Two women made famous the ‘Last Great Race’
Part II of III
Any history of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races is most accurately recorded in the years BR and AR – before Libby Riddles and after.
Her wholly unexpected, 1985 victory was a transformative event that vaulted a small, esoteric competition in remote Alaska onto the global stage. From a marketing standpoint, it was the best thing that ever happened to the Iditarod.
And from a historical perspective, it might one day turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to Iditarod.
Before Riddles, the race could be fairly described as an Alaska family affair that was as much an adventure as a race and almost wholly dependent for its existence on the help of local volunteers. What happened in ’85 race exemplified the way things had been all through the race’s first decade.
The Iditarod stalled in Rainy Pass for nearly three days because of heavy snow and a lack of snowmachine power to break trail through the Happy River valley to haul needed dog food ahead to the Rohn checkpoint on the far side of Rainy Pass. Later, in the vast Alaska Interior, the same thing happened, though not for so long, at the old and deserted mining camp of Ophir from which the trail runs west across the vast and long ago deserted “Inland Empire” to the village of Anvik on the Yukon River.
Much of the trail in those days was, at the best of times, pretty much crap except where it was in use for regular travel between Bush villages. Snowmachines rode ahead to put in the trail not long before the dog teams arrived, and the trail regularly moved around a lot. Where it went in many places depended on where the first snowmachine breaking trail found the easiest travel.
Often the trail was poorly marked. Sometimes when snowmachines broke down, the dog teams caught, passed them and were forced to lead the way to the next checkpoint. Mushers regularly whined about snowmachine trail breakers putting in sharp turns hard to negotiate with a 100-foot or longer string of dogs.
Sometimes the trail was unmarked or even mismarked due to Bush villagers flagging trails for local sled-dog races or someone doing the same to make it easier to find a remote wilderness cabin. Getting lost was a somewhat regular thing.
The late Susan Butcher, an Iditarod legend and the musher everyone thought destined to become the first women to win the race, blamed a mismarked trail for costing her victory in 1983. She looked to be in control of that race when she took a wrong turn heading up the Yukon River from Grayling to Eagle Island and went miles and miles to the east before recognizing what had gone wrong.
When mushers did get lost, villagers went looking for them. If mushers got injured along the trail, villagers hauled them to safety. And when mushers arrived in villages, they stayed in the homes of villagers who’d agreed to put them up. Often villagers vied for which mushers they wanted as house guests.
Potential winners or familiar faces tended to be a lot more popular than also-rans from far away.
At the time, there were quite a few familiar faces. Many of the Iditarod competitors were themselves Bush residents. Many of them raced with dog teams comprised of animals that were still in use for transportation at home. Maintaining a place for dogs in the villages was, the late Joe Redington said, one of the biggest reasons he got so deeply involved in starting and keeping the often struggling Iditarod race alive in the early years.
The so-called “Father of the Iditarod” wanted, he said, to save the sled dogs from being replaced by cheaper and easier-to-maintain snowmachines.
In the end, the goal went unfulfilled. Dog teams are now almost all gone from Alaska villages. Racing proved no protection against the relentless march of technology.
But then few mushers kept dogs solely for racing the Iditarod even in the 1970s and the early 1980s. The numbers just didn’t pencil out. The Iditarod purse was $98,000 in 1984 (approximately $288,0000 in inflation-corrected 2013 dollars), and only the top 20 mushers collected checks if the purse actually got paid in full. Sometimes it didn’t.
At the time, the Iditarod could be fairly described as a ragtag, two-bit operation with almost constant financial problems. Few of the dog drivers involved possessed much in the way of financial resources. About a third of the field for the 1984 race came into Anchorage from economically depressed Bush communities for the start, and most of the rest were living cheap in “wide spots” along Alaska’s limited road system.
Places like Trapper Creek, Nenana, Clam Gulch and Cantwell. Places that you can still largely drive through almost in the blink of an eye. Some of the people inhabited cabins that might be described as the human equivalents of dog houses.
Butcher, who would go on to great Iditarod success in winning four Iditarods and being first in the gang of competitors chasing the victor to the finish in four more, was representative of the breed at the time. She was holed up in a 12-by-16-foot one-time blacksmith shop with no indoor plumbing, no running water and no electricity in a place called “Eureka,” about 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Eureka wasn’t much of anything; it was an abandoned mining camp about 20 miles up a bad road from Manley Hot Springs, one of those “census-designated places” common to parts of rural Alaska where small numbers of people gather within a broad area but never really coalesce into anything like a normal community.
