Excerpted from IDITAROD: THE GREAT RACE TO NOME by Bill Sherwonit
The year was 1966. Four decades had passed since airplanes had begun to edge out sled dog teams as the mail carrier of choice. Now even more drastic changes were occurring. Sled dog racing had continued to survive—and even thrive—in some population centers, most notably Fairbanks and Anchorage. But throughout much of Alaska, mushing was on the downslide; the sled dog subculture seemed headed for extinction. The decline was most evident in small rural communities, where sled dogs were rapidly being replaced by snowmobiles (also known as snowmachines in Alaska).
“Dog teams were disappearing fast in the mid-1960s,” Joe Redington, Sr., recalled years later. “Snowmachines were taking over in the villages. When I visited Interior villages in the fifties, every household had five or six dogs. They were the only transportation. But by the late sixties, village dogs were almost gone.”
Redington, a longtime Alaskan and devoted musher, didn’t like that disappearing act. But neither did he have a solution—at least not until he met Dorothy Page at the 1966 Willow Winter Carnival. Then and there, the future “Father and Mother of the Iditarod” had a conversation that helped revive and reenergize the sport of mushing in Alaska.
Page, a self-described history buff, had seen her first sled dog race in 1960, shortly after moving to Alaska from California. In 1966, she’d been named president of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee; her primary task was to organize an event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia. She decided to stage “a spectacular dog race to wake Alaskans up to what mushers and their dogs had done for Alaska. We wanted to pay them a tribute.”
The Iditarod Trail seemed ideal for such an event. It was, after all, a famous route used by mushers during the gold rush era. And it passed through both Knik and Wasilla, which would bring the race close to home. There was only one problem, but it was a big one: No dog driver would back the idea. Then Page crossed paths with Redington at the Willow carnival. Little did she know it, but Joe Sr. was the perfect man for the job.
Born February 1, 1917, “in a tent on the Chisholm Trail in Oklahoma,” Redington was fathered by a drifting laborer who variously worked as a farmer, rancher, and oil- field worker. His mother was an “Oklahoma outlaw who took off for the hills” shortly after Joe’s birth. Following his mother’s departure, Joe shared a nomadic life with his father, James, and brother, Ray. In 1948, the family’s travels brought them to Alaska. Shortly after crossing the border, the Redingtons stopped for fuel. The owners of the service station presented them with a gift: a puppy. It was, in retrospect, an omen of things to come.
The Redingtons weren’t rich, but Joe used what money he had to buy land in Knik. By chance, that property was adjacent to the Iditarod Trail, which after a quarter-century of disuse had become overgrown. In the fall of 1948, Redington met Lee Ellexson, an Alaskan sourdough who’d driven mail-carrying dog teams along the Iditarod Trail in the early 1900s. “Lee sold me some sled dogs,” Joe recounted. “He’d tell me stories of the old days and took me out on the trail. He sold me on mushing.”
By the end of his first winter in Alaska, Redington owned 40 dogs and had started up his Knik Kennels. At first he used the dogs for work rather than recreation. They hauled equipment and the logs Redington used to build his cabins. They also helped in rescue and recovery missions. Redington contracted with the U.S. Air Force to recover the wreckage of aircraft that had crashed and to rescue, or recover the remains of, military personnel. From 1949 to 1957, using teams of 20 to 30 dogs, he hauled millions of dollars’ worth of parts and hundreds of servicemen from remote areas. From 1954 to 1968, he also used dog teams in his work as a hunting guide. But always he kept a special interest in the Iditarod Trail.
In the early 1950s, Joe and his wife, Vi, began to clear portions of the trail and lobbied to have it added to the National Historic Trail System. (Congress finally designated the Iditarod a national historic trail in 1978.) Then, in 1966, Dorothy Page proposed her centennial race.
