THE IDITAROD : Mushers Follow Call of the Wild, but Their Dogs’ 1,000-Mile Race Across Alaska’s Frozen Wastes Is Enough to Give Anyone Paws
They call it the last great race on earth. Iditarod. It’s a monster. The race, more than a thousand miles, begins in metropolitan Anchorage, sweeps across cultural zones, two major mountain ranges, across Alaska’s icy valleys and forests, on the frozen Yukon River for 150 miles, along the frozen Bering Sea shore for another 100 miles and finishes on Nome’s storied Front Street, in front of several rip-roaring saloons.
A musher--in Alaska, no one calls them racers and no one yells “Mush!"--once described the Iditarod this way: “The competition is what keeps you going, the constant fear that someone behind you is gaining on you, but in the end it’s you --your best effort against the worst Alaska can give.”
Officially, the race’s length is listed as 1,049 miles, the 49 being a symbolic suffix for a thousand-mile-plus race in the 49th state. Actually, the length changes each year, depending on snow conditions. When Susan Butcher won on March 13, she and her dog team had traveled 1,158 miles.
Perspective: The distance from Los Angeles to Seattle is roughly the same as Butcher covered.
And the race itself, named for a ghost town along the route, has traveled a long way, too.
When Libby Riddles, a 120-pound blonde with Meryl Streep looks, beat a field composed largely of shaggy, beefy males last year, all of macho Alaska was rocked. After all, the Iditarod was a real man’s race, wasn’t it? Women can enter, but please, don’t get in the way. Riddles sat out this year’s race so she could help prepare her boyfriend, Joe Garnie, this year’s second-place finisher.
But one musher, Rick Swenson, said before the start of this year’s race: “I’d die before I’d let Susan Butcher beat me.”
It’s nothing personal. They’re friends and neighbors. And Swenson was Butcher’s “bridesmaid” at her wedding. He came in third.
An Anchorage sportswriter, Paul Fattig, had this to say after Butcher’s win: “Maybe next year they should have a shorter race for the men.”
And so the manliness of the Iditarod has been put to rest. And so has an innocent past. They used to run this thing for fun. Now, the winner gets $50,000 and some think it will be up to $100,000 in a couple of years.
The race began 13 years ago, as something of a memorial to a legendary episode in Alaska history. In 1925, a relay of dog teams covered 674 miles from Nenana, carrying life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome, which was suffering from an outbreak of the disease.
Early Iditarods had a carefree, festival feeling to them. Said Dick Mackey, who won the 1978 race: “In the early 1970s, when the winner was winning something like $5,000, it was like a three-week camping trip. Now, with $50,000 going to the winner, it’s gotten to be pretty serious stuff. And I’m predicting that by ’88, the winner will get $100,000 and the total purse will be up to a half-million.”
It’s Alaska’s Super Bowl. Live radio reports are transmitted throughout the race from check stations along the Iditarod trail, and Alaska newspaper reporters, TV news teams and photographers follow the mushers on snowmobiles and airplanes. The Iditarod also has an army of volunteers, and the race is partially funded by corporate heavyweights such as Alaska Airlines and Apple Computer.
Iditarod isn’t the only sled dog race in Alaska, it’s simply the biggest. Sled dog racing--both sprint and distance racing--is on Page 1 of the sports section in the winter. But the Iditarod is Page 1, Part 1.
For most, it’s an awakening of old Alaska, when hookers and gamblers were respected citizens of places such as Nome. For two or three weeks, at least, it’s a turning away from snowmobiles, three-wheelers and four-wheel-drive pickups. It’s back to old Alaska, when dogs were the only form of winter transportation.
Said Burt Bomhoff, president of the Iditarod Trail Committee: “The race commemorates a period of Alaska’s history that most Alaskans cherish, the Alaska of the gold rush and the dog teams. When we’re involved with the Iditarod, we get to be part of old Alaska. . . . The race brings together Alaskans from all walks of life.”
At the stroke of midnight, Susan Butcher came charging down Front Street, running beside her sled, giving final shouts of encouragement to her team, 11 of the 16 dogs she’d started with in Anchorage. A police car with flashing blue and red lights cruised behind her. Nome’s city siren blew. About 2,000 people lining the finish chute for two blocks cheered. The announcer at the finish line went slightly berserk. Drunks stumbled out of Front Street saloons to see what the excitement was about.
