Iditarod

Mushers from the inaugural Iditarod look back as the race enters its 50th run

This year marks the 50th running of the Iditarod, an improbable event that few expected was even possible, let alone likely to endure for half a century.

The first race was a moonshot, a half-baked gambit that was muscled into existence by a few tenacious dreamers, boosters, adventure-seekers, grizzled outdoorsmen, skeptical financiers, volunteers and several hundred dogs of assorted pedigree.

Of the 36 teams that embarked on the inaugural experiment running from Anchorage to Nome along historic freight-haul trails, 22 finished (although technically it was 23 mushers who made it, since brothers Robert and Owen Ivan of Akiak ran as a team). Fewer than a dozen of those men (it was all men until the 1974 race) are still alive, many of them still in Alaska and deeply connected to the Iditarod and the legacy of modern distance-mushing.

“I think it has essentially changed for the better over time,” said Dan Seavey, who finished third in the inaugural race, and has both a son and grandson who have gone on to repeatedly win the event he helped pioneer.

In many ways the first and 50th Iditarods bear no resemblance at all. The event’s upper echelons are dominated by professional competitive mushers outfitted in cutting-edge equipment often adorned with the logos of corporate patrons. Powerful headlamps have pierced the strictures of winter darkness and made competition a 24-hour affair largely indifferent to the rhythms of night or day. Spot trackers have eliminated the mystery of who is where in the wilderness. Winners arrive in Nome in eight or nine days now, not the nearly three weeks it took back in the early days. And when they do, the finish line they cross is no longer Kool-Aid poured across the snow. You can bring your iPhone.

But in its fundamentals, the event is unchanged: The race courses along nearly the exact same route from the Southcentral road system over the Alaska Range, past the ghostly, flat mining districts to the Yukon River, popping over an ancient portage to the Bering Sea coast and onward to Nome (only twice did mushers actually start in Anchorage). Competitors camp out in the unpeopled cold to rest and feed their packs of semi-domesticated canines. Unruly weather is a feature, not a bug, in competition. Snowshoes and axes remain among the mandatory gear seldom extricated from sled bags, but required nonetheless.

The concept behind the first Iditarod was more out of place in the era that spawned it than it is now. The primary impetus was to revive long-distance dog mushing, which had yielded almost entirely to sprint racing and snowmachines across Alaska. There was no contemporaneous template for what mushers attempted in 1973 when they pulled their snow hooks up at Tozier Track on Tudor Road in Anchorage.

“It would sound as foreign to today’s racer as Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece,” said Rod Perry, the only competitor residing at the time within the Anchorage Bowl, where local mushers viewed the prospect of a thousand-mile race with attitudes ranging from cockeyed skepticism to outright derision.

In spite of itself, the improbable contest — more experiment than competition — succeeded spectacularly.

‘There’s no money, there’s no trail’

The storied origins of the first Iditarod race are well documented, with enough personal accounts and published tomes to round out an undergraduate seminar.

An extremely abridged version drawn from interviews, historical literature and the Iditarod organization’s official resources goes like this: In 1967, a 56-mile race between Knik and Big Lake took place to commemorate the centennial of Alaska’s purchase by the United States. A portion of the route followed the historical Iditarod Trail, a freight route widely used by long-distance mushers in the early 20th century hauling mail and minerals, goods and gold along a network of townsites, roadhouses and cabins extending from Nome to Seward. Stretches of that great route had been used by Indigenous travelers long before territorial interlopers ever dreamed of consistent commercial service. Recognizing the history of those haul routes in knitting together swaths of the expansive territory of Alaska through dog-team drivers was part of the inspiration for Joe Redington Sr., a Knik dog musher.

By all accounts, Redington was a force to contend with, possessed with uniquely efficacious passion and powers of persuasion that worked to draw in friends, colleagues and investors as he marshaled resources to organize an experimental feat. For years, he kicked around the idea of a long-distance race across Alaska, although plans didn’t begin firming up until a few months before the actual start of the 1973 Iditarod. And even then, many plans were realized only in real time.

