A withering Iditarod faces an unknown future
Part one of a series
Forty years ago, a young Athabascan dog driver named Howard Albert from the village of Ruby on the Yukon River sat beside a campfire in the spruce trees near a nowhere place called Rohn in the heart of the Alaska Range and talked about the troubling changes he saw building for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Thin and fit, hardened on the trails of an often bitterly cold Interior Alaska, Howard was the last of a generation to have been reared in a Bush Alaska when snowshoes and dog teams were still a normal means of trapline travel at a time when trapping meant much more than it does today.
His early years were spent a long way from what is called civilization in a time before late President Lydon Johnson’s “Great Society” of 1965 began to cast a national, social-safety net wider than anyone had imagined before.
When my path crossed Howards, he was in his mid-20s, and I just entering my 30s. We’d come from far different places but found we had a lot more in common than might have been expected. I’d grown up half wild, sometimes despite the efforts of two well-educated parents, running around in the woods of rural Minnesota only to abandon university at 21 to flee for The Last Frontier in search of the great wilderness fantasy of some of the youth of the Earth Day generation.
It didn’t take long for the reality of the Northland to beat that silliness out of my head. By 1983, the first Earth Day was more than a decade behind in the rearview mirror, and nearly a decade spent in-country had taught me what Howard had lived growing up:
The northern wilderness is a tough place in which to survive but money can make it a lot easier.
Money in volume can buy survival, and even a comparative little of it can buy the tools that make survival in the wilderness easier. A whole lot easier. Anyone who has cut wood with a bow saw – what we used to call a “Swede saw” – with the thermometer at 40- or 50-degrees below zero to try to keep enough heat in a log cabin to avoid freezing to death will know about the reality of life in the wilds of Alaska, and the rest can be thankful at having been blessed with growing up in a more comfortable world.
Given Howard’s background and his way of life, he looked at the Iditarod as something of a money-making opportunity. A couple of thousand dollars earned for a couple of weeks on the trail with a dog team that was to him family was an opportunity.
It should be noted here that $2,000 dollars then was worth more than $9,000 now after adjusting for inflation, and that is not only way, way, way more revenue than I generate punching keys on this keyboard, it is also more than I ever made in a month back in the days when there was still some money in journalism.
With seventh-place finishes in the Iditarod in 1978 and 1979, Howard had pocketed two $2,000 checks. He stepped away from the Iditarod for a few years after that but re-engaged in 1982 to help his sister, Rose, join the small group of women who ran the early Iditarod.
Then he got back on the runners himself the next year only to find a lot about the race had changed.
Last Great Race
By 1983, the Iditarod was building toward its peak on a wave of media coverage, the romanticized vision of the old Alaska of Jack London and the enthusiasm of a new generation of back-to-the-earth wannabes trying to reconnect with the wilderness. Seven years earlier, the BBC’s Ian Wooldridge had dubbed the event “The Last Great Race on Earth,” and ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a very big deal on television in its day, was preparing to point its lenses at the mushers on the trail in 1984.
Alaska, too, was by then a different place than it had been when the race began in 1973. Construction started on the trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) in 1975 and by 1977 oil was flowing from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Pipeline construction was a modern-day gold rush that left the pockets of many stuffed with cash, and when the economy slowed down a bit after construction ended, some of those out of work were looking for adventure with cash in hand to support such plans.
Sixty-eight dog teams – more than twice the 2023 lineup – started the race north to Nome from downtown Anchorage in 1983. Alaska’s largest city then provided the official starting point. There was no showy and meaningless ceremonial start as there is today. There was a sled-dog race to Eagle River followed by a dog-truck race to a restart in Knik and then it was off into the wilderness.
Iditarod records reflect that there were at least 25 teams from rural Alaska still competing in the ’83 race, not counting all the near-rural places like Trapper Creek and Clear and Delta Junction scattered along the state’s limited and paved highway system. Race favorites Rick Swenson, already a three-time winner on his way to an eventual five victories, and Susan Butcher, the 1982 race runner-up who would go on to win four times, were still end-of-the-roaders living in Manley Hot Springs at the end of the Elliott Highway a rough, 160-mile drive north of Fairbanks.
