From the Ranks of the Ready

This continues yesterday’s post discussing make-up of the field for the first Iditarod, which was the greatest assemblage of wilderness trailsmen the race has ever seen.

The first Iditarod Race was run on such short notice that not only was there no time for the call to go out beyond Alaska’s borders, but there was no time for those Alaskans to gather dogs and gear and get themselves ready if they were not already pretty well prepped. So, as previously stated, the race founders drew their field from not only the only ones available, but the best ones available for such a barely-organized, wild plunge into the unknown: they drew from the ranks of the ready.

The successful running of the first Iditarod Race and the stories that came in off of the trail lit such a fire in the souls of so many, however, that already by the second year people began to enter the field from many more walks of life than those of the quintessential Alaskans who blazed trail.

These new converts would come from just about every background imaginable. Now, in an increasingly tamed planet we enthusiastically applaud that the age-old desire to test one’s mettle against the wilderness still lives in many, even urbanized souls. We cheer that the appeal of travel by primitive means over a great, unspoiled stretch of creation is alive even within some dwelling in suburbia. We rejoice that the primal siren call that resonates among bravehearts, be they carpenter from Seattle, attorney from Chicago, or draftsman from London may still find such a rich, fulfilling outlet for expression. And in most cases, because the character of the race and its accommodations have evolved to leave behind the need for many of the old skills, the much thinner bush experience levels of these new converts has been enough to get them through today’s much more civilized Iditarods.

But whereas you could throw most of the trailblazers alone and naked into Arctic winter conditions in the depths of the Alaska Bush and not be surprised to see them emerge in spring ten pounds heavier sporting a new set of fur clothes, were you to drop many who would be drawn to the sport later into subarctic wilds far from any trail, outside a structured race environment, with no logistical support, no other human presence and no one to monitor their well-being, their backgrounds would not have prepared them to survive.

That does not mean they would be lesser people, and certainly not lesser racers. But they would be—taken as a whole—lesser woodsmen and trailsmen than the bush-hardened trailbreakers.

Yes, the early ones were a breed apart. The reason many of them could run the first Iditarod on such short notice was that they could just drop what they were doing and head for the starting line. Polar bear, seal, and caribou hunters, marten trappers, homesteaders, people who used their dogs professionally, adventurous bush travelers. They didn’t have to warp their lifestyle to get into anything new. They were ready.

Competent and tough to kill. As it would turn out, those qualities would be a fortunate attribute for some of those first racers as they met and dealt with circumstances the likes of which modern race administrators, volunteers, competitors, and fans used to today’s well-organized and well-funded operation and vastly improved and marked trails must find hard to imagine.


Learn about Rod’s two-volume work,
TRAILBREAKERS, Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod at


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