Redington’s aims were twofold: reestablish the historic Iditarod Trail, and rekindle enthusiasm for dog mushing, which at the time was vanishing in both urban and rural Alaska with the arrival of reliable, affordable snowmobiles for winter travel, among other factors.

His often-unsung collaborators in pulling off the logistics and promotion of that first race were his wife, Vi, along with two teaches, Gleo Huyck and Tom Johnson, who helped corral the myriad odds and ends it took to stage such a strange and untested spectacle.

A persistent myth is that the event was conjured to commemorate the 1925 Serum Run, made by relays of dog mushers going from Nenana to Nome in the dead of a brutally cold winter to avert a diphtheria outbreak.

“That’s ignorance, basically. And I say that in all sincerity,” said Dan Seavey, who in addition to being part of the group that planned the first race is a retired history teacher.

“Newspapers, guys like you, attached that serum run to the founding of the Iditarod. And that’s pure nonsense,” Seavey said from his home in Seward. “We never once mentioned the serum run when we were setting up the Iditarod.”

The other misconception that has endured, according to Seavey, is that Anchorage mattered at all along the historic trail.

It did not.

As gold was being extracted in volume from Interior and Western Alaska creeks and claims, Anchorage was either nonexistent or inconsequential, an unremarkable creek tributary that haphazardly metastasized into a tent camp for railroad crews. After firmly solidifying into into the state’s population and financial hub, it was selected as the race’s starting point primarily to drum up attention. In early planning, Redington envisioned an out-and-back race of several hundred miles from Knik to the abandoned gold rush town of Iditarod.

He was talked out of that route by Howard Farley of Nome, who told him there would be no spectators out at a “little ghost town,” and racers should just come all the way to the Seward Peninsula, in spite of it being hundreds of miles farther.

That idea percolated among Redington and his conspirators, who ultimately opted for a one-way route from the Anchorage Bowl to the Seward Peninsula.

Farley went on to complete the first Iditarod and worked for years coordinating efforts in Nome, where, at age 89, he still lives.

“I ran this end of the race without a budget. All volunteers,” Farley said. “People in Nome loved to gamble, and they loved to volunteer, back in those days.”

The whole endeavor that first year was built on donated labor and hope. The race purse of $50,000 still wasn’t secured when mushers departed from Anchorage. Redington and a small cohort of his collaborators had assured competitors the prize money was locked down, but were in a race of their own to collect donations, betting proceeds and a sizable bank loan.

Simultaneously, mushers and snowmachiners scrambled to put in stretches of trail between checkpoints, with U.S. Army resources eventually getting marshaled by a sympathetic commander to put down portions of a viable path (much of it later covered over by a storm). Race information was passed along via radio relays. Food drops were a fiasco. Skills and survival abilities varied wildly. Some of the entrants had a lifetime of experience with animal husbandry in the wilderness. Others were barely old enough to vote and had little experience running dogs.

“There’s no money, there’s no trail,” recalled Rod Perry, who finished the first race in a little over 30 days. “People look at the trail with only today’s trail for reference. You couldn’t hardly make it to Skwentna on a snowmachine.”

Still, three dozen teams paid their $100 entry fees, showed up on the first Saturday in March on Tudor Road and set off what many expected to be a true adventure, a disaster, or some of each.

One musher made it a hundred yards out of the race chute before he scratched.

‘Hunters of the forest and sea ice’

Dan Seavey’s 2013 book “The First Great Race” recounts the inaugural Iditarod in detail, pulling in interviews taped at the time, as well as some conducted decades later, and abundant primary documents. It’s a wealth of observations, recollections and detailed descriptions of just how ramshackle and casual the whole thing was.

The first race’s start in Anchorage was not ceremonial, as it is today on the crowded downtown streets before mushers truck their dogs up to Willow to officially hit the trail. The event kicked off in what’s now Midtown Anchorage, with 300 to 500 people on hand for the spectacle of nearly 400 dogs and their humans departing. Some mushers had slept on location the night before.

Mushers had anywhere from seven to 20 dogs on their ganglines when they set off, some of them honed athletes, others basically pulled from wherever they could be found.

