The nicest guy ever to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race died Thursday at his home in Ruby on the south bank of the Yukon River in wild Central Alaska.
Emmitt Peters, “The Yukon Fox” from back in the days when every Iditarod musher had a nickname, was 79 years old and among the last of 49th state dog men with a connection to those times when working dogs and sled dogs were no different.
“Truly, Emmitt was one of the last of the breed, part of the final trailing remnants of the great Native dog men, those who for untold generations before the snow machine, awoke each morning in the northern bush with work to do that only a dog team could perform,” said friend Rod Perry, one of the competitors – if they could be called that – in the very first Iditarod in 1973.
Perry first me Peters after sleeping in his bed, which had been offered by Peters’ parents.
“Emmitt had gone downriver with his team, pacing along with some of the (1973) frontrunners to see how their teams looked compared to his,” Perry remembered. “As his brother Heinie and I worked to repair my sled, I slept two nights on Emmitt’s bed. I listened to Dick Wilmarth’s Nome finish on the Peters’ radio as I chopped beaver carcasses in their yard.”
A different time
The Iditarod then was nothing like it is today. Perry was 500 miles behind race leader Wilmarth,when he crossed the finish line to win the race. And yet Perry went on to finish 17th out of 34 teams.
That first race took Wilmarth, who died in 2018, just over 20 days to complete. John Schultz from Delta Junction earned the distinction of carrying the red lantern across the line more than 12 later. He’d been on the trail for more than a month.
Those first two Iditarods were more camping trips than anything.
It was a 34-year-old Peters who put an end to all of that in 1975 when he managed to make it from Anchorage, where the race then officially began, more than 1,000 miles to Nome in 14 days, 14 hours and 43 minutes.
Rick Swenson, who two years later won the first of five victories that would make him the greatest Iditarod musher of all time, considers Peter’s victory the biggest transformation in Iditarod history.
Nobody ever thought of the race the same after that, Swenson said.
After Peters’ victory, it became clear the race wasn’t about how much rest the dogs needed, but about how much rest the people needed. Properly cared for and tended to, the dogs could perform well as long as they had near equal run and rest.
The mushers – who had to stay awake while on the sled only to burn up more his rest hours feeding dogs, watering dogs, tending the feet of dogs and sometimes massaging away their aches and pains – suddenly became the weak link.
Peters had some experience with this. Arriving late in the Rohn checkpoint deep in the Alaska Range in 1983, he confessed to having fallen asleep on the runners on the trail across the Happy River valley.
With the driver asleep, the lead dogs decided to investigate a wall tent pitched along the trail. Once they put their noses insides, there was nowhere to go, so they stopped. The team stopped behind, decided this was a rest break and bedded down. .
Peters awoke to find them all napping as he had done. He laughed about it when he told the story. It was the sort of guy he was – don’t sweat it, roll with the punches.
He clearly always hoped to win another Iditarod, but he was never driven to do so in the way most other champions were, not to mention a goodly number of those who came close to the winner’s circle but never quite made it.
Larry “Cowboy” Smith from Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada; Outsider Terry Adkins from Wyoming and then Montana; and the Flying Anderson Brothers, Babe and Eep from McGrath, were regularly the ones out front pushing the pace of those early Iditarods and never winning.
Peters, like Swenson, was always back with the chasers calculating just when to make that move that would leapfrog them to victory. And Peters, like Swenson, was always reluctant to take a team right up to that redline on the other side of which is the point at which the dogs decide they’ve had enough and simply quit.
Adkins teams so seriously quit one year in the Topkok Hills east of Nome that an airplane had to come get the dogs and fly them out. Swenson even had a team quit once, though he got them going again after a rest. Peters never went there.
In the 13 Iditarods he ran after 1975, only three were faster than in ’75. He didn’t break the 14 hour mark until 1981 when he ran a 13 day, 14 hour race, and he didn’t slip under the 13 day mark until his very last Iditaord in 2000.
By then, everything had changed so radically that Peters’ finishing time of just under 12 days, 3 hours was only good for 40th. The Iditarod as he’d known it was already gone, though few recognized it at the time because no one was really thinking about the changes.
All the attention was focused on just how fast can those dogs get to Nome? It was the continuation of the evolution begun by Peters. Nobody thought about had been left back along the trail.
By 2000, Peters was one of only five Native mushers from rural Alaska left in a field of 81. His kind made up more than a third of the finishers in ’73, and that was without counting the legendary George Attla – “The Huslia Hustler” – who was at the time calling Fairbanks home.
And those Natives from the Bush, as rural Alaska was then still called, were joined by a number of Caucasian “Bush Rats,” as the former and late Gov. Jay Hammond called them. Wilmarth, a gold miner from the remote outpost of Red Devil, was one of them.
Twenty-three years later, the Iditarod was in the process of being dominated by a Stanford University-educated rancher from Montana, who idolized Tour de France champ in Lance Armstrong and who some in Alaska suspected might have something in common with the man later to become the country’s most famous doper.
The record, however, reflects that the dog teams of four-time champ Doug Swingley never officially failed a drug test. They should also show there was never a suspicion that Peters even thought about doping a team despite his ’75 victory and the five top-10 finishes that followed, including a second in 1979 less than an hour behind Swenson.
Swenson won that race in 15 days, 10 hours. By 2000, Swingley and the other top contenders were regularly running 9-day races and threatening the 9-day barrier which finally fell in 2002.
They ran a new breed of short-haired dogs that often needed to wear coats to deal with the cold of Alaska. They almost all lived in road-connected areas with easy access to veterinarians and other services. And they attracted sponsors with the money to help them fiance the best in dogs, equipment and whatever else was needed.
Having grown up along the banks of the Yukon, and having decided to make his home there with Edna, the love of his life, among the 150 or so still hanging on in the shrinking mining port that had once been known as “The Gem of Yukon,” Peters never had a chance of competing against the competition of the new day.
He never complained. No one can recall ever hearing him complain.
“No bad-mouthing of others nor grinding of jaws over misfortune,” Perry said. “He just took things as they came with never a gripe or whimper.”
A different era
He was one of the last of an old school of Alaskans grounded in a life much harder than it is for anyone today. People dealt with what life threw at them and moved on.
It was not an easy way to live.
“How few there must be left now of those old enough to have worked the dog team along with their fathers before the advent of the snow machine, hauling wood and ice and running the trapline, and spending months in fish camp putting up enough fish to feed the dogs through the long months until the next salmon run,” said Perry, who as the author of two volumes of the “Traibreakers” has become the state’s foremost sled-dog historian.
“Most probably, dog teams of the size Emmitt’s generation was born into could not have been fed by primitive means, so they probably existed only after villagers gained firearms and modern nets, say after something like the 1750s.
“That’s 200 years of generations driving sizeable teams and rooted in countless more generations before that, millennia of working huskies in singles and doubles in harness. Sad that so many thousands of years of such a partnership came to such an abrupt halt.
“Emmitt and his pre-snowmachine like were a treasure as the final representatives of such a dominant part of the age-old culture.”
Alaska lost more than just a friendly, gentle and kind dog man with Peters’ passing. It lost a bit of its history.
He leaves behind Edna and two sons. In line with his wishes, Edna said, he will be cremated and his ashes scattered along the Iditarod Trail when the COVID-19 pandemic locking Alaskans in their homes ends.