They would eventually retreat to the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area where life was easier and cheaper and consultations with visiting scientists flying in to work on ever better recipes for dog food much more convenient. Other mushers were at the time still feeding their teams beaver and whitefish, the beaver being leftover carcasses from trapping and the whitefish having been pulled from subsistence fishing nets.
But things were changing fast, and Howard saw it better than I did. For a reporter, the Iditarod “story,” with its cast of crazy characters and its lingering attachment to the American folklore of men and women challenging the wilderness, sometimes trumped the Iditarod realities of dog farming and people obsessed with a very esoteric sport.
Looking back now with the clear vision of hindsight, there was even more to it than that.
The Wild West atmosphere spawned by pipeline construction in the ’70s with its big money, loose women, gambling, corruption and crime had spilled over into an Iditarod filled with dog drivers with nicknames right out of the days of Billie the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holiday and more.
The Iditarod had Herbie Nayokpuk, ‘The Shishmaref Cannonball” from far to the north on the Arctic coast; Larry “Cowboy” Smith from Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, Canada; Emmitt Peters “The Yukon Fox” from up on the river of the same name; “The Flying Anderson Brothers,” Eep and Babe from the old gold fields of the state’s Interior, old Joe Redington, “The Father of the Iditarod Trail,” Rodger Roberts, “The Loafer from Ophir,” and a variety of others.
Most of those people came in out of the wilderness to run the Idiatod, and many of them were, like Howard, Alaska Natives, who were seeing themselves replaced, as Howard observed, by businessmen, lawyers, doctors and other professional, college-educated types.
Howard saw it more clearly than I did because by ’83 it was already getting hard for a guy who had to work his ass off to survive to find a way to successfully compete with those better situated in the American socio-economic system.
Butcher, who passed away in 2006, grew up in Cambridge, Mass., where she attended the progressive but short-lived Warehouse Cooperative School before taking off for Colorado State University in Fort Collins where she worked part-time as a veterinary technician. Her father, Charles, was by then living in Colorado with his second wife and building a floor-care product company that would earn him millions while he pursued a fascination with science.
“In 1973 he began working with Dr. Larry Gold in the lab of the Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology Department of the University of Colorado,” his obituary observed. “In 1986, he was chairman of the board of Clonetics, a biotech start-up that gained international recognition for its genetic research; in 1991 he joined the board of NeXagen, a biomedical company.”
Butcher didn’t come by her intelligence and drive wholly by accident. The apple, as they say, didn’t fall far from the tree, and there is no telling how much the scientific community to which she had access helped in her development of ever-better dog teams.
Swenson, meanwhile, was deeply involved with the dog-food company Iams and a variety of veterinary researchers studying everything from the “Biochemical and histopathological evaluation of changes in sled dog paw skin associated with physical stress and cold temperatures” to “Serum biochemical values in sled dogs before and after competing in long-distance races.”
His name appears as a co-author on both of those scientific papers and on others.
More than this, though, Swenson and Butcher were models for the new dog drivers getting into the game. Collectively, they would make the Iditarod faster and faster and faster in the years to come. A top-10 finisher twice in the 1970s, Howard ran the fastest race of his life in ’83 – more than two days faster than he’d ever -covered the 1,100-mile distance to Nome before – and he finished 16th.
He took his own life not long after that race. I think about that regularly. We were a couple of guys who spent very little time together, and yet wherever and whenever we met we connected like we’d known each other forever. Maybe we had in other lives and in other times. Who knows?
But I’ve never forgotten the time we sat in the darkness around a lonely campfire in Rohn talking late into the night about people with more money than brains becoming ever more influential in the Iditarod. Then again, we were sizing them up with a yardstick that measured how well they could take care of themselves in the wilderness.
It was an uncommon form of measurement in the United States even at that time, and many of the people we discussed might well have been smarter than Howard and I combined for having the sense to chase the money they could spend to open doors and claw their way ahead.
The best checkpoint
Rohn – a one-room log cabin in a stand of white spruce near where the Tatina and Kuskokwim rivers meet in the shadow of the Terra Cotta and Teocalli mountains climbing a mile into the sky – was and is the best checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail, and it was for a time pretty much every mushers’ stop for the one, 24-hour rest required sometime during the long race to Nome.