“Everybody’s got good dogs now,” said Perry, who recalled filling out his team with a dog from the pound and another from a newspaper ad. “I had this throw-together dog team.”

The discrepancies in canine quality were huge, said Perry, who authored “Trailbreakers,” a two-volume history of the Iditarod Trail and the sled dog race.

Likewise, hardware ran the gamut. Sleds ranged from 12-foot-long freight haulers to sprint rigs to one made mostly of 6-inch pieces of lumber. All manner of outdoor gear was on hand, from Army surplus mittens and REI down jackets to sealskin mukluks and knee-length fur parkas.

“The type of person that ran that first Iditarod was way, way different than (who) ran Iditarods after that. Pretty much they were trappers and prospectors and big game guides,” Perry said, “hunters of the forest and sea ice.”

“Parkas were mended, sleds were splinted, dogs were hard-used, and everybody looked like they had just dropped what they were doing in their daily life,” he added. “The people I’ve described as ‘tough to kill.’ ”

Ken Chase was one of those who dropped what he was doing when he first heard mention of a great race on the radio at his home in Anvik.

“If it was gonna happen, I was going to be there,” Chase said in a short video published by the Iditarod at the end of last year.

“I knew we could make it because I ran dogs on the trapline for years, and we ran ‘em pretty hard,” Chase recalled. “Didn’t seem to bother ‘em.”

“Back when it started, we all had either jobs or grew weed for a living,” said Jack Schultheis, who was 21 years old when he set out on that first race. “Of the people that started it, nobody had any idea what it was gonna be like.”

Schultheis was “green as grass” when he decided to enter the race. Newly arrived in Alaska from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he lived in Knik near the Redingtons, accepted some cast-off hounds and opted to run out of “sheer ignorance.”

“This’ll be all right, this’ll be cool,’” Schultheis recalled thinking at the time. “I didn’t know any better.”

Schultheis helped put in trail just days before the race start, and after setting off made it only as far as Skwentna before scratching.

“I was sick, I had pneumonia from breaking trail and all this bullshit to get the race to go,” Schultheis said with a laugh.

After formally withdrawing, he mushed back to Knik, then went to the hospital, where he stayed for a week.

‘Whatever it took to get to Nome’

To say there were logistical challenges along that first year’s trail would be a drastic understatement. Accounts of the 1973 Iditarod are replete with details of absent trail markers, checkpoints bare of food and improvised sleeping arrangements. Seavey and some other front-runners accidentally visited the community of Koyukuk, which was not on the race route.

“Mostly it was very, very primitive and alone out there,” said Perry, who spent much of the race toward the back of the pack. “Several times, I remember going two or three days without hearing any airplane or snowmobile.”

There were no headlamps yet, and options for illumination at night were limited to flashlights that went largely unused. Mushers ran by daylight and camped during the night, a far cry from the rhythms of how the race has since developed, where calculated run-rest schedules have divorced competitors from the dictates of any natural clock.

Particularly in the first half of the race, with few community checkpoints along the route, mushers camped out, collecting in small clusters for the night around common fires, often divvying up chores and sharing food. Upon reaching the Yukon and through the race’s finish, they primarily stayed in communities along the trail, hosted by volunteers and families. That practice was eventually done away with when organizers figured out it was giving a competitive advantage to veteran mushers who received lavish accommodations from hosts who had transformed into friends during year after year of visits. Old-timers lament that barring home-stays in favor of corralled accommodations in community buildings or school floors has vanquished many of the close relationships built with locals fostered in those early races.

A particular challenge that first year was getting over the Alaska Range. Farley recalled an early hiccup was that Redington had neglected to get word to the Rainy Pass lodge that a dog race would be coming through, leading a very surprised winter caretaker to storm down toward Puntilla Lake in a confused huff when dog teams started showing up.

The route didn’t go through Rainy Pass that year as it does now, but along a lower, longer crossing past Hellsgate and over Ptarmigan Pass before descending the north side of the Alaska Range. Conditions were abysmal.

“Ptarmigan Valley, that’ll never get out of my mind,” Chase said. “I snowshoed for three days up that valley ahead of the dogs. Bud Smyth and Victor Kotongan and I breaking trail, ‘cause it stormed.”

