed of racing sled dogs a thousand miles from Anchorage to Nome, and in Katchatag he found not only a fellow dog lover, but a pragmatist who helped the dream become reality.

"Joe talks about dogs all the time and he asks me one day what I thought about a race from Anchorage to Nome, did I think it could be done?" Katchatag said. "And I said yeah it could be done, it's just a matter of putting in a lot of work putting in the trails."

For a whole summer the two talked about the idea. When October came and Redington returned to his home in the Susitna Valley, he was on a mission.

"I told him, go talk to the radio stations, get invited to the TV stations, go see the oil and gas companies and the restaurants, call the Seattle Times. Advertise your race, and you'll get it going," Katchatag said. "He jumped on a plane and he called me back in February and said, 'I got $50,000, we can have our race.' "

Not so fast, Katchatag said.

"We need at least $100,000 more," he told Redington. "We've got to pay these people to open the trail. It's all covered with brush and trees, and they can't just get up and leave their families. You've got to pay them."

Somehow the money was raised, and for three winters Katchatag directed the task of clearing 340 miles of trail from Kaltag to Nome.

Forged by gold miners seeking their fortunes and made famous by the 1925 Serum Run, the trail fell out of use when airplanes and snowmachines replaced dog teams as the main mode of transportation in rural Alaska. The workers whom Katchatag directed cleared 40 years of growth -- trees and bushes, Katchatag said -- from the trail.

Deep snow made progress slow. Villagers worked in pairs, with one walking ahead on snowshoes to pack the snow and the other following on a snowmachine.

"It snows like a bugger out there, and if you get off the trail you sink to your neck," Katchatag said. "Back in the old days the snowmachines were heavy and they just sunk down. Imagine sinking on a snowmachine and looking up into the sky. That's the way it was."

Crews worked only in the winter, because the trail wasn't accessible by land in the summer.

"We didn't know what four-wheelers were," Katchatag said, "and there were too many mosquitoes and gnats."

In January 1973, the trail from Kaltag to Nome was cleared. In February -- with the inaugural Iditarod less than a month away -- Redington called Katchatag with a dilemma.

"He said, 'Doug, we got a race going on and no trail to McGrath. How are we going to open that trail up?'

"I said, Joe, you got the Army there at Fort Rich. Go talk to a general and see if he can send his troops on bivouac training to McGrath. You got to beg, you got to call him sir, you got to do every darn thing in the book."

And so the Army came to the rescue and broke trail to McGrath. The race was on.

Every year since, Katchatag mans the checkpoint at Unalakleet. He is one of the few who have been part of the Iditarod since the beginning.

"I've got it down to a science," he said. "First the trail breakers come in and we feed them. We put all the dog food next to the checkpoint, so we can keep an eye on it, so no dogs get to it, no ravens get to it. It's almost a 24-hour job. The first two races, I stayed up one week straight without sleeping."

He's never been paid a penny. Even the money raised for trail-clearing went to others, not to him.

He keeps threatening to quit, but he never follows through. He's a dog guy, and the race owns a piece of his heart.

Larry Thompson: Race's air force of one

When the Iditarod began in 1973, organizers had a wacky vision of racing dog teams across the vast frozen nothingness that dominates the heart of Alaska come winter.

But without a practical and savvy pilot like Larry Thompson, that vision might have been dashed against the cold, hard reality of hundreds of miles of trackless terrain firmly in the grip of punishing winters.

Without Thompson, there might never have been an Iditarod Air Force -- that collection of pilots that moves people, supplies, dog food, veterinarians, lame dogs and countless other items back and forth between Anchorage and Nome.

Without Thompson, there might not have been a race. As superbly fit as racing sled dogs are, no team can pull all the food needed to fuel a 1,000-mile journey.

When the 39th Iditarod starts Saturday in Anchorage, 31 volunteer pilots will stand ready to help ensure 124,822 pounds of dog food, 391 bales of hay, 5,000 trail markers, 1,135 cans of Heet and 45 veterinarians are where they need to be on the trail to Nome.

But when Thompson, then 38, became the pilot for the inaugural race, he flew alone.

"There's absolutely no way the race could have happened without Larry or somebody like him," said Rich Burnham of Kaltag, a four-time Iditarod finisher who was Thompson's friend and business partner. "No way it could have functioned."

Added Jack Morris, race veterinarian in the 1974 Iditarod: "In the first years, Larry was the whole air force. He did virtually all the flying."

Early race organizers gently roped in Thompson, whose catch-as-catch-can style dovetailed nicely with that of race founder Joe Redington Sr.

"It was on the first Saturday that March, as the teams were leaving Mulcahy Stadium, that race marshal Dick Tozier sought out Thompson and told him there was 'some food' at the airport that needed to get to Susitna Station," author Lew Freedman wrote in the book "Iditarod Silver."

"Could he haul it that day?

"Thompson agreed and went out to the airport, where he found an overwhelming pile of sacks and boxes of dog food and supplies."

That request led to another. And another. And another.

"Thompson was having such a good time," Freedman wrote, "he kept on volunteering -- flying people, food and supplies all the way to Nome. He volunteered his time and plane for about 10 years."

Thompson, who came to Alaska from Bisbee, Ariz., in 1960, fit the role of the quintessential Bush pilot -- a stocky, 5-foot-3 man with a black beard and fleece-lined cowboy boots. He described his Iditarod flying as "hours and hours of monotony, then minutes of stark terror."

"He loved flying over the race and looking down on it," Burnham said. "It gave him empowerment. Just by flying over it. It gave him that real-life experience."

Thompson flew an old Cessna 180, using hand flaps that ran levers controlling the plane's lift.

"The only way he felt comfortable flying was to have that control in his hands," Burnham said. "That got him into places nobody else could go. But he was always cool, calm and in control."

During the Iditarod, the Cessna was always packed.

"There was dog food in gunny sacks stacked up as high as we could see inside the plane," said photographer Rob Stapleton, who flew with Thompson in the race's early years.

Morris, a vet with the Wasilla Veterinary Clinic, still marvels over the number of dogs Thompson managed to fit in his plane.

"I asked him, 'How do you tell when it's overloaded?' 'Easy,' he said. 'When it can't get off the ground,' " Morris recalled.

In 1979, the Iditarod presented Thompson with a huge trophy proclaiming him the "World's Greatest Pilot." He died of lung cancer in 2004 at age 69.

"He was a mold they'll never make again," said Danny Davidson, assistant chief pilot of today's Iditarod Air Force.