At 12:06 a.m. on March 13, Susan
Butcher became not only the second woman in a row to win the Iditarod but the record holder, too. Finishing in 11 days, 15 hours and 6 minutes, she broke the old record by more than 17 hours. Even at that, it was close. Garnie, of Teller, Alaska, finished 61 minutes behind.
The following afternoon, after 12 hours of sleep, Butcher sat on a couch in a blue T-shirt and old jeans, flossed her teeth and fielded calls from newspapers in the lower 48. She told them all that it was a musher’s victory.
“Libby and I aren’t real close friends,” she told one reporter. “But I feel like she did when she won last year--I did this because I’m a musher. It’s not a big deal for women’s sports to me.”
And she won it because she’s a dog breeder.
“I breed sled dogs,” she explained, in answer to a question about where the $50,000 will go. “At any one time, my husband and I have 80 to 140 dogs at our kennels. It costs $60,000 to maintain the kennel, so a lot of the money will go into dog food.”
Butcher and her husband, Dave Monson, live in Eureka, Alaska, in the foothills of the Brooks Range, about 120 miles west of Fairbanks. Population: 13.
Their nearest neighbor is four miles away. They have no running water. And it was only last summer that they installed a generator, for electricity. She told one writer: “I’m in good shape--I build cabins, I haul my own water, I cut my own wood. I love living in the bush.”
Butcher, 30, grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and spent summer vacations in Maine.
“I left home when I was 16, because I wanted to live in a wild, remote area,” she said. “I went to Colorado, because I was told it was wild and remote. But Colorado was a farce. People lived in mountain cabins, but they went to grocery stores. So I came to Alaska and lived in a cabin in the Wrangell Mountains, 35 miles from my nearest neighbor. I started raising dogs there, and got into sled dog racing at about that time.”
She spent a lot of time last week talking about the 1985 race, when she was involved in one of the most horrifying experiences in the race’s history. While driving her team over a mountain pass, her dogs came upon a moose on the trail. The snow was deep, and the moose refused to leave the trail. Instead, it kicked and stomped two of her 17 dogs to death and injured 13 others, forcing her out of the race.
She didn’t have a gun, but the musher trailing her, Dewey Halverson, did. He killed the moose. After Butcher’s experience, many mushers now carry big-bore handguns.
This year, at the Iditarod’s next-to-last check station on the course, White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome, Butcher said she sensed she would beat her closest pursuer, Garnie.
“I left White Mountain about four minutes ahead of Joe,” she said. “It was obvious at that point it would be close between the two of us, but he knew my team was slightly stronger. And I think he knew he’d have to overtake me and pull away over the first 10 to 20 miles out of White Mountain, because he knew I’d be stronger if it was a close finish.
“I started out at a good clip and he couldn’t catch me. I’m good on hills and he’s better on flats, because that’s the lay of the land where we live and train. He made a move, though, in the hills after White Mountain. He passed me, and I could see sweat pouring off his face.
“I let him run ahead of me and I clocked him at landmarks with my watch. He was never more than a minute and 30 seconds ahead of me. And he was making his dogs work hard in the heat of the day. It was 20 degrees, in bright sun, and his dogs’ tongues were hanging out.
“Thirty minutes later, I slowly caught up, passed him, and at that point I thought it looked very good for me. But Joe made another run at me on the flats, at dusk, and I started to worry again. He only had one advantage over me--every one of his dogs had finished the race last year. I had a bunch of inexperienced 2- and 3-year-olds.
“Anyhow, he was ahead of me briefly and then I passed him again 20 miles before the last check point, Safety. Just before Safety, I looked back and Joe was a dot on the horizon.
“I left my two most inexperienced dogs at Safety, and left. My team had done a wonderful job. For 900 miles, they were flying. But I didn’t want to ask the two 2-year-olds to run hard at the finish.
“When I rounded Cape Nome (10 miles from Nome), Joe was nowhere in sight behind me. At that point, I was certain I’d win the race.”