Joe Sr. excitedly responded, “That would be great.” But he agreed to support Page’s idea only if the event offered $25,000 in total prize money, an extraordinary amount for that time. (The prize money, or “purse,” is divided among a race’s top finishers; depending on the event, anywhere from 10 to 30 racers may split the purse.) By contrast, Anchorage’s long-established and widely acclaimed Fur Rendezvous World Championship, begun in 1946, offered only $7,500 in 1967. “I wanted the biggest dog race in Alaska,” Redington explained. “And the best way to do that was to offer the biggest purse.”
The proposed event, scheduled for mid-February 1967, initially met with considerable opposition. Some of Alaska’s most notable mushers predicted it would fail miserably. Instead, it was a smashing success that attracted an all-star field of 58 racers. Run in two heats over a 25-mile course, the race was officially named the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race, in honor of mushing legend Leonhard Seppala. Over the years, the Iditarod race’s origins have been closely linked with the 1925 “Great Race of Mercy” to Nome. Most people believe the Iditarod was established to honor the drivers and dogs who carried the diphtheria serum, a notion the media have perpetuated. In reality, “Seppala was picked to represent all mushers,” Page stressed. “He died in 1967 and we thought it was appropriate to name the race in his honor. But it could just as easily have been named after Scotty Allan. The race was patterned after the All-Alaska Sweepstakes races (of the early 1900s), not the serum run.”
The centennial race was won by Isaac Okleasik, a resident of Teller on the Seward Peninsula. His portion of the $25,000 purse was $7,000, by far the biggest mushing payday of that era. But the Iditarod soon appeared to be a one-time big deal. The race was canceled in 1968 for lack of snow and interest. It was reinstated in 1969, but only $1,000 in prize money could be raised. Not surprisingly, the field also shrank, from 58 mushers to 12.
Enthusiasm for an Iditarod Trail race all but died that year. Only one person kept the dream alive: Joe Sr. Rather than see it fade away, he wanted to expand the event, make it longer, better, more lucrative. Initially, Redington planned a race from Knik to the gold-boom ghost town of Iditarod. “Everybody asked, ‘Where the hell is Iditarod?’ Nobody knew anything about Iditarod then,” Joe said. “So I changed it to Nome. Everybody knew where Nome is. That was our first smart move.”
It may have been smart, but it wasn’t well received. Skeptics labeled the proposed thousand-mile sled dog race an “impossible dream.” And some folks began calling Redington “the Don Quixote of Alaska.” Paying no attention to the cynics, Redington promised in 1969 that there would be a long-distance race to Nome by 1973, with an outrageous purse of $50,000. Despite some major obstacles, trail-clearing and fund-raising among them, Redington pulled off his impossible dream. Thirty-four drivers signed up for the first-ever Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and $51,000 was raised.
Joe Sr. billed the Iditarod as a 1,049-mile race. There was no question that the course was about 1,000 miles long; and the “49” was intended to symbolize Alaska, the forty-ninth state. For many years, the official distance was considered to be over 1,100 miles. But with some route changes and more accurate measurements, organizers now figure that Iditarod racers travel just under 1,000 miles.
Twenty-two of the 34 teams reached Nome in March 1973. The winner was Dick Wilmarth, a little-known entrant from the tiny community of Red Devil, who finished in 20 days. A mysterious footnote to the race involves Wilmarth’s lead dog, Hot Foot, who somehow got loose at the end of the trail in Nome and was not seen again until two weeks later, after finding his way back home to Red Devil, more than 500 miles away. His return was especially amazing because there are two major rivers, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, between Nome and Red Devil.
The race had exceeded everyone’s expectations, even Redington’s. But another serious and unforeseen problem had arisen: A large number of dogs had died along the trail (depending on which published account you read, the toll was anywhere from
16 to 30), causing an uproar and protests, especially among animal rights groups.
“We got lots of letters and telegrams telling us to stop this cruel race,” Redington said. “Even Governor Bill Egan wrote to us. There was a lot of pressure to stop.
“The SPCA took out half-page ads. It’s true a lot of dogs died, mostly from pneumonia and dehydration. It wasn’t good. But we were trying to take good care of the dogs. The first two years were tough on the dogs, but gradually we learned how to properly care for them.”
