”One, two, three, six, five, four, three, two, GO! Celebrating the one-hundredth year and anniversary of the historical Iditarod Trail, that is Rod Perry in Iditarod thirty-nine, a legend in mushing circles in Iditarod history!”
Fabian Carey died in 1975. The year following his passing, I lived in the cabin shown in the photo. Part of the agreement with Fabian’s widow Mary, was that I take down the old cache, which had become worm-eaten and teetery. In the cache were thesled dog tug lines shown in the photo. Being sentimental and a dog man, I just couldn’t throw them away. They were too symbolic.
I carried these lines with me by dog team when I came out of Lake Minchumina in January of 1977to reach the highway system to run that year’s Iditarod. It was an 18-day expedition by compass, axe and snowshoe ahead of my dog team.
Fortunately, I am a nut on traditional sleds and their design, and have been since I was introduced to dog mushing in 1968. Having constructed ten hickory sleds for freighting and long distance racing, I am considered an artisan at the disappearing craft.
Doubly fortunately, an elderly and dear family friend as I was growing up, Alma Preston, had worked for Col. Harry Revell of Seward, Alaska, who held the contract to deliver U. S. Mail over the Iditarod Trail. Alma took many snapshots of the sled dog operation and gathered them into a priceless photo album. Included were numerous shots of the sleds. To one intimate with sled construction, Alma’s pictures detailed enough design features for me to replicate the distinctive Revell sleds.
The Iditarod Race provides an important reminder of an era in Alaska and early-day Anchorage when overland trails bore travel, transport, and communication over this vast northwest subcontinent. However, although the modern event serves as a valuable reminder of the old trails, it can throw observer’s perceptions off, crimping modern fans’ capacity to conceptualize old time realities, warping ideas about historical trail use, equipment, and dogs.
As soon as railroad construction crews blasted past cliffs and through rocky headlands and filled the way over mud flats along Turnagain Arm to rough in their pioneer rail bed as far as Potter, much of the Iditarod Trail traffic shifted from running through the mountains behind the new town, to running right through it. Telling testimony to the importance of dog team transport is that the main hotel in Anchorage was built with a dog barn next to it. And today on the “Anchorage Area Time Line” featured along the wall of the 4th Avenue Marketplace, a picture of the original post office with dog teams and laden mail sleds on the street in front is captioned, “The post office was social center of the town.”
In 1914 Anchorage was born. For projects contributing to our city’s yearlong centennial celebration, $500,000 in grant money is available We are applying for a grant to replicate two historic dog sleds used a century ago to carry mail, passengers, and freight in and out of Anchorage over the Iditarod Trail.
Inimitable Alaskan Episcopal Archbishop Hudson Stuck, who organized the first successful climb of Mount McKinley among other singular achievements, oversaw a far-flung archdiocese that covered much of Alaska. He traveled much of it behind his dog team and authored the classic, Ten Thousand Miles on a Dog Sled. He once stated, “In the North, the greatest gift one man can give another is a broken trail.” Having traveled, outside of the Iditarod, on expeditions short and long over untracked wastes, I would add an exclamation point.
With Martin Buser setting a blazing pace and a small handful just a little behind him, farther back a raft of former champions and high place winners—certainly supremely knowledgeable tacticians—are forming strategies of overtaking the frontrunners – - – if that is even possible. These racers know their dogs’ capabilities for endurance like a human distance runner knows his own capacities. Their run-rest ratios and cycles are tuned to operate right at the limit just like a human marathoner runs at his edge.
Seems that some things never go away. PETA, the Humane Society, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the usual suspects) are again—or should I say “still”—out to change the animal world for the better – - – their way. Recently they mounted another campaign to do in the Iditarod, sending hundreds of letters of protests and threats to one of Iditarod’s major sponsors.
It’s hard for someone like me who battled to make Rohn Roadhouse (as the checkpoint was originally named) in seven days on the first Iditarod, hard to imagine anyone pulling in there in less than 24 hours from the start. Of course, the evolution of the race after four decades makes holding 1973 up against 2013 like comparing apples to oranges.
From the coming of white traders to the North in the 1800s, Alaska’s Natives had lived a mixed subsistence and trapping-and-trading economy. That lifestyle virtually required that every household own a dog team. But in the quarter century leading up to the first Iditarod in 1973, great social and economic changes took place in the Bush. Village dwellers began to be increasingly involved in a cash economy, which did not rely so heavily on living off the land, so the dog team was not so absolutely necessary. Overlapping the end of that 25-year period of change came the advent of the snowmachine.
Those of you who have been readers of this blog know that after last year’s race I drafted and tendered a proposal to induct Dan Seavey into the Iditarod Hall of Fame. Today at the finish of the Ceremonial Start 15-or-so mile leg from downtown Anchorage to the BLM complex at Campbell Airstrip I had a great visit with Dan. We stood talking around the team his son Mitch had just completed the run with. I also had a quick exchange with grandson Dallas. Neither Dan, nor Dallas, nor I knew he had been inducted. My wife Karen informed me when I got home tonight. Here’s the Anchorage Daily News article.
A quick note here before I head out to take in the Ceremonial Start and rub shoulders with “The Big Family” (other brothers and sisters of the long trail and their families, helpers, fans, and race supporters/administrators/event putter-oner volunteers).
I just returned from the grand Musher’s Drawing Banquet. People there from all over, about 2,500 strong. A big part of the fun for me is meeting with old friends who go all the way back to race beginnings. Three of us founding drivers were there tonight—four if you count one who dropped out on the Yukon. And then it’s wonderful to see others who go back almost as far, those who ran the first ten or so races.
Originally posted February 27, 2012
When I’m asked, “Who’s your pick to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race?” I answer the questioner that if he had any idea of the complexities and variables that go into final Iditarod standings, he wouldn’t even ask. But with that caveat, I’ll clue you to two young stars on the rise. These 25ish guys are at the front of an up-and-coming few who have chosen distance racing as a profession immediately out of the chute following graduation.
Jake Berkowitz Kelly Hartog, commenting on Jake in the Jewish Daily Forward said, “What’s truly incredible is that a ‘Nice Jewish Boy’ has chosen to run dogs for a living. My son the dog musher isn’t exactly something you hear around the Sabbath dinner table.”
Though today’s Iditarod races aren’t exactly Nancy-visits-the-farm level experiences, they wouldn’t come anywhere close to offering much in the way of true adventure to the great Indian and Eskimo dog men, and the gold miners, trappers, big game guides and other veterans of long northern trails who headed toward Nome on the first Iditarod. Where would be the least hint of risk, hazard, and danger to such Bush-hardened trails men as made up the trailblazing field? Those of us who answered Joe Redington’s challenge to pioneer an audacious new concept in sled dog racing, in taking our plunge into the virtually trackless unknown, eagerly entered in to what could be described as a test drive we could not afford to fail and a reconnaissance that must return a positive report. That is, if the race were to see a future.