The finish was a touch clouded. At Unalakleet, a check station at roughly the three-quarter point of the race, Butcher arrived to find her dog food missing. Mushers have dog food supplies stored at each check station along the route.
At the time, she told reporter Shelley Gill of the Wasilla Frontiersman: “I’ve got four hours and nothing’s here that I need. My dog food was stolen, I have no booties, batteries, nothing. This will probably happen all the way up the (Bering Sea) coast. They want to see Garnie win.” Presumably she meant Alaskan villagers. Garnie is an Eskimo.
Gill also reported that Butcher said it was the third checkpoint of the race where her dog food was missing. Gill’s story in The Frontiersman ran under a six-column headline: “Butcher’s Food Cache Stolen as Race Tightens.” When asked about the newspaper story the day after she won the race, Butcher would only say: “That was distorted.”
At Unalakleet, food and other supplies were rounded up and Butcher was able to feed her dogs. A prank by villagers? A simple case of lost or misplaced supplies? Or a conspiracy to rig the outcome of the race for Joe Garnie?
Bomhoff said he doubted that a theft occurred: “Susan is sometimes more candid than we would like. She wasn’t the only musher in the race who was missing some dog food. It was simply misplaced, " said the Iditarod Trail Committee president.
In the meantime, Butcher will begin preparing for the ’87 Iditarod. She visits rural Alaska villages, on scouting trips for village dogs that look like good breeding prospects. In 10 years, she has raised more than 700 dogs. Many of the mushers in this year’s race were racing with dogs they had bought for up to $1,000 from her.
Butcher was no rookie. This was her eighth Iditarod and she’d finished second twice.
It may turn out that her winner’s check will be surpassed by other checks. Within three days of winning the race, Butcher had been contacted by Coca-Cola, Allied Chemical’s Fabrics Division, American Express and Chase Manhattan Bank.
And for the record, here’s Butcher’s winning team, starting with the lead dogs: Granite, Spoons, Co-Pilot, Cracker, Luke, Mattie, Fisher, Longhorn, Toklat, Duchess, Primer, Sluggo, Pinto, Rye, Yeller and Lacanin.
NOME, MEN AND DOGS
On a September afternoon in 1898, three Swedish men on liberty from a cargo ship docked at Nome’s
port were walking along the banks of Anvil Creek, just outside town. Suddenly, all three became aware of bright reflections from creekside sands and beneath the water.
They were gold nuggets.
They went into Alaska history books as “The Three Lucky Swedes.” And a year later, when gold nuggets were found lying on the beaches of Nome, it touched off one of North America’s great gold rushes.
Nome was a tiny port town at the time, with barely a couple of hundred people. By the spring of 1900, 10,000 miners, gamblers, hookers and bartenders had swarmed in from places such as the Klondike, Dawson and lesser Alaska and Yukon gold camps. By 1911, more than $60 million in gold had been mined from Seward Peninsula mines.
The new men of Nome were miners who had learned to use dog teams as primary winter transportation. And primary winter sports. The Nome Kennel Club was formed in 1908 to promote dog team racing. In time, Nome’s “All Alaska Sweepstakes"--a 408-mile race from Nome to Candle and back--became the state’s most celebrated race.
Historians say that when whites first came to Alaska, dogs were scarce. Some village dogs had wolf strains. “Malamute” was a name given to the Eskimo dogs of the Malmuit Eskimos of the Kotzebue area. Siberian huskies were introduced by the Soviets. Big, strong malamutes worked well as freight haulers, but weren’t suitable for racing because they couldn’t sustain speed.
For the 1910 All Alaska Sweepstakes, Nome miner Fox Marle traveled to Siberia, bought 40 small Siberian huskies, put together two racing teams and shocked the mushing crowd in Nome by coming in first and second. Ever since, small has been best in Alaska sled dog racing.
It’s believed that the Iditarod trail was first mushed in the winter of 1910-1911, when it linked the gold town of Iditarod and the railhead at Kern Creek, south of Anchorage. Before airplanes came to Alaska, the Iditarod and other trail networks were the transportation, mail, supply and news routes for Alaskans.
