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‘Yukon Fox’ Emmitt Peters Sr., the third Iditarod champion, dies at 79

In this March 10, 2006, file photo, Iditarod veteran and 1975 champion Emmitt Peters, right, toasts Paul Gebhardt, of Kasilof, Alaska, for being the first musher to reach the Yukon River checkpoint of Ruby in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Alaska State Troopers confirmed Peters died Thursday at his home in Ruby. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)

Emmitt Peters Sr., an Alaska Native who won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as a rookie in 1975, has died at age 79 in his home village of Ruby.

Peters died Thursday of natural causes, Alaska State Troopers said.

"He's going to be sorely missed," Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George said.

Peters, an Athabascan, was nicknamed the “Yukon Fox” after his victory in the 1975 race, only the third contest in the 1,000-mile Iditarod.

By reaching the Nome finish line first, Peters knocked six days off the previous record set in the first race at a time when competitors took far longer than they do today to run the trail.

Peters ran his winning race in 14 days, 14 hours and 43 minutes, compared to the 20 days and 49 minutes it took musher Dick Wilmarth to win the first race. This year's winner, Thomas Waerner of Norway, won the in 9 days, 10 hours, 37 minutes and 47 seconds.

Peters was one of just a few early mushers to win as a rookie, Iditarod officials said.

Jerry Austin, Emmitt Peters and Duane Halverson take a break in the Grayling checkpoint during the 1981 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 14, 1981. (Marc Olson / ADN archive)
In 1982 Emmitt Peters of Ruby, the ’Yukon Fox ’, arrives at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome in 4th place. Peters is the only rookie to ever win the race (1975). (Fran Durner / Anchorage Daily News archive)

Peters told the Iditarod in a 2016 interview that he got into the Iditarod after race founder Joe Redington noticed his dogs at the 20-mile sprints the Ruby musher used to run in Anchorage.

Redington told the musher he had Iditarod dogs. Peters said he had never been in that kind of race before and Redington told him to just follow him.

"Instead of my following him, he was following me," Peters said with a laugh.

In all, Peters completed 13 races, placing 40th in his last race in 2000. He scratched in a 14th race in 1992 after his dogs became sick, he told the Iditarod.

The family is planning a celebration of his life for either late summer or early fall, depending on the situation with the coronavirus, St. George said.

The celebration is expected to draw many relatives and friends from outside the state, according to St. George, who called Peters an icon not only as a musher but as a community leader.

Emmitt Peters and Gary Attla visit at the Rainy Pass checkpoint during the 1981 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 9, 1981. (Marc Olson / ADN archive)