An Alaska legend passed into history Saturday with the death of Bud Smyth, a veteran of the first two Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races; once a major player in the world of long-distance sled-dog racing; and an old-style hardman.
Believing the so-called Last Great Race already becoming too civilized by 1983, Smyth was a key, behind-the-scenes player in the development of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada in 1984.
Smyth, LeRoy Shank and others wanted the Quest with its few checkpoints, some separated by up to 200 miles; its crossing of four mountain summits; and its requirement for a single sled from start to finish to be a test of both dogs and dog drivers and of the latter’s bushcraft.
It was a race for tough people of Smyth’s sort. The kind of people who wouldn’t quit no matter how tough the going. Smyth’s toughness shown through to the end.
He fought a long battle with cancer, but he never let it stop him.
“My dad’s in the ER again,” son Ramey messaged weeks ago when asked about reports of the 83-year-old Bud’s failing health. “Still mentally there and amazingly still working in the forest logging trees. Three kinds of cancer. Doctors don’t know why he is still alive. (I am not kidding.) He constantly needs more blood for almost 10 or 15 years now. But he doesn’t give up and won’t stay in hospital.”
Never one to stand still, Bud wasn’t going to let the grim reaper catch him slacking off. He kept going to the inevitable end that comes for us all.
It was a good run for a man who arrived in the north in the 1950s as an 18-year-old from the unsettled terrain of Eastern Oregon. He arrived “in a step side pickup with two guy friends on the Alcan,” now officially the Alaska Highway and a much different road than it was more than 60 years ago.
Back then, the Alcan was a pioneering military road from the Lower 48 to the Territory of Alaska built with incessant twists and turns to make it hard for attacking enemies to strafe, and with a surface that alternated between choking dust and slippery mud depending on the weather. It is now paved and, according to the U.S. Army, road straightening has shortened its length from 1,700 to 1,400 miles.
From son Ramey’s account of Bud’s trip north, he had quite the adventure:
“He came to find land for his horse herd in eastern Oregon and just his adventurous mindset. He had his pants ripped off by a black bear when it refused to be politely photographed. His friends thought it was funny and wouldn’t let him in the truck. He rode the step side as the bear pulled off his pants and his friends finally drove the truck away.
“As a kid he had read Jack London and that sparked his interest in Alaska and sled dogs.”
The latter interest only grew once the young Bud was befriended by the late Joe Redington, a Susitna River valley neighbor and the man destined to become famous as the “Father of the Iditarod.”
Redington is said to have found Bud living in a dugout in midwinter and loaned him a pair of boots to keep him from freezing his toes off.
Eventually, Ramey said, Bud proved up on “a homestead for himself and one for his parents who moved up to help in the efforts.”
Bud got some horses, too. Ramey remembers being taught how to yard house logs with horsepower from real horses as a kid.
“Dad pretty much did the whole Alaska thing,” Ramey said. “Built his own boat of wood and motored from Knik to Bristol bay. Fished the Bay and other waters. Built pipelines and the Healy (electric) transmission line. Worked as a union operating engineer, farmer, guide, prospector. (He) built log homes and churches for friends, ran heavy equipment for a land-clearing business. Owned an airplane with Wild Bill Nelson in the Valley. Owned a Yukon barge business with Gerry Riley (an early Iditarod champ) and another friend….on and on.
“His favorite pastime was raising horses, hunting until he had huge stacks of antlers and hides, acquiring land all over Alaska, and raising kids. Kids and family, then friends came first every time.”
Bud went through several wives and the children are many. Ramey and Cim are the best known having inherited Bud’s passion for working with dogs. The late Lolly Medley, one of two women to run the second Iditarod, was Bud’s partner from the mid-1970s until her death of cancer in 1996.
The Smyths have long been deep into dogs.
Former Iditarod champ Joe Runyan in a later incarnation as a reporter and commentator for the Iditarod.com website remembered Bud as “one of my favorite mushing figures, who was not only competitive…(but) had an expansive and comical view of the world.
“A mysterious Red Lantern musher hit the Alaskan newspaper headlines in 1977, anonymously driving his team on the Iditarod trail,” Runyan wrote there in 2013. “The musher with an encompassing mask claimed, in a labored Russian accent, to be Vasily Zamithkyn. We now know that musher to be Bud Smyth.”
And while that stunt might have made newspaper headlines, what made Bud truly famous in the sled dog world was showing up at the start of the 1981 Iditarod with 25-dogs in harness in front of an 11-foot-long, extra-wide freight sled loaded with another 11 dogs in dog boxes.