The next year, the Iditarod continued to have financial problems, and the purse dropped to $34,000. Yet 44 mushers signed up. Carl Huntington, an Athabascan racer from the Interior village of Galena, took first place in 20 days, 15 hours. Afterward, Redington took a poll of the mushers. “I asked them, ‘Do you want to see another race?’ They all said yes. I think it was established after 1974. The mushers said they’d go even if the purse wasn’t big.”
The 1975 Iditarod was a landmark race for two reasons: A major corporate sponsor pledged $50,000, and several rules were added to ensure proper care and health of the dogs. The dog death rate dropped dramatically that year, with only two reported losses. But in 1976, the race’s sponsor withdrew its financial backing in response to continued negative publicity about dog care. The Iditarod Trail Committee’s Board of Directors wanted to postpone the event two years while building its finances, but Redington refused, believing that such a postponement “would have killed the race.”
With help from Dorothy Page and her husband, Von, Joe Sr. again kept the show going. The race has grown steadily—with a few rough episodes along the way—ever since and the Iditarod has earned national and international credibility and fame as “The Last Great Race.”
The race purse would eventually increase to well over $500,000, with more than $70,000—an amount greater than the entire purse in 1973—awarded to a number of champions over the years. While the purse does fluctuate—in 2018 it dropped back to the $500,000 mark for the first time in 20 years—the Iditarod has steadily evolved into Alaska’s sporting version of “March Madness.” Dozens of journalists from throughout the United States and overseas have reported from the trail. Television networks have covered the race and produced post-race specials. And entrants have represented nearly 20 countries including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and Switzerland.
By almost any measure, the Iditarod is a success. The dream is real, thanks to the spirit, foresight, and determination of an adventurer named Joe Redington, Sr.
©2019 By BILL SHERWONIT. All rights reserved. Excerpted from IDITARO: THE GREAT RACE TO NOME by permission of Sasquatch Books.
THE IDITAROD’S ROOTS AND THE TRAIL’S HEYDAY
©2019 By Bill Sherwonit
To uncover the deepest roots of the Last Great Race, you would have to travel back in time thousands of years and visit another continent. Though no one knows exactly when humans first used dogs to pull sleds, it appears the practice began among the indigenous peoples of northern Eurasia. Some of those earliest dog drivers would eventually cross the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska, where the oldest physical evidence of sled-dog use—sled parts and material suggesting harnesses—comes from archaeological sites in the state’s Northwest region.
The dogs used by Alaska’s Natives were large, powerful animals. Descended from the wolf, these early husky breeds weighed up to 80 pounds or more, with thick necks and chests and short but strong legs. One breed, perhaps developed by the Mahlemut Eskimos, gave rise to what we today call the Alaskan malamute, a large, gentle, thick-coated husky with wolflike facial features and a legendary ability to endure extreme cold.
Among the early Euro-American explorers to describe Native dog teams was Henry Bannister, who visited Alaska in the 1860s. According to Bannister’s report in the 1870 edition of The American Naturalist, Eskimo dogs “were characterized by a bushy tail, erect ears, and intelligent expression of countenance. . . . As soon as the sled is brought out . . . the dogs gather round, and, fairly dancing with excitement, raise their voices in about a dozen unmelodious strains.” In that respect, at least, they show little difference from contemporary racing teams.
The Eskimo teams that Bannister encountered normally had five to seven dogs, yet they would sometimes pull loads of up to a thousand pounds. Many teams included pups, which were put into harness at an early age to learn correct pulling techniques. Like their owners, the dogs endured a hard life. In summer they were often allowed to roam free and find their own food; in winter, when their work became necessary, they would be fed nutritious meals, including seal and walrus meat.
