Seventy-six-year-old musher Emmitt Peters from Ruby, the man who forever changed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, was in the intensive care unit of the Fairbanks hospital on Saturday after suffering a stroke that reportedly left the right side of his body paralyzed.
Time catches up with even the strongest and the best.
Peters is one of the last of a generation of Alaska Native musher who grew up with trap line dogs on the trails of the Interior in a country that was very much the same as today and very much different.
In many ways, Alaska is as wild now as it was when Peters started running a trap line more than 60 years ago, but the days when rural Alaskans lived with and relied on dogs for their very survival are gone.
Peters knew those days well. His dogs, he told Susan Smith in 2013, “trained on my trap lines. I was 13 and beaver trapping. I fell in the beaver dam with my five dogs. They pulled me out, rolled in the snow to get rid of the excess water. They took care of me.”
Slight in stature – Peters looked almost tiny when he stood next to husky five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson – the man who would grow up to be called “The Yukon Fox” was one tough dude.
You had to be to survive growing up the way he did.
Greatest Iditarod ever
Swenson once called Peters’ 1975 Iditarod the greatest ever. As a rookie Iditarod musher, Peters almost singlehandedly transformed the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. He in 1975 took almost six days off the previous winning times.
In doing so, he paced the best dog-drivers of the day into a new era. Nineteen mushers ended up beating the old race record of 20 days. Among them were future champs Jerry Riley from Nenana, Dick Mackey and his son, Rick, both from Wasilla.
Aided by a phenomenal lead-dog named Nugget, Peters that year joined the annual Iditarod camping adventure until the race reached the Yukon River. There Peters did the Iditarod’s one, mandatory, 24-hour rest in his own bed in Ruby, and then he; Nugget; another lead dog named Digger, and the team took off for Nome.
The camping trip was over, and after Peters’s breakthrough victory, the days of camping along the Iditarod Trail were numbered. There would be a few years to follow when bad weather forced mushers to camp – including 1985 when Libby Riddles secured another monumental Iditarod victory by becoming the first woman to win the race – but with Peters as the model the camping would increasingly give way to the racing.
Today, the Iditarod is a full-on race from the time the green flag drops at the Willow restart. Peters, who started that transformation, spent decades watching its progression as the race moved through his home town.
He never won again, but he was several times in the hunt. And his stature was such tht is now a member of both the Iditarod Hall of Fame and the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
Peters ran his last race in 2000, finishing in a respectable time of a little over 12 days, but he has never lost touch with the world of long-distance sled dog racing. He has stayed in contact with old timers, offered advice to young mushers, and worked regularly as the checker at the Ruby checkpoint during the race.
Still looking pretty spry at age 75, Peters was on hand in Ruby this year to welcome four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King, another aging musher and a friend from the trail.
Peters has had some health problems in recent years, but he has never really let them show. He comes from a time when that was the way men were; they toughed things out.
He’s in a serious battle now, just weeks after his Oct. 1st birthday. Friends and family are hoping for the best. Acquaintances were Saturday posting prayers and well wishes on the Facebook page of his wife, Edna, the former health aide in Ruby. She is now retired.
Some old trail mates were reported to have dropped by the hospital to say encourage the Fox to get well.
Many were hoping that the musher who pulled off the unexpected in ’75 could do it again and bounce back stronger than before.