Bud had earlier informed Iditarod of his plan to start the dog with a monster team in order to rotate dogs along the trail, and he was reported to have tested the idea on a 20-day, 900-mile adventure with the dogs. The sled was specially built with lightweight dog boxes mounted low in the frame and dual brakes in the back to aid in maneuvering.
By standing on the brake on either side, Bud could make it easier for the dogs to turn the sleds around bends in the trail. As the story goes, Bud had been helped in the experiment by one George Attla, the so-called “Huslia Hustler.”
Apparently, however, Iditarod officials never believed Bud was serious about his scheme. They balked when he showed up at the start line in Anchorage with enough dogs to field two teams, but let him race to Eagle River, then the first official checkpoint.
Anchorage is now the site of a ceremonial start the day before the big race begins in Willow. But in the early years, Iditarod competitors would race to Eagle River, load their dogs in trucks, and drive north for a restart somewhere in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
When Bud arrived at Settler’s Bay, the second checkpoint and the restart for the real race to Nome in 1981, race officials told him he couldn’t continue with the monster team running three abreast on the gangline.
Bud ignored them and headed on up the trail anyway convinced that he had devised the ideal scheme to set a record time for the 1,100-mile run from Anchorage to Nome. He got as far as the Finger Lake checkpoint, about 200 miles into the race in those days. When he pulled in there, he found race officials burning his dog food and was told that was happening on up the trail as well.
Bud finally gave in and quit. He would run only one more Iditarod before abandoning the race altogether, though sons Ramey and Cim continued the tradition.Ramey has been a regular top-10 finisher who came within an hour and five minutes of winning the race when he finished as runner-up in 2011. And Cim was fifth in 2009– one position behind his dad’s best finish of fourth in 1976.
Into the storm
Some thought Bud might win the ’76 race. He led it out of the village of Shaktoolik into a growing storm along the Bering Sea coast. Libby Riddles would mush into a similar storm in 1985, snatch a lead on the mushers behind, and go on to become the first woman to win the race.
Her victory, featuring an attractive blonde woman musher beating all the men battling the harsh wilderness of the north, vaulted the Iditarod onto the international stage. Storms before and since have played key roles in the race’s history with some producing bold winners like Riddles and others punishing the bold.
Bud was among those punished.
In blowing snow on the ice of Norton Bay, he lost the poorly marked trail, something not uncommon in the early Iditaords. He ended up running a compass course across the bay to the village of Koyuk in its north corner. The 50-mile run was reported to have taken him almost 24 hours.
His tired team pulled into the tiny village to find both the checker and Bud’s dog food missing. According to Ramey, Bud had to go find the owner of the village store and roust him out of bed in order to buy some Friskies dog food to feed the team.
Behind him, meanwhile, Riley and other teams had apparently gotten together and hired a snowmachine to break trail to Koyuk, another not uncommon thing in the early Iditarods when official Iditarod trailbreakers were sometimes lacking.
Bud got passed by a bunch of those chasing teams as he nursed his team back into shape before heading up the coast to encounter more issues. On arrival in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint, he was told Iditarod didn’t have the money for the promised, $50,000 purse, another thing not uncommon in the early days.
Ramey said Bud was “shocked” by that news, although he shouldn’t have been given the always tenuous finances of the early Iditarod. Bud wanted to turn around and drive the dogs home along the trail in protest, but Ramey said “a White Mountain friend tanked him with coffee and stories of it being too dangerous to head home when the Alaska Range warms and melts in early April.”
So Bud pushed on to finish the Iditarod fourth behind Nenana’s Riley; the late Warner Vent, another legendary character from Huslia, the home village of Attla; and rookie Harry Sutherland form Trapper Creek, who had the race of his life.
Riley collected a top prize of $7,200 – less than half of what the purse had paid winner Emmit Peters, the Yukon Fox, the year before and $300 short of Redington’s earnings for finishing third in 1975. Bud won $2,400 from a purse that had shrunk to about $30,000,
He promptly spent the money.
“He was happy to place fourth and shipped his family to Nome, spending his whole purse winnings on a picnic on the sea ice and airfare,” Ramey said.
Bud was a man who worked hard, played hard and loved life. It has been reported he built his first, Alaska “log cabin using sled dogs, a Swede saw and an ax.”
Anyone who has cut logs with what is now more commonly called a bow saw know the laborious work involved in that task, and the ax is no easier.
“He was one strong, tough hombre,” Ramey remembered. “He was a friend to so many people I can’t count….Somehow he lived life as if time didn’t exist. (It was a) crazy, full life.”