After a tough haul from tidewater at Knik steadily upward to Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range before the sometimes harrowing drop down the Dalzell Gorge to the Tatina and on to Rohn, most everyone figured the dogs needed a good, long rest. Over time, that would prove a bad assumption, and a Rohn tradition would die as the rest stop was pushed to halfway and beyond.
That changed the nature of the race considerably. Teams had to be trained better to push farther, and it became a little harder to sort out who had what for dogs early on. In the early ’80s, everyone pretty much knew by Rohn who was going to be in the hunt for victory when the race finally reached the Bearing Sea Coast and the real racing began.
In Rohn in ’83, Howard already knew he wouldn’t be one of those on the front on the coast. He realized early he’d be battling just to hang on to a top-20 finish. There were just too many other drivers on the trail who could afford better dogs and better gear and handlers to assist them in training. Rick Mackey from Wasilla, who’d farmed up a huge lot of expensive to feed dogs from which he could select a team, won that year’s race.
“Eep” Anderson, who’d long done well as a gold miner in the Interior, was second. Swenson, another gold miner and by then already well sponsored, was fifth. Lavon Barve, who ran a successful printing business in Wasilla, was sixth, contractor Sonny Lindner from Fairbanks eighth, and an also well-sponsored Susan Butcher, ninth.
The only Alaska Native in the top-10 was Nayokpuk, the legendary “Shishmaref Cannonball, who was fourth. Lawyer Dave Monson and college-educated DeeDee Jonrowe, the well-traveled daughter of a U.S. Army colonel, were among those finishing in front of Howard. Jonrowe would eventually become another Iditarod legend, though she would never quite manage to win the race, and Monson would marry Susan Butcher after which he would help her seal the deal on a breakthrough, 1986 victory that set the stage for a string of years when she was the dominant force on the trail.
Behind Howard at the finish in ’83 were Peters, whose star was fading, and a couple of mushers who would rise to greater success in the years ahead, but largely there was the collection of misfits, goof-offs and adventurers that made the Iditarod a good story.
I was then covering the race for the Anchorage Daily News, which was locked in one of the country’s last great newspaper wars with the now long-gone Anchorage Times, and we had a simple rule for Iditarod coverage: Ignore the ‘race’ until at least halfway and focus on the trials of the tribulations of what were then and still are called the “back of the packers.”
Iditarod front runners at the time resented this idea of coverage, and resented it all to hell when some nobody, wannabe “rabbit” took off to lead the race and steal headlines. Swenson lectured me more than once on the media’s lack of understanding of “what is really going on in this race,” although as someone then starting to think and focus intently on running sub-3 hour marathons I knew perfectly well what was going on.
There was once an old adage in running that said that for every mile you ran too fast in the first half of a marathon, you’d lose at least two seconds per mile in the second half. The adage eventually was proven wrong. Scientists discovered that runners who went out too fast could actually cost themselves a whole lot more than two seconds per mile in the second half.
What Swenson didn’t get was that most reporters didn’t care about the race at the start. They cared about the human-interest stories that made the race interesting.
The Iditarod Trail killed a lot of people’s dreams. Men and a few women would sink their life savings in the dogs and gear needed to run the race, devote themselves to living with and constantly training dogs for months on end, only to collide with a tree going down the Happy River steps and knock themselves out of the race, or have the dogs they thought they knew so well decide to go all “no mas” on the flat and easy trek up the Susitna River to Skwentna when the race was still supposed to be easy.
Showing up to shoot survivors
Journos lived for mushers crashing their sleds into trees and bloodying their bodies, or worse, on the dive from Finger Lake to Red Lake or the notorious “Steps” down to the Happy River that came next. Or in the Dalzell Gorge on the way to Rohn or along the barely sled-wide trail through the “Buffalo Tunnels” just out of Rohn on the way into what was then the Farewell Burn, the site of one of the largest wildfires in Alaska.
