Book review: ‘The Hope ‘91 Sled Dog Race’ brings an audacious but improbable event to life on the page

“The Hope ‘91 Sled Dog Race: From Nome, Alaska to Anadyr, Russia”

By Helen Hegener with Jon Van Zyle, Frank Flavin and Sandra Medearis; Northern Lights Media, 2023; 232 pages; $39.95.

“Hope 91 International Intercontinental Sled Dog Race, a most improbable, impossible attempt at sled dog diplomacy between the superpowers took off from Nome on April 6, 1991,” Sandra Medearis writes in a recent book commemorating the event. “About 200 believers and skeptics out of a town population of 4,200 lined the chute to see eight stalwart mushers off to the Soviet Far East.”

It’s easy to see why some were skeptical. The Hope 91 Sled Dog Race challenged mushers with an audacious idea. Gather in Nome and head northward up the coast of Western Alaska to Wales, where Soviet helicopters would pick them and their dogs up, and ferry them over the Bering Strait to Uelen in the Russian Far East. From there they would head south to the port city of Anadyr. That the entire event was organized and launched within about two months made its success seem even more questionable. But succeed it did.

The story of how the race came to be, and what happened along the way, is the subject of “The Hope ‘91 Sled Dog Race,” a recent book from Helen Hegener, the prolific popular historian of Alaska, and especially of sled dogs. And in typical fashion for Hegener, she’s brought in other writers to add a range of perspectives, filled the pages with a treasure trove of photographs, and included reproductions of source materials for readers wanting to dive deeper into the story. It’s a treat.

The book opens with background about the region’s history. Before the United States and the Soviet Union got involved, the Bering Strait was home to numerous Indigenous peoples who had extensive trade networks and family ties on both sides. Indigenous movement across the Strait was routine until the Cold War began, and what became metaphorically known as the Ice Wall divided the two countries. For nearly five decades, travel between them came to a dead halt.

1991 was a unique time in global history. The Cold War was effectively over, and the Soviet Union was just months from collapse. The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, and there was a sense of optimism that was impossible to explain to those too young to have experienced the era. The world felt like it was opening up, and that our worst conflict was behind us. It was in this atmosphere that the race was staged.


The idea first germinated three years earlier during the legendary Friendship Flight, when a delegation of Alaskans flew from Nome to Provideniya in Chukotka to promote business and cultural ties between the two far-flung northern provinces. What began as a pipe dream would take on a life of its own when a small cadre of experienced race organizers that included official Iditarod artist Jon Van Zyle, who contributes photographs and memories to this book, decided to make it happen. It was 1991, winter was well underway, and with spring not that far off, time was limited.

They made it happen. Despite enormous logistical challenges, difficulties with Soviet as well as American bureaucracy, entrants having to pay all their own costs, and no purse for the winner, 14 men and women were at the starting line that April morning with teams ready to go. The race was on, although from the outset the spirit was amicable and largely noncompetitive.

As she has done in other books, Hegener has ceded lengthy sections of this one to other authors. The text on the race itself was penned by Medearis, and is drawn from her account of the event, originally entitled “The Work of Dreamers.” It’s a worthy inclusion and a good way to present the story. Medearis, who passed away in 2022, was the media and communications director for Hope 91 and was present the entire way. Her contributions here amount to a firsthand telling, one that wouldn’t be easily available otherwise.

[With her publishing company, Helen Hegener brings Alaska history (and more) to readers]

In the ensuing pages, as readers follow the dog teams up the coast of Alaska, they ride along. This part of the story is fairly brief and culminates in Wales, where their progress was waylaid by the need for visas for the pilots. This time it was the American government, not its Soviet counterpart, dragging its feet.

After a brief but frustrating delay, they reached the village of Uelen in Russia, where they were joined by six Chukchi mushers. Part of the idea for Hope 91 was to help these men, well accustomed to using dogs for hunting and transportation, learn how to race them, something that requires a different set of skills.

The trip was marred by tragedy as the mushers headed south. Villagers from Novo Chaplino found and broke into the alcohol that had been cached along the trail for use as stove fuel, and drank it. Five died immediately and two soon afterward. Seven more were hospitalized.

Despite vigorous questioning from Soviet authorities, the race was allowed to proceed. After a few more incidents involving either fun or fear, the teams began arriving in Anadyr, with cheering crowds to greet them.

Here Medearis’ narrative concludes, but Hegener provides a bundle of additional materials, spread throughout the book and piled on at the end. Newspaper articles from the time, official correspondences, interviews, reminiscences from some of the participants, and more. She reprints musher Kate Persons’ own lengthy account of the race and gathers the perspectives of other entrants and support staff.

She also shares authorial credit with Hope 91′s official photographer, Frank Flavin, who provides dozens of images, and with Van Zyle, who shares his own photos and frequently entertaining commentary.

The book has a couple of hiccups, uncharacteristic of Hegener, but she runs a one-woman shop. The story found here was begging to be told and she’s assembled it nicely. “Hope ‘91″ and the story it tells remind us that, not so long ago, as the Cold War sputtered to its conclusion, hope was alive on both sides of the Bering Strait. May it be so again one day soon.

[Book review: A new history of sled dogs in North America is vast and intriguing read]

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at