“The Last Great Race on Earth”
There once was a trail…
It was a trail that ran nearly 2,300 miles into the wild heart of Alaska, from Seward in the south, to Nome in the north.
Named after the now-ghost-town of Iditarod, Alaska, it was a rugged and snow-covered track that was used by Gold Rush prospectors and mailmen.
As President Kennedy announced that a man was going to the moon, Alaska was still commuting via sled dogs. It wasn’t until years later that dogs were nearly completely replaced by “iron dogs”, or snowmobiles.
The original Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was the brainchild of a woman (you go, girl) named Dorothy Page.
Dorothy was a chairman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee, which was formed in 1964 with the intention of looking into Alaska’s history for the 100th anniversary of its statehood. She proposed a 56 mile race between Knik and Big Lake to resurrect and memorialize the use of sled dogs. The race happened in 1967 and 1969 before interest dwindled.
But Joe Redington didn’t lose interest.
Joe was heavily involved in the first two races in the late 60’s and never lost hope. He worked tirelessly to not only bring back the race, but to raise interest. Eventually, Joe’s hard work paid off, and the long-distance Iditarod Race became a reality. Joe is now known as the “Father of the Iditarod”.
The year was 1973. 352 sled dogs yipped and pulled while 22 mushers fogged the cold Alaskan air with their warm breath of life. The course ran from Anchorage to Nome and covered nearly 1,000 miles, with one of the many checkpoints being in the race’s namesake – Iditarod, Alaska.
The man who won that first long-distance race was Dick Willmarth. It took him nearly three weeks to reach Nome. Now, top mushers reach the finish line in under 10 days (wow!). Musher Mitch Seavey holds the record for fastest time – in 2017 he won the race by reaching Nome in eight days. His son, Dallas, finished second that same year, crossing the finish line only two hours and 44 minutes behind his father. Dallas is also the youngest Iditarod champion, winning the race in 2012 at the age of 25. In 1985, the first woman to win the race was Libby Riddles. Her victory has since been inducted as a “Hall of Fame” moment. Libby has written three books about her Iditarod experience. The second woman to win the race, in 1986, was Susan Butcher.
Seward, Alaska claims Mile Zero of the original Iditarod Trail, though the race begins in Willow, 80 miles north of Anchorage, the first Saturday of March each year.
The Iditarod Race has done exactly what Joe Redington always dreamed it would do – bring a part of Alaska’s history back to life. Sled dog rides are now a large portion of tourist attractions throughout the state, and while controversy shrouds it due to animal rights concerns, the history behind it shines brightly.
Want to try your hand at mushing during your visit to Seward? Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey and his family run the Seavey’s IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours on Old Exit Glacier Road outside of town. Visit their website to book your tour. https://ididaride.com/
Check out these books by Libby Riddles about her victory as the first woman to win the Iditarod.
Blog by Liberty Elias Miller. Visit her website here: https://www.libertyeliasmiller.com/