The fire scorched the area bare, which allowed the winds to howl through. The winds blew the tussock patches bare while at the same time building sharp, knife-edged drifts so hard they were like hitting a brick wall
Between the tussocks and the drifts, there was inevitably a lot of wreckage along the trail from Rohn to Nikolai. Many a musher ended up walking for tens of miles behind the dogs and the tattered remnants of a sled to reach the little village. Or at least the lucky ones walked. There were more than a few broken bones requiring rescues and evacuations.
Over the years, the Iditarod would do its best to “fix” these “problems areas” along the trail, and with Iditarod big dogs increasingly in charge of the race, efforts would come to rid the field of attention-stealing back of the packers like “Poddle Man” John Suiter, whose dogsled pulling poodles netted him a spread in Sports Illustrated magazine in 1988.
“Eleven years, four poodle generations, 182 races, 14,000 mushing miles and more than $120,000 of his own money later, Suter has become one of the world’s foremost poodle proponents,” James S. Thorton wrote in SI. “‘The poodle is the most well-rounded dog in the world,’ he says. ‘It can track well; it can guard well; it can show well; it can obey well; it can retrieve well; and now it can pull a sled well.”
Unfortunately for Suiter, a resident of a suburb on the northern edge of Anchorage, he was a man before his time. These days he would be breeding his poodles to Alaska huskies and making a fortune selling “Alaska sled dogoodles,” but back then he was a man with a target on his back for what some saw as mocking Alaska’s biggest sporting event and for stealing the spotlight from “real” dog drivers.
Eventually, one if his poodles resting on snow and ice in Unalakleet had some hair freeze to the ground, and after Suiter helped the dog pull itself free some hair was left behind. That was it for Suiter. The Iditarod promptly passed a rule banning any dogs other than “northern breeds” from competing and Suiter was out.
The rule has never been enforced since his departure though there are now dogs running in some teams that look more like hounds than huskies. Iditarod never seemed to understand that the race needed mushers like Suiter, a whacky character that he was, as much as it needed mushers like Libby Riddles, who became the Iditarod underdog winner of all time in a weather-fouled race that at one point ground to a stop in a blizzard and reached the coast with a whole lot of teams in position to race for Nome.
All but Riddles – who had been living and training with Joe Garnie, another Iditarod legend, in the small coastal village of Teller north of Nome – decided to hunker down when a howler kicked up on the coast. Riddles pushed on into the storm and grabbed a lead that got her to Nome two and a half hours in front of old Minnesota boyfriend Duane “Dewey” Halverson.
Over the course of 150 miles, he steadily cut into her lead, but he never could catch her. Thus Riddles became the first woman ever to win the Iditarod. That made international news and the fact she was an attractive, Vogue-worthy blonde only amped up the coverage.
Riddles would never again crack the Iditarod top 10, but when Butcher followed up Riddles’s ’85 victory by winning in ’86, the 49th state became “Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod.”
Iditarod would soon have a national reputation as “that dog sled race in Alaska that women always win.” From a marketing standpoint, this was something of a gold mine. It only got better when the dueling between Butcher and Swenson got World Wrestling Federation-worthy.
Sponsors flocked to get in on the action, and the Iditarod looked on its way to becoming the Boston Marathon of the north.
The Boston Marathon became so popular it had to cap the number of entrants in 1970 by setting a qualifying time runners had to meet in some other marathon in order to enter Boston. The first qualifying time was 4 hours, but so many qualified it was reduced to 3:30 the next year. It has fluctuated ever since with the qualifying standard for women always lower and as of present a time as slow as 5 hours, 20 minutes for women over 80.
Qualifying times for older runners were largely relaxed over the years to allow older runners with a history of running Boston to keep on running. Men under 35 are still required to post a respectable, sub-3 hour time to get in with the bar raising in five-minute increments for every five-year age group over age 34.
These requirements were also not enough to keep the size of the field in check. So the Boston Athletic Association in 2015 capped the field at 30,000 runners. Since then, it has been turning away 2,000 to 7,000 qualified runners per year to stay under the cap.
The competitor-short Iditarod turns away competitors, too, but that is a whole other story.
Coming next, Part Two – Iditarod rising
Correction: An earlier version of this story had a whopper of a topographical error which put the terminus of the Alaska pipeline in Nome.