Update: Dick Wilmarth passed away on March 21 surrounded by family. He joined a growing list of other legendary Iditarod mushers forever, as it has been said of Joe Redington, “on the trail.”
For the first time in five years, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this year returns to the gold-mining ghost town with which it is identified, but the gold miner and bush rat who long welcomed the race there will be missing.
Dick Wilmarth, the winner of the first Iditarod who long mined on Chicken Creek south of the old ghost town, is dying of cancer at a Matanuska-Susitna Valley hospice. As this is written, it is unclear whether the 75-year old former champ will live long enough to witness the March 3 ceremonial start of the race that brought him a tiny slice of fame with which he was never fully comfortable.
A tough man from another era, Wilmarth felt more at home in the cold, white silence than in the warmth of the public spotlight. He came from a time when people were defined by what they did not by what they posted on social media. He was a quiet woodsman of an older Alaska and an older Iditarod home to people who lived close to the land.
“He grew up the son of a gyppo logger,” said friend Rod Perry. “Dick never really got to go to school anywhere for long, but he did graduate.”
Gyppo loggers are another dying breed. The few who remain today prefer to be called “contract loggers,” according to The Oregon Encyclopedia, there were those – former Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus among them – who once took pride in the gyppo label.
“They were socially and economically unified by family, community, religious, and ethnic ties. This included Native American crews working east and west of the Cascades, often logging reservation allotments,” Robert Walls write in the Oregon Encyclopedia.
Author Ken Kesey’s novel “Sometimes a Great Notion,” one of the greatest books of the 1960s, revolved around a family of gyppo loggers struggling toward a tragic end.
“Gyppo logging provided a strong social foundation for an occupational culture that celebrated the values of working-class masculinity, financial independence, the skills of mastering machinery, and knowledge of the natural world useful for both work and subsistence activities, such as hunting, fishing, and berry gathering,” Walls writes. “The traditions of gyppo life—like much of Northwest logging culture—include a wealth of jokes and anecdotes, cautionary tales, songs, poetry, material art forms, and hunting lore.”
Steeped in this culture as his family roamed the forests of the North American West from British Columbia to New Mexico, Wilmarth was perfectly prepped for the wilds of Alaska in the 1960s, Perry said.
Perry, another veteran of the first Iditarod, met Wilmarth at the start of that race in Anchorage’s Mulcahy Park, but never got to know him. Wilmarth spent most of the first Iditarod far ahead of Perry. Perry remembers listening on the radio in Ruby almost 500 miles back on the Yukon River when Wilmarth reached Nome – something a significant number of people doubted anyone would be able to do.
The two men reconnected and became friends when Perry was writing the first volume of “TrailBreakers: Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod,” an exhaustive and intriguing history of the gold-rush trails that spiderwebbed the Alaska Territory of long ago and of the people who roamed those trails.
Wilmarth would have fit right in.
“He was one of that group you could have dropped naked in the wilderness in winter, and they would have emerged in the spring with a full suit of fur clothes and 10 pounds heavier,” Perry said, citing the likes of many now gone:
Herbie Nayokpuk, the Shishamaref Cannonball; George Attla, the Huslia Hustler; Bobby Vent, the Interior musher somewhat lost in Attla’s oversize shadow, and Isaac Okleasik and John Komak, great dog men from Teller in the heart of Alaska’s original sled-dog racing country on the Seward Peninsula north of Nome.
Largely by accident, Perry said, Wilmarth ended up in sled-dog country. He originally came north with a brother to work on an uncle’s fishing boat. The uncle, however, unexpectedly died, leaving the brothers Wilmarth wondering what to do.
Looking at the canoe they’d brought north with them, they decided to float the Yukon River. There they met a man who talked Dick into taking a job at the Red Devil Mine to the south in the Kuskokwim River country.
In Red Devil, Dick met George Fredericks, a trapper and trader, with whom a fast friendship was formed.
“He said, Georgie was tremendous,” Perry remembered. “They went trapping together. This was before snowmobiles. The only means of travel then was by dog team.”
These were the days when people in Alaska still lived with working dogs. There were few professional racing kennels stuffed with a hundred or more high-strung, short-haired racers that didn’t know the meaning of “whoa.” There were insead well-furred, trapline dogs that could live in the cold without jackets and stop, as well as go, when so commanded.
With such dogs, trappers went far up the frozen rivers of Alaska for the winter season. During the winter of 1963, Frederick and Wilmarth were so far up one of the rivers in the Kusko country that they missed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Perry said. They didn’t find out until a friend brought them mail in the spring. The mail included Dick’s draft notice.
Dick went off to serve a stint in the Army, and while Dick was gone Fredericks went through the ice and died while on the trapline.
“Dick was devastated,” said Perry. Fredericks’ death would eventually play a role in Wilmarth’s decision to run the Iditarod.
A classic jack-of-all trades – people had to be to survive in rural Alaska in the 1960s – Dick eventually earned a pilot’s license and started doing some work for Bob Vanderpool, a pioneering Bush pilot. Wilmarth also fell in love with and married Vanderpool’s daughter Shirley, but that’s not part of this story.
This story is about the Dick Wilmarth and the first Iditarod. People who think they know what it was like, Perry said, have no idea.
“Even old Iditarodders, they tend to lump the first race with others,” he said, “but it wasn’t like them at all. The first race was so outside the box. It was like you were alone in the wilderness.
“We went from not knowing to knowing (Iditarod possible). It was the greatest change.”
Wilmarth’s involvement began, according to Perry, with a poster he saw on the wall in McGuire’s Tavern, a legendary watering hole in the tiny, Kuskokwim River community of McGrath north of the Alaska Range from Anchorage.
