Chasing down a legend: The story of Col. Norman Vaughan

Crocker Snow Jr.

Col. Norman Vaughan's nephew reports from a Massachusetts sled dog race that honors Vaughan's New England and Alaska heritage.

Alaska musher Col. Norman Vaughan was already 68 years old when he came to Alaska bankrupt and divorced. Most men would have tossed it in at that point. But not Vaughan.

At a time when most men were thinking about retirement, Vaughan started running the Iditarod. Twelve times he went north on the trail. “Dream big and dare to fail” was his motto, and he did both. He got lost. He got frostbit. He bumbled around so badly for a couple years that an uppity newspaper columnist opined that for everyone's sake, Norman should quit. Vaughan kept coming back. .

When at last the Iditarod Trail Committee told him they'd seen him enough, he organized the Norman Vaughan Serum Run from Nenana to Nome, an educational event supported by snowmachines, to promote a variety of worthy causes. Three times he journeyed to Washington, D.C. with dog teams -- twice by invitation -- to represent Alaska in presidential inaugural parades. At the age of 88 he went back to Antarctica to climb the 10,302-foot peak Admiral Richard Byrd had named for him a generation earlier.

Vaughan hung on, too, to reach the milestone of 100 years in 2005. He died shortly thereafter, but his legend lives on. Not just in Alaska, but in other odd corners of the world. In January in Massachusetts, a bunch of people who love sled dogs got together to race their teams in Vaughan's name.

We were lucky enough to get Vaughan’s nephew, Crocker Snow Jr., to file a report on the race, but then, what choice did he have? His mother -- Norman's sister -- presented the trophy at the finish. She, like her brother, is now closing in on that big 1-0-0.

--Craig Medred

In the late day gloaming of a warming mid-January day 25 miles north of Boston, Col. Norman Vaughan's New England and Alaska heritage was revisited in a sled dog race that covered six miles, less than one one-hundredth the distance of the Iditarod, in which he raced 12 times.

In the Norman Vaughan Memorial main event of the New England Sled Dog Club race held Jan. 16 in Vaughan's hometown of Hamilton, Mass., Ed Clifford, 44, won in smart fashion by more than two minutes. For being first to claim victory in a competition that hadn't been staged for 42 years, he won a ribbon and small cash prize. Both were presented by Vaughan's sister, Janice Vaughan Snow, 99 years old, with Vaughan's brother, Col. Jerry Vaughan, from Charleston, S.C., standing by.

Clifford, who maintains 25-dog Clifford Kennels in Raymond, N.H., recalled being with his father when he ran this race, which Norman helped organize, in 1967.

"I was along for the ride of course, but I'm sure it helped plant my passion for mushing," he said.

The weekend dog races were staged from the Myopia Hunt Club, the oldest country club in the U.S., along six miles of mostly wooded horse trails. The mushers were to have gone 11 miles, but a sudden thaw on race day saw temperatures topping 40 degrees after two weeks of steady cold. In the warmth, what had been a nice, 6-inch base of snow went first to corn snow and then sugar snow, forcing race organizers to cut the main event down, first to eight miles, and finally six.

Conditions would only get worse through the weekend. Though volunteer snow shovelers managed to keep the trail in shape on Saturday, organizers realized late that day they lacked enough snow for the planned Sunday races. In the end, they were canceled, disappointing both racers and spectators.

Forty dog teams and eight one-dog junior pairings had entered eight different skijoring and mushing races for juniors, amateurs and professionals. Teams came from New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, western Massachusetts and the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Spectators followed. Some 500 cars were crammed into a makeshift parking lot on the Myopia Club polo field next to the start and finish line so people could watch the race sanctioned by the New England Sled Dog Club, the oldest in the country.

In awarding the Norman Vaughan Memorial Prize to Clifford, Mrs. Snow confessed to her own experience with a dog team as a youngster in the area.

"One day when Norman was away," she said, "I harnessed up his team for a little tour. But I could only remember the command ‘gee,' so at every crossing we went right until after several miles on trails I knew from horseback riding, we came in a complete circle back to my family place. When Norman learned about it, he was a little mad, but laughing."

Crocker Snow Jr. is director of the Edward R. Murrow Center at the Fletcher School. Col. Norman Vaughan's nephew, he has witnessed the start and finish of several Iditarods.