Delayed Shovels, Flattened Digs

Here along our section of the old Historic Iditarod Trail we came oh, so close to experiencing our all-time record winter snowfall. Just going by memory of what I’ve read, the all-time, set in the mid-1950s, was a skiff over 130 inches. We’re finishing winter somewhere around 128.

It’s been enough to move the mayor’s office to warn folks repeatedly to clear roofs. All over the area are cases of structures going ker-splat under the accumulated tonnage. This one pictured occurred so close to our place we could almost hear the trusses crrrreeaak, grrroooaann, then explode and land with a humongous  ka-whumpp! that musta pretty well ruined someone’s day.

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Strident Do-Gooders to the Rescue

Lately I have posted stories of escapes from going through river ice while running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Obviously the dogs, being in it with the driver, experienced those narrow escapes at the same time. When running such stories, I fully expect to be assaulted by individuals and organizations who are separated so far from the land (“too many generations off the farm”) and hold such a skewed, unnatural  view of the natural world that they would, if they could, protect even  free-born wolves from wild wolfdom.

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Back in 1974, just days before the second Iditarod Race, I picked up a well-conditioned swing dog. Several hundred miles into the race, I’d rue that acquisition. Today, I can’t recall the dog’s name when I got him, but by the time we were slipping, sliding, and falling on the wind-polished, incredibly slick going on the broad South Fork of the Kuskokwim, I had renamed the creature, “Insect.” He was little, bug-eyed, and irritating; it fit.

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Nome—The Golden Key (part VI)

Of even the most avid fans of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, not many know that Nome was not always part of the race plan. In this series I’ve been telling how it happened that we have an Anchorage-to-Nome race. I strongly urge you, if you’ve just come aboard, to not begin here but go back to Part I and read it from the top. This series has been lifted from the much more complete telling in my definitive work, TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod, Volume II (The Most Daring Iditarod Adventure of All Time, Founding The Last Great Race On Earth.)

By far the longest, most grueling race ever planned, to be run through one of the most majestic landscapes on the planet, over a gold-rush-era trail dripping with unparalleled history and romance, offering a purse of staggering proportions, featuring the most exciting, anticipation-charged start ever seen in the annals of sled dog racing—all of it was heading Nome’s way. With every other part of the race of such surpassing extravagance and grandiosity, the Iditarod Trail Committee understood that the event could not afford a ho-hum, anticlimactic letdown in Nome. No, the race needed to be superlative in every aspect, start to finish. Nothing less than a rousing reception and gala celebration at the end of the trail would do.

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Nome—The Golden Key (part V)

During the six years of pre-Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race evolution of ideas and planning, Nome was not the end destination. This continuing series tells part of the little-known story of Nome’s last-minute inclusion. The full story may be found in my definitive book TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod.

Joee and Ramey Redington stated in a cover quote, “Rod’s got his facts down. Dad (Joe R., “Father of the Iditarod) would be proud of this book.”

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Nome—The Golden Key (part IV)

Not one in ten thousand of even the most avid race fans has a clear and complete understanding about beginnings of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. For instance, how did it come to be that the race ends in Nome? If you think it was because Race creators wanted to commemorate or recreate the Serum Run, you’re certainly needful—if you’re fan enough to care—of a tutorial to straighten out your notions.

If you’ve just joined in, notice that this is part four. I’d highly recommend you drop back to the beginning and read the three prior Nome—The Golden Key posts.

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Nome—The Golden Key (part III)

Recently, senior editorial writer for the Anchorage Daily News Frank Gerjevik, and I reflected on Iditarod’s early days. Frank commented, “You know, Rod, everyone who came into it after its formative years seems to have the mindset that it’s always been full-formed, like it’s always been the way they see the Iditarod today.”

Way back in the late 70s, I counted Frank the first writer that began to “get it” about this unique new sport, the first sports writer who began turning out really insightful daily stories covering the spectacle. And that reflection of his during our recent visit was spot on. As I’ve often said, not one in ten thousand fans has a very full or accurate concept about Iditarod’s formative stages.

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Nome—The Golden Key (part II)

Think you know all about how the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was born and drew its first breath? Not many, even back in the day, were privy to the behind-the-scenes, inside story. And today, I daresay that not one in ten thousand of even the most avid Iditarod Race fans has much of a knowledge. Even among racers and the media, but a scant handful are well versed in our race’s beginnings.  This continuing series lifts a few bits and pieces of the amazing founding story from my book TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod Volume II.

Readers who only pick up here without reading part 1 of the series will be short-changing themselves. As Joee and Raymie Redington, sons of the late Joe Redington Sr., “Father of the Iditarod” vouched on a TRAILBREAKERS cover-quote, “Rod’s got his facts down. Dad would be proud of this book.”

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Nome: The Golden Key

Think you have the straight scoop about how the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began? Think you know all about those fateful times when the event desperately struggled for birth and its first breath? Even back in the day, not many were privy to the inside, behind-the-scenes story. Today, many of them are gone. I doubt one in ten thousand race fans and volunteers—and few indeed of even Iditarod’s racers and media covering the event—owns a very accurate and complete knowledge of race beginnings.