The poster, Perry said, was promoting “the longest, richest, most grueling sled-dog race in the world.” As the story goes, Wilmarth told Vince Spady, another pilot, “I’m going to win that race,” and Spady told Wilmarth, the first thing he’d need to do was get a dog team.
Wilmarth had by then been out of dogs for a years, but he remembered everything Fredericks had taught him, and he’d picked up some more from watching others. It wasn’t long before he’d pulled together at team of 12 dogs from Native villages along the Kusko.
Nobody had a clue as to what an Iditarod team should look like in those days, Perry said. Long-distance sled dog racing was a new sport being invented on the fly.
It was if someone announced a long-distance horse race to a world unaware of horse racing, and people showed up with whatever breed they happened to have in the barn, Perry said: Belgian draft horses, Icelandic ponies, Standardbred trotters, Mustangs or whatever.
Wilmarth happened to have the Mustangs. It was obvious from the beginning of a race that in those days started in Anchorage and just kept on going, Perry said. The first leg went from Mulcahy all the way to the old port of Knik west of the west of the Matanuska Colony.
As the race worked its way north from there toward the Alaska Range, the country just kept getting wilder and wilder. By Finger Lake, about 150 miles up the trail from Anchorage, there was no trail and Wilmarth and Attla, who limped along on one leg stiffened by a knee fused after childhood tuberculosis, were spending hours out in front of their teams on snowshoes packing a trail.
“I was in better shape when I got to Nome,” Wilmarth would tell Associated Press reporter Mary Pemberton many years later in his understated way.
Men lead, dogs follow
In reality, Wilmarth, Attla, Vent and a few others at the front of the race snowshoed their way for a good part of several hundred miles from Finger Lake up and over the Alaska Range to the headwaters of the Kusko and then across the desolate Inland Empire all the way to the Yukon River.
When they made the old mining town of Ruby on the Yukon and stopped to stay with villagers to recover, Perry said, “Bobby Vent came over to see Dick. He wanted Dick to let him come in first in Galena. He was sort of headquartered there then.”
Wilmarth said fine and followed Vent out of Ruby onto the Yukon heading west. He soon had a problem.
His lead dog, “Hotfoot didn’t like that at all, ” Perry said. Hotfoot would chase down the Vent team. Wilmarth would stop and wait for Vent to open a gap, then get the dogs up again.
Hotfoot would promptly resume the chase and catch Vent. Wilmarth, who had a close relationship with Hotfoot (he slept with that dog, Perry said), decided in Galena, that he’d had enough with the waiting. If Hotfoot wanted to go, he’d go.
Other mushers wanted to stay in Galena. It was 50 degrees below zero on the Yukon River. Attla actually stopped, saying his team was pretty much spent, and took them inside to warm up. Wilmarth kept going.
“I just decided I was going to let Hotfoot decide,” Wilmarth told Perry. “If he wanted to go, we went. If we wanted to stop, we stopped.”
By the village of Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast, Wilmarth was hours ahead of everyone, although Attla was back on the trail and gaining ground fast thanks to hiring a snowmachine to break trail. The rules of the time had not taken into account the iron dogs then starting to take over the Alaska wilderness.
With snowmachines unmentioned in the Iditarod rules, Attla took advantage of the situation and hired a trail breaker to end the marathon snowshoeing.
“George was shrewd,” Perry said, “very shrewd.”
Too late, too far
Attla was also too far back, and Wilmarth had a simply dominant team. Leaving Shaktoolik on the coast, the team mushed out into a blizzard, and Wilmarth promptly turned the team around, deciding there was no point. He knew he was going to win.
“They were so dominant,” Perry said. “He just kept widening and widening the lead.”
He reached Nome more than 10 hours in front of Vent. Dan Seavey of Seward, father of future champ Mitch and grandfather of future champ Dallas, would finish another three hours back. Attla was forth.
Perry listened to the radio report of Wilmarth’s Nome arrival in the Ruby home of Emmitt Peters, the Yukon Fox, and another future Iditarod champion. Live television in Alaska was still more than a decade in the future.
So, too, any sort of solidly snowmachine packed trail called Iditarod. Perry wouldn’t reach Nome for another 10 days.
“I just wanted to hear the historic finish,” he said. He remembers hearing Wilmarth saying he’d do the race again, but he never did. He never really ever said why.
“I don’t think he was in it to win,” Perry says now. “He was just doing it for Georgie.”
Wilmarth went from being a winning Iditarod musher to become a fan. Whenever the race took to its southern route – an every other year event before a string of winters that left the Alaska Range short of snow and sent the race restart north to Fairbanks – he was in Iditarod, the ghost town north of Red Devil, to help welcome mushers there.
It was a treat for many.
“The checkers pointed out an inviting looking tent on the river,” dog driver Karen Ramstead wrote on her blog in 2001. “Inside 1973 Iditarod Champ, Dick Wilmarth was cooking for the mushers. After getting my dogs all looked after, I drifted over for a ‘moose-dog’ (as opposed to a hot dog) and a couple glasses of milk! What a treat! I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be around for fresh-baked apple pie in the morning. What a privilege it was to get to meet Dick! Who is not only kind and personable, but darn good looking!”
Wilmarth is far from that now, surrounded by a protective family – Shirley, the girls and a son – trying to make his last days as comfortable as possible. Perry meanwhile is working on a tribute he’d like to see rolled out before the start of the March 3 Iditarod to recognize the man who broke the trail so many came to follow.
Dick Wilmarth led a pioneering crew who established what would go on to become the Superbowl of the 49th state sport.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story attributed the fusion of George Attla’s knee to the wrong disease.