“That’s something you don’t see anymore,” Chase said.

The dog food, by today’s standards, was miserable. At the time, it was hard to even get high-quality kibble in Alaska. And with little guidance available on how to feed a dog team running dozens of miles a day for weeks at a time, most competitors just sort of guessed at what they’d need.

“We had traditional stuff, dried salmon and beaver meat,” Chase said.

Farley’s dogs took “whatever they could get.”

“We ate a lot of cornmeal and oatmeal,” he added.

Seavey sent out kibble and 300 pounds of halibut heads to food-drop sites. But during a brutal slog through a stretch of trail outside Poorman that was snowed over by a fierce winter storm, mushers got desperate enough they started looking for signs of game and pulling rifles out of their sled bags

“George Attla and I were gonna go moose hunting to feed the dogs. Whatever it took to get to Nome,” Seavey said.

Luckily, the group was spotted by a small plane, and food was delivered.

Dick Wilmarth of Red Devil won that year’s race, and declined to ever run it again after that. Until his passing in 2018, Wilmarth lived most of his life mining, flying and mechanic-ing in some of the most rugged parts of Bush Alaska, smiling any time he regaled family, friends or strangers with tales of that challenging first race. According to a eulogy for Wilmarth provided by his family, at one point along the trail, when front-runners had been bogged down by storms and brutal cold, a number posed the question of whether they should call the whole thing quits. Wilmarth is reported to have told them they could stop if they wanted, but he planned on continuing to Nome. The prize money he won that year financed the purchase of heavy equipment for his placer mining operations along the George River and later near Flat.

At least one published account credits Wilmarth’s victory in part to some help he received with trail-spotting from a small plane and a snowmachine team recruited to guide him through part of a storm. Seavey’s book includes an episode inside a shelter cabin during a storm where he heard Wilmarth offer some snowmachiners “all the whiskey you can drink” in Nome if they would help guide him there. Five decades later, he harbors no ill will, and doesn’t believe it undermines Wilmarth’s victory in any way. The race was young, its rules modest and vague enough to fit on a single sheet of paper, Seavey explained. They were open to some interpretation as a bunch of rookies did whatever they could to make it across the finish line and prove the whole endeavor possible.

Wilmarth’s surviving family members and friends rebuke that portrayal.

“This year is an emotional one for our family. Dick Wilmarth isn’t here with us today to commemorate his victory at the first Iditarod or respond to campfire tales, half a century old,” said Rebecca Wilmarth, Dick’s daughter.

“We would like to celebrate the accomplishments of all the brave men who risked life and limb to run the very first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The accounts we’ve heard were of families left sobbing at the starting line, a brutal unbroken winter wasteland, and mushers who kept each other from starving. These stories of heroism and camaraderie on the trail are those we have grown up hearing. These are the stories worth passing on,” Wilmarth said.

Prior to the Burled Arch that greets mushers on Nome’s Front Street today, the first finish line was demarcated by bright Kool-Aid poured across the snow.

Farley and his wife had coordinated hospitable receptions for the mushers to celebrate the feat of making it all the way to Nome, regardless of position or how long the journey took.

“This isn’t a trip around the block or anything. It’s still a thousand miles,” Farley said.

A tradition coalesced where mushers had to attend the local banquet in order to collect their prize check, and they had to get up and give a short speech about the race. Farley takes pride in explaining how the Nome coordinators went all out for the guests, flying in a chef from an Anchorage hotel to prepare the finest of fare in the local school kitchen.

“I’m a butcher by trade, and I said, ‘We gotta have prime rib,’ ” Farley said of the first year’s banquet. “We had a sled full of shrimp. And all kinds of goodies to back it up.”

Howard Farley finished in 20th place that year, in just under 31 days and 12 hours, his first and last time running the Iditarod.

“I got 500 bucks,” Farley said. “Joe knew he had to pay me. I wouldn’t take an IOU.”

Thankfully, by the time he’d arrived back home, the race purse checks had mostly cleared.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from Dick Wilmarth’s family.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, politics, drugs, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the paper he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

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