Dog sledding gained widespread attention in 1925, when 20 mushers, in relays, carried a life-saving container of diphtheria serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome. Dr. Curtis Welch had diagnosed diphtheria and sent frantic telegrams to Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau. Diphtheria serum was located in Anchorage, but the only two planes capable of reaching Nome were in Fairbanks, dismantled for the winter.
Solution: Dogs. The serum arrived on Front Street in Nome in the sled of anchor musher Gunnar Kaasen, 127 1/2 hours after the first team had left Nenana. Today, the Iditarod is a memorial to the mushers of ’25.
The dogs used in the Iditarod today are known as Alaskan huskies. They’re surprisingly small, short-haired dogs, seldom weighing more than 50 pounds. Their best-known traits are a blend of speed and endurance, tough feet and an almost unbelievable ability to withstand cold. Iditarod dogs can curl up in snow at 40-below-zero and go to sleep without so much as a single shiver.
The sleds, most made of wood, weigh about 50 pounds empty.
Said Jim Leach, the race’s chief veterinarian: “These dogs have a lot of mixes in them--Siberian husky, Saluki hounds, Russian wolfhounds, some sight hounds, even whippet. And a whole lot of what we call ‘village huskies.’
“One of the big factors in this race is dog nutrition--getting your dog team on a diet that will enable it to maintain a high energy level at low temperatures when they’re expending so much energy. The key is fats. Chicken, pork and beef fats are very good, and so are vegetable oils. Seal oil is probably the best, but you can get it only in the villages. The mushers like to have their dogs eat the same thing during the race that they have eaten in training, to avoid digestive upsets.”
Question: Is it OK to ask a dozen or so dogs to haul you over a thousand miles over mountain ranges, snow and ice, as fast as they can run, and never mind if they dehydrate down to skin and bone, and finish the race on paws cut to ribbons by jagged ice?
There is no unanimity on the subject, not even in Alaska.
Sportswriter Fattig of the Anchorage Times interviewed a couple of Alaskans from McGrath, one of the race’s checkpoints, and found them outspokenly opposed to the length of the race. They pointed out that Alaskans of pre-snowmobile years would never run a dog team a thousand miles.
“We knew Leonard Seppala (one of the mushers in the 1925 diphtheria run to Nome) and that little guy would turn over in his grave if he knew what was happening,” Margaret Mespelt, 76, an Alaskan since 1929, told Fattig.
“Talk about cruelty to animals, they just kick ‘em and boot ‘em. Then, when they get to Nome, the mushers are the big heroes. The dogs do all the work and the mushers get all the credit.”
Another McGrath resident, Ted Almasy, 65, who has lived in Alaska for 40 years, told Fattig: “That first race (1973), from Anchorage to McGrath, all you could see along the trail was dog blood and dead dogs. That’s when I got into it with them. After each Iditarod, we used to see dead dogs at the dump. You’d see them poor dogs, blood coming out of both ends.”
Both agreed, however, that the race has been “cleaned up” considerably in recent years with moves such as having 20 veterinarians stationed along the race, checking the dogs.
Nevertheless, abuses occur. Two weeks ago, an Anchorage TV news crew filmed one musher, Vern Halter of Trapper Creek, beating and kicking his dogs. He was fined $500 by the race committee. In the 1985 race, Wes McIntyre of Ninilchik was disqualified when one of his dogs died after he’d kicked it. McIntyre also drew a two-year suspension.
Most of the race rules are for protection of the dogs. All mushers are required to make one 24-hour stop at one check point. And at White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome, mushers are required to rest their teams for four hours. Veterinarians check the dogs at check points. And each musher is required to carry two pounds of dog food for each dog while traveling.
But a thousand miles is a thousand miles.
At the finish line in Nome, some dogs appear to be near collapse. The sight of a dog toppling over on its side, mouth agape and tongue lolling on the snow was common in Nome.
After the race, the dogs are well cared for two blocks away, on the edge of Nome’s harbor. They’re harnessed to long chains on the ground, given piles of straw to sleep on and fed generously. On one afternoon, a reporter saw roughly 60 dogs, all of them down and sleeping when two young men came by to feed them.
