Two veterans of Alaska’s first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – men who did not meet until two years ago despite being almost neighbors – are teaming to try to track down the pathfinders who first led the way north on the most difficult stretch of trail from Anchorage to Nome.
Author and filmmaker Rod Perry of Chugiak, the 17th musher to reach the finish of the 1,000-mile odyssey in 1973, hopes to complete a documentary about those he considers the unsung heroes of what was to become The Last Great Race.
Former U.S. Army reconnaissance officer Pete Panarese of Chugiak, who went on to a long career with the Alaska Division of Parks and Recreation, wants to see that the men who did the hard work to get the race up and over the Alaska Range and across the desolate Interior to the Yukon River get the attention they’ve long deserved.
The mushers in that first race have been many times glorified, and it is sometimes made to sound as if they were all on their own in a vast wilderness that in those days pretty much started at Knik, an old port on Knik Arm only about 20 miles near due north of Alaska’s largest city, and never ended.
Sixty-nine-year old Panarese wishes now he’d kept a journal and taken a lot of photos to document what the Army did to make that first Iditarod a success. As a recon platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Panarese of Echo Company, 4/23rd Infantry at then Fort Richardson was pulled into service to help coordinate logistics in McGrath.
McGrath sported a sizable airport built during World War II to support airplanes being ferried from the U.S. to the Soviet Union (now Russia) as part of the Lend-Lease program. It would become a focal point for staging air reconnaissance and supply during that first dog race.
“There was a lot of air mobile capability,” Panarese said in an interview.
In January of ’73, President Richard Nixon had signed the Vietnam Peace Accords ending direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Army was destaging from Vietnam even before the agreement was signed.
Panarese remembers there were plenty of UH-1D helicopters, the well-known Hueys, flying around, and quite a few heavy-lift CH-47 Chinook helicopters based at Fort Rich. Panarese found himself loaded on one of the latter along with some of the Army’s early-day snowmachines.
He was a fresh-faced, 23-year-old lieutenant who has just finished his military training at Fort Benning, Georgia. But he had northern roots. He’d grown up in Maine and yearned to check out Alaska.
“They were going to send me to Fort Riley, Kanas, but I got lucky,” he said. “I never looked back.”
Panarese arrived in Alaska in October 1972 with the then biggest air search in U.S. history underway. A twin-engine airplane carrying Rep. Nick Begich, D-Alaska, and U.S. Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., had just gone missing on a flight from Anchorage to the state capital in Juneau.
Panarese remembers the intense focus on that search. Operations involved “40 military aircraft, 50 civilian planes, a search grid of 325,000 square miles, and more than 3,600 hours of search time,” a House history recounts. “After 39 days, the search was called off, with no sign of wreckage or survivors.”
The plane has never been found.
A young Panarese went from witnessing that piece of history to blowing out a knee at the military’s Arctic Valley Ski Area to getting pulled into another piece of history in the making.
“I think it was only because I was hurt at the time,” he said. “I was just coming out of a cast, (and) I was on limited duty. This was limited duty.”
Army Maj. Gen. Charles Getty, the Fort Rich commander, saw Iditarod support as a great training exercise for the Army’s new snowmachines and its air-mobile capabilities in the north. Panarese remembers getting his first look at the vastness of the Alaska Interior from the air.
“I fly out to McGrath with these snowmachines and all my group on this Chinook,” he said. “Two chinooks. We landed in the Farewell Burn. I remember thinking, ‘this is some pretty amazing terrain. Black spruce on muskeg. How are you going to find your way through this?'”
Air reconnaissance helped. And when the helicopters weren’t overhead directing troops on the ground, they could pick up busted snowmachines and ferry in new ones. The Army’s underpowered sleds were constantly breaking down.
Panarese described them simply as “pieces of shit.
“As I remember, they were white, single-ski prototype Ski-doos with 220cc engines,” although they might have been 250ccs.
Pulling sleds, he said, “they wouldn’t go uphill. You had to get off and push to go uphill.”
Panarese remembers being in McGuire’s Tavern, a famous Iditarod watering hole in McGrath, with Iditarod founder Joe Redington and Red Devil’s Dick Wilmarth, the man who would go on to win that first race. Redington died in 1999. Wilmarth passed away only last year.
“They razzed me about whether we were going to keep those snowmachines ahead,” he said. Panarese remembers being pretty uptight about it all at the time along with the rest of the soldiers in the mix.
All of them were young. Some of them were just out of Vietnam. There were 13 in all in the unit.
Capt. Harry Lockhart was in charge, according to Panarese, and Master Sgt. Tom Clemmons was his NCO.
“Those guys have gone off into the vapor,” Panarese said. “We can’t find them. They could be dead. I’m approaching 70. Lockhart has to be in his 70s, late 70s maybe. Clemmons was older.”
Panarese particularly remembers Clemmons. Clemmons took one look at his assigned snowmachine, Panarese remembers, and “said, ‘Oh my God, I’m riding a pig.”
The observation was later underlined when a pair of civilians riding behind the Army arrived in McGrath atop brand new Arctic Cat snowmachines. The Army had spent days on the trail. The civilians made it to McGrath in 24 hours.
“They planted the seeds of the Iron Dog,” Panarese said.
The world’s longest, wildest toughest snowmachine race, the Iron Dog now goes 1,000 miles north from Big Lake to Nome, and then south and east another 1,000 miles to finish in Fairbanks.
On a mission
Meanwhile, the Iditarod – which started as nothing – has become an internationally recognized event. Panarese said nobody thought about that in 1973 although in retrospect “it was something to be involved with the first one.
“I was standing on FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) building looking down on (Anchorage TV sports personality) Orville Lake in McGrath. He’s got his cameraman and in rolls George Attla.
“I was able to watch Attla come into McGrath, and I had no idea of who these guys were. I was clueless.”
The “Huslia Hustler,” a Native dog driver from the Interior, Attla was a legend long before his 2011 death at the age of 81. From the late 1950s through the ’60s and ’70s, “Attla was the best musher in the world,’ records his biography in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
“You’d think I might have kept a journal or taken a couple pictures,” Panarese said, “but I had no idea what this was going to wind up being.”
What it was to Panarese and every other soldier in his unit at the time was a mission, a mission they felt a lot of pressure to complete successfully. Panarese remembers a lot of broken snowmachines being lifted out of the wilderness and new ones flown in.
His memory is much different from that of Perry, who simply remembers a horrible trail. The first part of it north of the Susitna River – the trail went overland to Skwenta in those days not up the Yentna River as it does now – had been packed in well before the race started when snow was deep.
Sometime after, the winds started blowing and blew a lot of the snow away. What was left was a narrow packed trail with a crown to it, a trail just about impossible to keep a dogsled atop.
And things only got worse as the race moved into the Alaska Range. None of the soldiers had any idea of what kind of trail dog teams need. They put in a lot of tilted sidehill trails. The runners on dog sleds do not do tilts well; they invariably slide to the low side.
If there are trees there, well, as Perry notes, there were a lot of broken dogsleds in that first race. He vividly remembers a lot of bad trail, but recognizes there is something far worse:
Without the 1973 efforts of those 13 soldiers and the support of the Army, Panarese wrote in an email asking for help from officers at what is now Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER), “it is doubtful the Iditarod would have succeeded to become what it is today. A friend, Rod Perry, one of the mushers to complete the first race is preparing a documentary about this period of Iditarod history.
“This chapter in the drama of the last great race will be incomplete without capturing the story first hand of the trail breaking team and providing the recognition they are due.”
So far, the military has been able to provide little help. Perry and Panarese are hoping the public can do more.