It was mid-February and Todd Palin, Alaska’s first gentleman, was speeding across 2,000 miles of ice and snowy tundra en route to victory in the world’s most grueling snowmobile race.
That same week, his wife, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, was in Juneau requesting more money for the state budget and assuring legislators they’d soon see her plan for a natural gas pipeline that could one day be the most expensive construction project in North America. Then she flew to Fairbanks to wave her exhausted husband across the finish line.
It’s not just his title as the state’s reigning snowmobile co-champion that sets Todd Palin, 42, apart from the nation’s other first spouses. And it’s not that he’s one of just five who are men.
White-collar jobs in law, education or healthcare are typical among the current crop of first spouses, but Palin spent nearly 20 years as a blue-collar employee in the Arctic oil fields of the North Slope. And every summer he heads west to his birthplace in Dillingham to work the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery from his property on the Nushagak River.
A lifetime of manual labor in the state’s two largest and most physically demanding industries is helping Palin carve out his role as Alaska’s first spouse, or “first dude,” a nickname he has in common with the Kansas governor’s husband, Gary Sebelius.
Like other first spouses around the country, Palin has been asked to champion an array of causes or institutions since his wife took office in December.
His favorite is steering young Alaskans toward jobs in the oil and gas industry. It’s a singular choice among his counterparts, whose pet issues include schools, public health, domestic violence, poverty or the arts.
“For those of us who learn by touching and tearing stuff apart and for those who don’t have the financial background to go to college, just being a product of that on-the-job training is really important,” Palin said one morning over pastries at an Anchorage coffee shop, before meeting with trainers at several companies and trade groups in Anchorage and Wasilla.
Palin, who took college courses but does not have a degree, said he was grateful for the training he received from the multinational oil company BP starting in 1989.
Until recently, he earned hourly wages as a production operator in a BP-run facility that separates oil from gas and water. Palin was making between $100,000 and $120,000 a year before he went on leave in December to make more time for his family and avoid potential conflicts of interest. London-based BP is heavily involved in the gas pipeline negotiations with his wife’s administration.
Palin’s advocacy dovetails neatly with his wife’s No. 1 priority: forging a construction contract with private companies to transport natural gas from the North Slope to the Lower 48. The export of natural gas would presumably replace revenue from the state’s dwindling oil reserves, which funded 80% of the state budget last year.
“He will be passing information on to me and participating in getting workforce development programs up and running in Alaska,” Sarah Palin said. “That’s in addition to doing all the things that make Todd Todd. There are lots of things I would never want to take away from him, but this is something he’s enthused about.”
Those things include taking care of their four children and escaping into the Alaskan wilderness to fish commercially, hunt or train for the Tesoro Iron Dog, billed as the longest, toughest snowmobile race in the world. The Palins have a son, Track, 18; and three daughters, Bristol, 16, Willow, 12, and Piper, 6.
Palin is so passionate about the Iron Dog that he made sure to squeeze in snowmobile runs between official events this winter, such as statewide inaugural galas, and moving the family to the governor’s mansion in Juneau. The capital is 600 miles southeast of the family home in Wasilla.
“I’ve got a really good group of buddies and we train either early in the morning or late at night so we can still make things like the kids’ basketball games and try not to impact the family life,” Palin said.
In past years, Palin has trained about 3,000 miles before the race to accustom his body to hours of constant jolting and to detect any mechanical kinks in his vehicle. This winter, Palin covered more than 2,500 miles on the frozen swamps and rivers around Wasilla.
Scott Davis, his race partner of five years, said Palin had the willpower to stay levelheaded while racing at high speeds over terrain that could include glare ice, bare ground and flooded coastlines strewn with driftwood. The Iron Dog traces the entire Iditarod trail from Anchorage to Nome, plus an additional leg to Fairbanks.
“I have to trust my life in his hands, and I do, because he can still think when he’s dehydrated and tired,” said Davis, a seven-time winner. “You know, I think this is the longest I’ve been partners with anybody. A lot of teams certainly don’t have fun when they’re doing it and I like to think Todd and I do.”
This year’s win is Palin’s fourth since he started running the Iron Dog in 1993.
Palin was born in the western Alaska town of Dillingham to Jim Palin and Blanche Kallstrom, who is a quarter Yu’pik Eskimo. He met Sarah Heath at a high school basketball game and they eloped in 1988, six years after graduation, to avoid having to pay for a wedding.
“We had a bad fishing year that year, so we didn’t have any money,” Todd Palin said. “So we decided to spend 35 bucks and go down to the courthouse.”
At home, Palin takes care of the cooking, the bills and other domestic paperwork, in addition to driving the kids to extracurricular activities like basketball and soccer, according to his wife. He divides much of his time between Wasilla, where Track is recovering from shoulder surgery, and the capital in Juneau, where the Palin girls are in school.
“He can go on just an hour or two of sleep a night. He says, ‘I can sleep when I die,’ ” said Sarah Palin. “There is no way I could have done this job without his tremendous contributions to the home life. He’s able to keep it organized, like a well-oiled machine.”