The arrival of white Euro-Americans in Alaska greatly expanded the roles of sled dogs. From the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, dog teams were used for transportation, exploration, trapping, hunting, hauling supplies, mining, and mail delivery. Trappers using dog-powered sleds and toboggans worked Alaska’s Interior while traveling together in dog “trains” and even larger “brigades.” Averaging 25 to 50 miles per day, trappers’ teams would cover thousands of miles in a single winter.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, dogs became invaluable to Alaska’s gold miners. Mushers called “dog punchers” would haul food, freight, mail, and mining equipment to gold claims and then pack out gold on their return trips. As demand for gold increased, so did the price of dogs. Big, strong, durable animals could bring $1,000 or more. Sled dogs were equally important to Alaska’s mail service in the early 1900s—and one of the most important routes was the Iditarod Trail.
Some segments of the course that Iditarod racers follow today were developed many centuries ago by Inupiat Eskimos and Athabascans, long before Alaska was “dis- covered” by European explorers. Russian fur traders used portions of the route during the early 1800s. But without question, the Iditarod Trail’s heyday was during the Territory’s gold rush era, from the late 1880s through the mid-1920s.
Primarily a winter pathway (in summer the swamps, bogs, and lowland tundra it crosses are virtually impassable), the trail acted as a transportation and communication corridor that connected mining camps, trading posts, and other settlements that sprang up during the gold rush. Serving as one of Alaska’s main overland routes from 1911 into the early 1920s, the Iditarod Trail was actually a network of trails. Its main stem started at the ice-free port of Seward and ended at the gold-boom town of Nome on the Bering Sea coast. Including side branches, the entire system measured more than 2,200 miles.
The southern portion of the route was created during the late 1880s, through what was known as “Cook Inlet country.” Interestingly enough, the earliest trailblazers came seeking coal, not gold. The region’s first notable gold strike was made at Resurrection Creek in 1891, and within five years more than 3,000 people had poured into the district. A second rush into the region occurred in 1898. Thousands of stampeders eventually settled in such Cook Inlet communities as Hope, Sunrise, Knik, and Susitna.
That same year, on the shores of the Bering Sea, prospectors found the gold-bearing sands of Cape Nome, thus triggering one of the biggest stampedes in U.S. history. Within two years, an estimated 30,000 fortune seekers set up camp, more than
$2 million was extracted from Nome’s “golden sands,” and the city built a reputation as a Wild West town characterized by claim jumping, violence, and corrupt officials.
As with most stampedes, many of the gold seekers failed to strike any riches at all. By 1905, Nome’s population had dropped to about 5,000, but the town remained the commercial and communications hub of Northwest Alaska. Because of its regional importance, territory officials sought to end Nome’s wintertime isolation—which often stretched from October to June, when the Bering Sea was frozen and contact with the “outside” world was essentially cut off. After several attempts failed to establish a direct and economical overland route from Nome to ice-free ports in the state’s Southcentral region, the U.S. Army’s Alaska Road Commission ordered that a route be surveyed from Seward to Nome. Led by Walter Goodwin, a four-man team began the survey in January 1908 and in three months blazed a path hundreds of miles long.
In his survey report, Goodwin concluded that the proposed route would make sense economically only if additional gold discoveries were made along it, thus increasing the amount of traffic. In an ironic twist, just such a discovery occurred several months later. On Christmas Day 1908, prospectors W. A. Dikeman and John Beaton found gold on a tributary of the Haiditarod River, about 60 miles southwest of the route Goodwin had surveyed months prior—a strike that prompted Alaska’s last major gold rush.
By 1912, more than 10,000 fortune hunters had been lured to the so-called Inland Empire. Most settled in either Ruby or Iditarod (derived from the Indian word haidi- tarod, meaning a “far distant place”), but numerous other gold-boom towns and camps were established and connected by a crude system of trails. The Iditarod strike and subsequent gold boom prompted completion of the Seward-to-Nome project. A work crew of nine men and six dog teams—again led by Goodwin—cleared, marked, and improved nearly 1,000 miles of trail during the winter of 1910–11.