Here I lay out a small part of the telling, lifted from my revealing book, TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod (The Most Daring Iditarod Adventure of All Time, Founding the Last Great Race on Earth).

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Poor Boy Race and Broke Racers

Most of today’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race fans did not come into their fanaticism until the contest had become a well-funded, slick, international spectacle. Therefore it is foreign to them to think of the race ever being a seat-of-the-pants, run-on-a-shoestring operation. The great, trailblazing race epitomized our broke-but-go-anyhow mindset.

For the Iditarod Race to gain a toehold and survive to see even so much as a second running—not to mention any future beyond that—we first had to demonstrate to an almost universally disbelieving and unsupportive public that such a wild scheme was possible to pull off. Joe Redington’s vision was for such a quantum leap beyond any other sled dog race in history, there was not only no close precedent, there was no race that had ever come close to serving as even a distant ramp up.

Joe’s new concept in sled dog racing was just so outlandishly grandiose in all of its facets that few believed it could be done. Many scoffed and ridiculed the idea and denigrated its originator as a deluded fool.

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Finish of the First Last Great Race

Dick Wilmarth, trailbreaker of trailbreakers, first Iditaroder ever to cross the finish line, neared Nome. It was the great, trailblazing run of 1973. A new star, the Iditarod, was being born. Then, as now, excitement in Nome and all of Alaska red-lined at a fever pitch. No national or international fan base had yet begun, but the “City of the Golden Sands” filled brim-full. Alaskans poured in by jet and snowmobile to take in the never-before-accomplished feat. History would once again be made in the already historically rich Bering Seacoast town.

News coverage from the trail, already primitive and sparse, grew thinner and more sporadic even as Nome and all of Alaska strained to hear more as the racers neared the finish. A storm that had blown for days caused communications interference and inhibited going airborne for visuals. Enough was known, however, to make all aware that Wilmarth’s powerful team led by the incomparable Lime Village dog Hotfoot, had built an insurmountable lead over Athapaskan elder Bobby Vent and Dan Seavey from Seward.

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Expectations and Outcomes on the Iditarod Trail

I had heard that my young Iditarod Racer friend Jake Berkowitz, during his run over the Kaltag Portage, had cut his hand with a knife as he separated a patty from rest of a frozen stack while snacking his dogs. However, he had come blasting into the Bering Sea Eskimo town of Unalakleet, in a cloud of snow coming on like the Winged Avenger, his team looking perhaps the strongest in the race, and I had figured bad as the cut was, it would only be an inconvenience; he’d probably just give it a big dab of Neosporin, wrap it, and wait until Nome to seek professional treatment.

Perhaps, Jake had no great chance to overtake the mushers at the very front, seeming to have held back too much in reserve for too long to be able to win against the just-as-strong teams holding a lead too great to make up. It seemed to me, observing from back, here in the comfort of my easy chair, that to have put himself in position at the end to vie for the lead, he should have started clipping a half hour a day from the distance between him and the leaders beginning way back about Nicolai or McGrath. As he came into Unalakleet it looked like he was a significant part of a run-rest cycle off. But still, it appeared that in the final 200 miles he could well reel in a couple of former Iditarod champions running ahead of him and finish 4th or 5th.

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Bet You Didn’t Know the Iditarod Race Was Ever This Primitive!

One of the huge advances made in the 40 runnings of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the vast technological modernization of communications. We don’t need to go into all of the ways the race is covered from the trail by the world’s media, nor the plethora of possibilities for mushers to stay in touch, because all of us are familiar with 2012 methods and means and listing them would be boring. What will be interesting to today’s fans is learning the primitive state of communication and media coverage when we Trailblazers established the Iditarod Race back in 1973.

Let’s go back and lift a few paragraphs from my book TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod. (I have what I believe to be the only recording of all of the radio broadcasts from the only station which covered the entire race from the trail.) There was only one newscaster, colorful old musher Orville Lake, sent out by Anchorage’s country station KYAK. In an Alaska Bush that was much more The Bush than it is now, much more isolated and disconnected, Orville struggled to do his best with what thin resources he had out there, his efforts complicated by his own often inebriated state.

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The Greatest Iditarod Race Snow Storm of All Time

Taking in reports coming in off the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race of the mushers pushing through the remote country between the Kuskoquim and Yukon Rivers brings back memories of what occurred there in 1973 on the trailblazing Iditarod.

Probably the greatest snow storm to ever hit the Iditarod Race dumped at least three or more feet of soft, new snow. Winds drifted it to common depths of five to seven feet and some drifts were far deeper. And all lay atop the already deep winter accumulation.

The trail of the U. S. Army, which had gone through earlier breaking out the route, was so obliterated behind them that, for most of the way between Ophir and Ruby, the effect was as if the military had never been there at all. It would be up to the four remaining civilian snowmachiners (of the five which started) to push a trail through for the teams. If they could. Gordon Fowler, sportswriter for the Anchorage Times wrote, By Wednesday, the five leaders were moving together and taking turns breaking trail in places where drifts were reportedly some twenty-five feet deep.

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