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‘Truly a legend’: Champion of first Iditarod dies at 75

1973 Iditarod race winner Dick Wilmarth of Red Devil in Nome (Mike McDermott / ADN archive)

The champion of the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race died in Palmer last week. He was 75.

Dick Wilmarth leaves behind his wife, Shirley, six children and many grandchildren, said his eldest daughter, Rebecca Wilmarth, 28, in a phone interview Wednesday from Red Devil, the small Alaska town about 250 miles west of Anchorage. Her father spent most of his life there as a gold miner and pilot.

Wilmarth, she said, was a hardworking and humble man who sought spontaneous adventure.

"He was my hero," she said. "He made me feel like nothing was impossible."

Wilmarth died in his home in Palmer on March 21 after a battle with prostate cancer, his daughter said. "He was surrounded by all of us and all of the grandkids, so it was a peaceful time."

In 1959, Wilmarth moved to Alaska from Idaho with his older brother. He was 17. They wanted to fish.

Wilmarth eventually settled in Red Devil, working as a miner and learning how to fly planes.

He competed in his first and only Iditarod at age 30.

The Associated Press reported that Wilmarth learned about plans for the inaugural sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome just months before it started, cobbling together a dog team through trades in Alaska Native villages along the Kuskokwim River. He swapped a rifle for a snowmachine, The AP said, and then traded that for five of his 12 sled dogs.

Wilmarth's was one of 34 teams that entered the 1973 Iditarod. He hoped to win money to buy a backhoe, according to a 1997 Anchorage Daily News article.

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Back then, the Iditarod was a far different contest — more of an exercise in survival than a race to Nome. Sometimes a trail was set, and sometimes it wasn't.

"It was pretty rough," Wilmarth said in a 1991 ADN article.

Wilmarth said he had no supplies in some checkpoints, including Skwentna and Rainy Pass. In McGrath, he borrowed food from a friend's freezer. Near Galena, he almost fell into the Yukon River, looking for fish.

At one point during the race, Wilmarth recounted in the 1991 interview, most of the teams had become so exhausted and cold that they tried to convince him to agree to a temporary stop. "I told them, 'You can stop if you want. I'm going to Nome.' "

And with that, Wilmarth led the pack into 55-below temperatures.

He won the 1973 Iditarod with an eight-dog team, including lead dog Hotfoot, after 20 days and 49 minutes on the trail (more than double the time it took this year's Iditarod winner).

Joe Redington, left, and Orville Lake, right, present Dick Wilmarth of Red Devil the trophy for his victory in the inaugural Iditarod in 1973. (Mike McCormick / ADN archive)

Wilmarth proved that taking a sled-dog team on the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome was possible.

"He is truly a legend and he will be missed," said Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George.

Of the 34 teams that started the 1973 Iditarod, only 22 made it to the finish line.

Wilmarth never returned to the Iditarod Trail as a competitor. But sometimes, he could be found at race time in the ghost town of Iditarod, the checkpoint roughly 60 air miles away from his home, waiting for mushers to arrive, said Mark Nordman, today's Iditarod race marshal and race director.

In 1995, Nordman said, he was working as a race judge when he found Wilmarth in Iditarod in a wall tent. Wilmarth asked if anyone wanted to go look for the dog teams leading the race, Nordman said. So the two men set out in Wilmarth's plane.

"And we flew along and there was the lead team and we landed right by the side of the trail and it was Doug Swingley," Nordman said. "Dick said, 'I'll trade you my airplane for that dog team,' and Doug said, 'Not a chance,' and off he went to win his Iditarod."

Nordman laughed as he recounted the story. That's the moment, he said, he always thinks about when he thinks of Wilmarth.

St. George said that when Wilmarth was asked in 2008 why he didn't race the Iditarod again, "He said, 'Cause I won,' and just smiled."

After the 1973 Iditarod, Wilmarth continued mining and flying. He was always busy, said his daughter, Rebecca. He built houses. He built boats. Just last fall, she said, she wanted to build a pizza oven — so the two constructed one together.

"He could do just about anything," she said.

She said her family is still organizing memorial services for Wilmarth in both Palmer and Red Devil.

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