Saturday, March 1st, Rod Perry cleared away some mists of time to help thirty thousand Iditarod Race spectators and an international TV audience look back into the glory days of the historic Iditarod Trail. Along with 1984 Iditarod Champ Dean Osmar and his team, Rod performed an Old North reenactment. Leading the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Ceremonial Start out of Anchorage, Rod rode a ouija (weegee) board and steered with a gee pole in front of the great oaken freight sled he, his brother Alan, and Cliff Sisson had just built. The performance demonstrated a freighting method unknown to moderns, but commonly seen during the North’s gold rush era.
Complete with period costuming the men portrayed the legendary Wells Fargo Gold Train. For eight years during Iditarod’s peak production a century ago, Wells Fargo annually mushed the incredible riches of the yearly cleanup over the Iditarod Trail to Seward for ocean shipment south. Those transports were not just bringing out a few nuggets and a little dust in a couple of moose-hide pokes; no, the Wells Fargo Express teams were entrusted to tow out gold by the literal ton worth millions. One year the company’s haul was 3,400 pounds drawn by several teams comprised of forty-six huge, old-breed freighting huskies. And this was anything but a short, daisy-strewn stroll in the park! Especially in the earliest years of the Gold Train, before there was a cut-and-marked trail and resupply points, it was characterized as, “make it all the way through on your own or die in the attempt.” Sleds loaded with thousands of pounds of supplies—mostly bales of dried salmon, rice, bacon and lard for the dogs, plus trail and camp gear, the daring men and their incredible huskies pushed hundreds of miles through blinding blizzards, excruciating sub-zero cold, deep, untracked snows, treacherous thin ice and overflows, and, in the dead of an arctic winter, the crossing of the greatest mountain range on the continent. Over a stretch of the trail that takes today’s Iditarod racers but four days to cover, it once took former Black Hills stagecoach driver Bob Griffis and his intrepid crew over five weeks, sometimes fighting to make as few as six miles a day.
Back in 2011 Rod also led the Ceremonial Start, that time commemorating the centennial of the building of the Iditarod Trail in 1910-1911. He then began thinking of how it could be done more effectively. Our modern races such as the Iditarod and Yukon Quest do bring attention to the old trails. However, they do not come close to conveying what historic trail use looked like. Modern mushers dressed like catalogue fashion plates driving small plastic sleds lightly loaded and traveling at three times the speed of the great freighting dogs of yore would have made a gold-rush-era trailsman blink his eyes in amazement and shake his head in lack of recognition. Being a history buff and hopeless Old North romantic, Rod decided to develop what he hopes will become an annual “Show Before the Show” which would take place in the hour leading up to the Ceremonial Start. As planned, the educational and entertaining spectacle would include historically authentic representations of a half dozen old-time trail users—trapper, freighter, mail carrier, the Wells Fargo Gold Train, an Athabascan family on their way to the Potlatch, and the inimitable Eskimo driver, Split the Wind. So as spectacularly successful as Rod’s portrayal this year was, he hopes it is but the beginning.
Rod Perry, author of the definitive works on Iditarod history, TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod, is one of the founding drivers of the first Iditarod Race in 1973. He was appointed in 1979 by the Secretary of the Interior to the Iditarod National Historic Trail Advisory Council. For more written and photo coverage of construction of his historic sled, his run riding the ouija board and steering with the gee pole, and some of his recent newspaper, TV and radio interviews about the sled and run, go to www.rodperry.com and visit Rod’s Blog. More posts will be put up daily throughout the Iditarod Race. The sled is temporarily on display at the Wells Fargo Heritage Museum, C Street and Northern Lights in Anchorage.
Thanks to Karen Laubenstein for her generous contribution of the dog team photo.