Through the mid-1920s, thousands of people traveled the Iditarod’s network of trails in winter. Most drove dog teams, but some rode on horse-drawn sleds. Others walked, snowshoed, or even bicycled, usually because they couldn’t afford to own or rent a dog team. One such hiker, Charles Lee Cadwallader, recounted his 1917 adventures in the book Reminiscences of the Iditarod Trail. “The dog team was an expensive thing to possess if you did not have work for them other than pulling you over the trail,” Cadwallader reported. As proof, he quoted the following prices: $200 for a “good” five-dog team; $150 for sled and harnesses; and 50 cents per dog per day to feed the team (or about $35 for a two-week journey with five dogs). Accounting for inflation, a five-dog team in 1917 would cost more than $2,500. Serious professional mushers today could spend more than $1,000 on a single high-caliber sled dog.
Cadwallader chose to walk from Anchorage to Iditarod in April. He explained: “At this time of year a person would not need snowshoes and would not experience any extreme cold. Ten below zero to 20 above zero would be the average temperatures to expect. The time it would take to mush in to the camp [a distance of about 400 miles] would require 12 to 20 days.”
Traveling with several different companions, he walked anywhere from 14 to
62 miles per day. Though the pace was exhausting, he enjoyed the adventure: “This trail winding its way over the frozen tundra held something for the musher that out- weighed his thought of being tired and every muscle being crowned with a boil. . . . This was the land of the midnight sun and it held romance. . . .”
The length of Cadwallader’s daily travels, as for nearly everyone who used the trail, was determined by the distance between roadhouses. Dozens were established along the trail that connected Nome and Seward. According to the Bureau of Land Management (which in the 1980s prepared a management plan for the historic trail): “Almost as fast as the trail was surveyed, enterprising young men and women began staking out sites. . . . Those that were actually built and utilized were spaced about a day’s journey apart [from 14 to 30 miles]. These inns were vital . . . for they meant a warm fire, shelter, and a hot meal after a day on the trail.” All roadhouse owners were required to keep lists of their guests, to help track any who got lost.
Though prospectors, trappers, freighters, missionaries, government officials, and assorted other business people traveled the trail, mail carriers earned special acclaim for their cold-weather heroism. Until dog teams were replaced by airplanes in the 1920s and ’30s, mushers who owned mail routes were “kings of the trail.” Not only did U.S. laws require that mail teams be given the right-of-way, but carriers also received special treatment at roadhouses. They typically were given the best seats at the table, the first servings of food, and the best bunks for sleeping.
Mail carriers earned such pampering; their job was a difficult and hazardous one. They frequently fought blinding blizzards, frigid temperatures, and 70-mile-per-hour winds to deliver the mail on schedule.
Pete Curran, Jr., delivered mail from Solomon to Golovin on the Bering Sea from 1924 to 1938. Running a team of 21 to 23 dogs (enough to get up hills while carrying 500 to 600 pounds of mail), Curran was expected to maintain a regular weekly routine from late November to early May: three days to Golovin, three days back to Solomon, one day of rest, then back to Golovin. The challenge came in meeting that schedule in all kinds of weather.
“You’d have to be on time regardless of the weather or trail conditions,” Curran recalled. “If I lost a day, I had to make a double run the next day. So I had to go no matter what the weather. . . . Sometimes in those storms you couldn’t see half of the team. You just had to trust your leader to keep going.”
Billy McCarty, who carried mail along the Yukon River between Ruby and Nine- Mile Point, remembered, “There were days the poor dogs, they just hated to go. Going upriver, against a headwind, cold; oh, it really bothered them. But we had no choice. They had to go, whether it was cold, or raining, or anything. They just had to go.” For their services, mail carriers were paid as much as $150 per month, “a lot of money in those days, when things were cheap,” McCarty said. “Back then, it was like $100,000. Good money.”
Mail carriers weren’t the only mushers to build heroic reputations along the Iditarod Trail during Alaska’s gold rush days. Some of the era’s most famous drivers were sled dog racers. During the trail’s heyday, highly publicized mushing contests were staged at several gold-boom towns, including Iditarod and Ruby. But the greatest race of that era was born in Nome: the All-Alaska Sweepstakes.
©2019 By BILL SHERWONIT. All rights reserved. Excerpted from IDITAROD: THE GREAT RACE TO NOME by permission of Sasquatch Books.