What little in the way of development existed at Eureka was, according to a Bureau of Land Management history, rooted in the “entrepreneurial activities of Frank G. Manley, whose birth name was Hillyard Bascom Knowles. Manley arrived from Fairbanks with vast amounts of cash, quickly purchased the majority of claims in the Eureka area, and leased the hot springs homestead of John F. Karshner, where he built a hotel. He constructed a road from the homestead eastward to Eureka, a distance of about 25 miles, and successfully mined his numerous claims for a few years. After his incarceration in Texas and the destruction of his hotel by fire, he turned his attention to other mining districts.”
When Butcher went looking for ground on which to build a sled-dog empire in the late 1970s, land in Eureka was dirt cheap, which was in line with what she could afford. Rick Swenson, who was destined to become a five-time champ, was already living in the same area along with a few other mushers, including one of Redington’s sons, for much the same reason, although it wasn’t just that the land was cheap.
Snow and cold came early in that part of the Interior; there were salmon free to be pulled from the nearby Yukon River with a fishwheel; and having a small collective of mushers provided some help in building and maintaining trails for training dogs. Still, for most everyone, the whole business of long-distance, sled dog racing was more a twisted labor of love than anything else.
The New York Times in 1981 reported Swenson explaining that he won “$24,000 of the $100,000 prize for the (1981) Iditarod victory, which will be televised April 18 by CBS Sports. But there also are expenses, which, he said, amounted to $37,000 to prepare for three races this year.” Swenson, who by then had found some Iditarod success, was reported to be looking for “endorsements,” ie sponsors, to help fund his adventures.
He eventually signed a dog-food company, which enabled him to expand his kennel from the small crew of dogs to which he was in 1981 reported to be feeding “beaver, king salmon, lamb, seal blubber and seal meat,” protein sources then cheap in rural Alaska.
The salmon came from the Yukon. The beaver carcasses were throwaways from trappers who wanted the hides. And much the same was the case for seal blubber and meat coming from hunters on the Bering Sea coast to the west where seals where marine mammals still being pursued by Native hunters involved in the barter and trade of the hides. Any benefit they could get out of trading the meat and blubber for goods or some below-the-table cash was just a plus.
Suffice it to say, Swenson and Butcher, along with a variety of others, were living hard lives, lives pretty close to those of American pioneer life. But all of that was about to change.
Let the good times roll
Riddles’ surprise victory – she was on absolutely no one’s list of expected contenders in ’85 – proved an Iditarod game-changer capable of raining money on a lot of mushers. Still, Butcher does deserve some of the credit for what came to pass.
Her runner-up finish in the ’84 Iditarod had already attracted attention from businesses interested in the rising role of women in America as the second wave of the feminist movement drew to a close. The Iditarod offered a potential opportunity to connect with a sporting event in which a woman could outshine the men.
After Butcher’s came in second at Nome less than an hour and a half behind ’84 winner Dean Osmar, the Iditarod purse doubled from just under $100,000 to near $200,000 as sponsors moved to associate themselves with an event possibly poised to attract national attention as a serious battle of the sexes.
And that it did, although the spotlight landed first on the unknown Riddles rather than Butcher, the dog driver expected to produce the breakthrough victory.
A moose had other ideas. It stomped through Butcher’s team early in the ’85 race, killing two dogs and seriously injuring six others. The damage might well have been worse if fellow competitor Duane “Dewey” Halverson hadn’t arrived on the scene to shoot and kill the raging ungulate that knocked Butcher’s team out of the competition.
He was armed; she wasn’t, having decided a firearm was just extra weight her team would need to haul along the trail.
Once Butcher went home, no one expected a woman to win, but the weather in ’85 set Riddles up perfectly for both weather and almost instantaneous celebrity.. The snow-stalled journey to the Bering Sea Coast allowed her to hang with the Iditarod frontrunners to Unalakleet, and when the weather struck again there, Riddles was poised to make a move.
She’d been living and training with Eskimo Joe Garnie in Teller, a village along the Bering Sea coast north of Nome, and had become accustomed to travel in coastal storms. When the weather literally blew up, she saw an opportunity and seized it.