Frozen salmon were taken from a locked cargo container, chopped up with an ax, and placed in five gallon buckets of boiling water to soften them. Some of the skinny, exhausted dogs rose eagerly to eat. Some stayed down and ate. All immediately went back to sleep.
A veterinarian from Wichita, Kan., Dale Carr, walked up and down the rows of dogs, examining their feet. Many were cut deeply on their paw pads. He applied a jell, nitrofurozone, to the cuts, and talked about the resilience of the Alaskan husky.
“These dogs are skinny because they’re dehydrated. Two or three days on their normal feed and water, and they’ll be up, jumping and barking all day long. It’ll take a month or more for these cuts to heal up, though.
“Really, they’re amazing dogs.”
How about: “Closest finish in the history of sports?”
Take a look at the 1978 Iditarod. Dick Mackey’s team of huskies won it. Rick Swenson came in second.
By a second. A dog’s nose. A thousand miles . . . for a one-second finish.
A photographer captured the drama--Mackey, sprinting alongside the sled, his mouth shaped in the form of one last shout of encouragement to his dogs, and Swenson’s dogs on his right. Another photo caught the Nome mayor, on the finish line on hands and knees, staring at the finish line, preparing to call the winner.
Mackey, 53, operates what he calls the world’s northernmost truck stop, at Cold Foot, Alaska, 260 miles north of Fairbanks and 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He has five children, mushers all. The family goal, he said, is to have all six Mackeys in the 1990 Iditarod.
On the day Susan Butcher rode into Nome, Mackey talked about the epic ’78 race:
“Both Rick and I felt we’d be competitive with each other that year, because I’d finished in the top 10 six years in a row and he’d been up there every year, too. (Swenson has won the race four times.)
“We were together for 800 miles, never more than 200 yards apart. We played head games all the way with each other. I’d stop and say: ‘Hey, this looks like a good spot to camp, I think I’ll sleep a few hours here.’ So he’d unhitch his team, get out his sleeping bag . . . then I’d say: ‘Well, I’m not as tired as I thought I was . . . I think I’ll run another couple of hours.’ Then we’d both hitch up again and ride off.
“If I coughed, he sneezed. Head games, all the way. We’re good friends, always have been, but we never spoke to each other during the race.
“He had faster dogs than I did. Mine were stronger. I felt that if it came to a sprint on Front Street, my dogs would have his worn down by then. For the last 260 miles, all along the Bering Sea coast, there wasn’t 100 feet separating us. The last five days, we slept a total of maybe 10 hours each.
“The race ended at 7:30 a.m. The crowd was crazy, everyone in Nome knew how close it was before we hit Front Street. Both of us were running behind our sleds, cracking our whips (for the sound, not to hit the dogs with). It didn’t look to me like it would be too close, even as I went into the chute. I had 300 feet on him.
“But just as I went into the chute, a German film crew reached over the fence and set down a movie camera tripod, inside the chute. They set it down right in front of my lead dogs, and it confused them. They came to a dead stop. I’m yelling and screaming, going nuts, ‘cause I know Rick’s right behind me, seeing this mess, and loving every bit of it.
“I ran to the front of my team, pulled the lead dogs around the tripod, and got them running again.
“Rick never quite got me, but he was closing. As my lead dogs went over the line, I knew I’d won by a nose . . . and I collapsed on the sled.
“Some wise guy came up and yelled for Swenson to pull the sled across the line, claiming it wasn’t the lead dog that determined the winner, but the sled and the musher. The race marshall looks at this guy and comes up with a great line, I’ll never forget it: ‘In a horse race photo finish, do you photograph the horse’s nose or his ass?’ ”
Mackey was asked what the key factors are in winning the Iditarod.
“The dogs are 50% of it,” he said. “And your lead dogs are so important. Look at Swenson. He’s won the race four times, the last two times with the same lead dogs. But his lead dogs got old and he retired them. And he hasn’t won since.
“The good breeders win this race. Susan (Butcher) knows how to identify the kind of dogs that can win this race. It’s the ability of a breeder/musher to see talent in young dogs. See, someone in this race right now has some little pups in their kennel at home that are going to win them $125,000 or $150,000 two or three years from now.”