With all the men hunkering down to wait out the blow, she gambled she could get through the storm and took off up the coast. By the time the weather started to mellow, she had a gap over the field that couldn’t be closed. Halverson, an old boyfriend of Riddles from Minnesota, came close, but not close enough.
His efforts only made the story of Riddles’ victory better: Attractive blonde musher leaves old boyfriend and all the men behind to charge into a raging Alaska storm and seize victory in what has been described as “The Last Great Race’ on Earth.”
This news promptly exploded around the globe, and the Iditarod would never be the same again.
When Butcher followed up Riddles’ victory with another, ABC’s unexpectedly popular “Wide World of Sports” rushed north to put the race on national TV for the first time. After Butcher won for a second time on the way to four victories in five years, the Iditarod became widely known as “that race in Alaska the woman always wins,” and entrepreneurial Alaskans started counting the cash made by selling t-shirts proclaiming “Alaska: Where men are men and women win the Iditarod.”
Female dominance in a dog race across a wild and rugged Alaska where rough, tough men were expected to rule the day brought the race a lot of attention.
Capitalizing on this, a former Iditarod competitor and friends in Europe in 1988 spun off the Alpirod International Sled Dog Race – a 1,000-kilometer (621 mile), 14-day stage race through the mountains of Italy, Austria, Germany and France.
The event was the marketing opportunity of a lifetime for long-distance, sled-dog racing in general and the Iditarod in particular. Nenana’s Joe Runyan, a top-10 Iditarod finisher in 1987, won the inaugural Alpirod in 1988. Kathy Swenson, Rick’s now ex-wife, claimed the crown the next year, and Roxy Wright-Champaine., a well-known Alaska sprint musher, took the honors the next year.
Riddles, an Alpirod regular, was said at the time to be more famous in Europe than in the U.S. These were heady times for long-distance sled dog racing.
The Good Times
By 1990, the nearly $100,000 purse of the 1984 Iditarod had tripled to $300,000 on its way to a peak of $525,000 in the year 2000 as the attention given the race increased, and Butcher and Swenson, always intense rivals, waged a personal battle of the sexes. The face-off reached its peak when Alaska Magazine published a March 1989 edition featuring two covers – one with Swenson on the front and Butcher on the back or Butcher on the back and Swenson on the front – so fans could pick the one with their favorite musher on the cover.
Unfortunately for the future of the sport, the Iditarod had no idea of how to capitalize on all the publicity. There was never a unifying entity to organize and market the package – no sled dog equivalent of FIFA, NFL, MLB, NBA, WWF, MMMA or any other sporting organization big enough to have become well-known by an acronym.
Worst yet, race organizers never really grasped the idea of building a fan base. Riddles’ victory and what followed simply led them to believe the Iditarod was the Super Bowl of Alaska without realizing what makes that NFL game the nation’s Super Bowl. It is built on a fan base that starts with Pop Warner youth football, grows into high school football programs that fill stadiums across the country, blossoms into college programs that attract millions of fans, and finally explodes into the National Football League.
There were a few who did recognize how the real world worked, Butcher and husband Dave Monson among them. The woman who publicly professed a dislike for the modern world, who said she’d be happy to live alone forever in Eureka with just a pack of dogs, had the sense to hire a high-profile agent to help exploit her Iditarod success.
Sports Illustrated reporter Sonja Steptoe in 1991 described Butcher frontman “Bob Woolf (as) a Boston agent who handles, among others, New Kids on the Block and Larry Bird.” Woolf and his agency were, as Steptoe described, Butcher’s “link to the outside” which has “made her well known throughout the U.S. She has appeared on The Tonight Show, Today and Good Morning America.
“Her 45-day summer travel schedule, during which she crisscrosses the Lower 48 – signing autographs at sporting-goods trade shows, sitting for photo and interview sessions, meeting with sponsors and giving speeches at seminars and conventions – allows her to sample and bring back to Eureka such luxuries as La Croix water and Korean pickled cabbage. Butcher has even developed a taste for the Big Apple. ‘It’s my favorite place to visit – not over any country place, mind you, but among the cities,’ she says. ‘You have freedom there to do anything you want at any time of day, just like in the bush.’ She visits New York City once or twice a year.”
This is what is called marketing. There were few others in the sled-dog world who got it.
Minnesota’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which had begun on the heals of the Iditarod in 1977 as the Gunflint Mail Run, did recognize the potential for growth and recruited Butcher and Swenson to compete in the race out of Duluth in 1986, but the Iditarod never really tried to grow relationships with other events.
As a result, the Alpirod faded away. And the Beargrease. an event that in the mid-1980s had a purse near $150,000 in inflation-corrected cash, shrank back to being a largely local event with a $21,000 purse that in 2022 paid the race winner $5,250, a fraction of what a musher can earn in the pull-tab funded Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race staged out of the remote community of Bethel in Southwest Alaska.
Race organizers weren’t necessarily responsible for the death of the Alpirod and the shrunken Beargrease. A lof other factors played a role, including warming temperatures in Europe. But mushers themselves weren’t necessarily much help in promoting the sport in the ’80s.
Robin Jacobson from Squaw Lake won the ’86 Beargrease. Swenson scratched from the competition as soon as he concluded he wasn’t going to win. Butcher, meanwhile, chased Jacobson to the finish line with Monson busy bad-mouthing the young Minnesotan in front as someone driving the dogs too hard and sure to push the team to the breaking point before the finish.
Jacobson’s dogs didn’t falter, but the suggestion that they might raise questions among animal rights groups about how sled dogs were treated in races – questions that over time would grow to plague Iditarod.
Swenson at least had the sense to be complimentary, saying Jacobson’s team looked fine and praising the young Minnesotan for apparently knowing his dogs better than the big-name Alaskans knew theirs.
Butcher and Swenson had by then already gone “professional” and were running huge kennels, “dog farming” as 1983 winner Rick Mackey had labeled it. The thinking was that the best way to build a competitive team of 18 to 20 huskies was to raise 50 to 100 or more and then pick from among them the best of the best for the race team.
The approach was generally effective. Butcher, a back-to-back winner of the 1986 and ’87 races, “has taken 30 hours off the Iditarod record over the past two races,” the UPI’s Jim Weil reported in the build-up to the ’88 race.
“Butcher uses both male and female dogs, mainly between the ages of three and six. She chooses a team from her kennel of more than 100 dogs, keeping about half her pack from the previous year.” (Other sources put the number at more than 150.)
This sort of dog farming was never going to look good to some segment of the dog-loving crowd, but Butcher and Monson were then ruthlessly focused on winning as were nearly all of the top Iditarod contenders of the day. No one was spending much time looking ahead to the future of the Last Great Race or what product it was trying to sell as the event itself began to break into cliques.
There were the “competitors” at the front, who often didn’t get along all that well, and the derided “back of the packers” (BOP) behind making up the bulk of the Iditarod field. Some thought the BOP teams got in the way. Monson at one point suggested the race should have a professional class and an amateur class.
Despite this, the race continued to grow in size, but there was no cohesive agreement as to what it would or should become and often the mushers were at each other’s throats.
“Resentment has been raised against Butcher by veterans who raced in obscurity for years because nobody cared much about the Iditarod – until a woman won,” Los Angeles Times reporter John Dean wrote in 1990. “Then came reporters from Sports Illustrated and ABC World Wide of Sports and Australia and Japan.
“Said former champion Swenson: “’She’s a good competitor but that’s all I can say.” Then he said more: “’You could ask yourself what have they (Butcher and Monson) done for anyone else in the sport? They just take, take, take.’
“Because her trademark finish has always been a sprint – even after 11-days of the punishment of the Iditarod – there are whispers that Butcher feeds drugs to her dogs. ‘Her teams go so fast at the end of the race,’ said…Jacobson…”“I can’t understand a dog having a three or four-day adrenaline rush. It would kill them. So that’s where…there is doubt in a lot of minds.
“Monson – a lawyer and public defender among many former trades – finds all such suggestions slanderous. Racer Redington thinks the accusation should be shoveled aside with caribou droppings. But most important, Jack Morris of Wasilla, Alaska, veterinary director of this year’s Iditarod, said there was routine urine testing – en route and at the finish – of several dogs on Butcher’s winning team.
“”‘All samples were clean,’ Morris said. ”“If there was any kind of cheating, we’d catch it.'”
Other mushers called the Idiatrod drug-testing program at the time and largely to this day a “joke.” Race officials never publicly admitted to catching a doper until 2017 when tramadol, a minor-league pain reliever long used legally by cyclists in the Tour de France, was reluctantly revealed to have been found in the dogs of three-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey at the finish of the race.
Seavey claimed sabotage. Race volunteers overseeing the dog lot where he claimed the sabotage likely happened called bull. The Iditarod hemmed and hawed as to what to do and finally, despite the lack of any sort of investigation into what had transpired in Nome, announced that it agreed with Seavey’s claim that he’d been sabotaged and apologized to the angry musher.
A different race
By the time all of that happened, the Iditarod had already moved far away from its rural Alaska roots. The big separation began in the late 1980s with what was popularly called the “Monson rule” to prevent “outside assistance” to mushers and grew into the early 1990s when the now self-identifying professionals at the front of the race sought to remove villagers from the competition.
With mushers staying in the homes of villagers, some argued, there was no way to prevent these village friends from providing unseen aid, and as the Monson rule had earlier made clear the Iditarod was supposed to be a race free of so-called “outside assistance.”
As a result of these accusations, there arose a “corraling” rule that required all mushers to stay at a specified location, usually a school or community center, in every village.
The lack of village involvement to organize housing led to a general decrease in village interest in the race and as a result, the number of Iditarod volunteers being parachuted into the villages to staff checkpoints grew. The volunteers, fans all, tended to be white-collar city folk somewhat more reliable than villagers in that their main reason for visiting Alaska was to witness the Iditarod race up close and personal.
The volunteers had to pay to get themselves to Anchorage, but the Iditarod took care of dispersing them along the trail. Given that village-to-village air travel in Alaska is often more expensive than a flight from Seattle to the state’s largest city, it was a good deal for the volunteers, and an even better deal for the Iditarod in that it had now had free help wholly focused on the race and thus unlikely to be distracted by home or work issues.
The only downside was that as the separation between the race and individual villagers grew, the villages increasingly wanted to be compensated for the cost of local facilities and became less tolerant of the Iditarod dragging on and on for days or weeks.
Slow mushers were costing the Iditarod, too. The more time spent maintaining checkpoints, the more the race spent on food, sundries and, in some cases, rent.
The red lantern, the award given to the last musher to reach Nome at the end of the race, plainly tells the story of what happened next. .In 1980, it was awarded to Barbara Moore who took more than 24 days, 9 hours to reach the finish line. The Iditarod did that year try to chase Moore off the trail, but she was traveling with the late Norman Vaughan, another Alaska mushing legend, who said there was no way they were quitting before the finish.
The red-lantern time didn’t drop much in the years that immediately followed. It still took Steve Haver more than three weeks to reach Nome during the storm-tossed 1990 race. But the full-on racers had yet to take charge of the race then. That would not last.
Rule 36, the “competition” rule, would soon be written to stipulate that if a “team has not reached McGrath within 72 hours of the leader, Galena within 96 hours of the leader or Unalakleet within 120 hours of the leader, it may be presumed that a team is not competitive” and can be removed from the race.
By the year 2000, when Russian Fedor Konyukhov rolled into Nome to claim the red lantern, the finishing time was down to about two-thirds of what it had been ’80s and ’90s. But that still wasn’t fast enough for those in charge.
The Iditarod would again rewrite the rule, and this time removals would be left to the discretion of the race marshal who could at any time withdraw a team if he decided it was “out of the competition and is not in a position to make a valid effort to compete.”
Since then, the average finishing time for the red lantern has fallen to about 13 days, which is a long way from the 20-day average of the early days. But this didn’t happen just because of the competitiveness rule.
The track was made faster, too, to make the “race” more of a race and less of an adventure. And the mushers changed as the Iditarod added qualifying requirements for experience in other dog races that made an already expensive adventure even more expensive.
Gone now are nearly all of the trail-hardened individuals who once called remote villages home and gained their mushing experience the old-fashioned way, priced out of the event are the dreaming misfits who cobbled together ragtag teams of mutts just hoping to make Nome, and cleaned up by public-relations advisers are the plain-speaking dog drivers like Swenson who couldn’t avoid saying something that would make the Iditarod story more interesting but invariably piss off someone.
And papered over as best possible are the antics of the rare free-spirited outlaw like the late Lance Mackey, arguably the last remnant of what was, while largely neglected are the BOP mushers who once served as rallying points for dreamers all over the country who thought “I want to do that Iditarod race someday.”
All of these outcomes were arguably accidental, but they all arrived by design.
Part III: A doggie NASCAR sans personalities and crashes