April 24, 2014

Mushdom Dynasties prepare for Iditarod XLI

Mushdom Dynasties prepare for Iditarod XLI (Race Start Anchorage, the First Saturday of March, regardless of weather conditions.)  by Joe Runyan

Note: Find an article written for Alaska Air Magazine and appearing in the Febuary issue.  The subject—the family Dynasities of Alaska Mushing —was an idea proposed by Paul Frichtl at Paradigm.  Paul and crew did a great layout on the article in the magazine—if you happen to see it on an Alaska Air flight.  He has generously allowed me to use parts of it for the Iditarod Blog.

 

Blankly staring at the Roman numerals XLI, especially the indecipherable L, one of my mushing colleagues broke my reverie and schooled me— the Iditarod is turning forty-one years old!   No longer the fantastical idea of some mushing extremists of the early seventies, the Iditarod is now an institutional Alaskan adventure, a catch phrase for Mothers who casually comment, “My daughter is off to run the Iditarod, that 1000 mile sled dog race across Alaska.”

The first Iditarod of 1973 was the vision of a loosely associated group of mushers who wanted to preserve the Alaskan sled dog in a race commemorating early native and pioneer mushers.  Of this group, the late Joe Redington Sr. is widely acknowledged as the driving personality that re-opened abandoned trails to the Iditarod gold fields of the Yukon Basin and north to the gold bearing beaches of Nome on the Bering Sea. 

Sceptics and scoffers judged the 1000 mile race impossible, but mushers including Dan Seavey, the Ivan brothers Robert and Owen, Dick Mackey, and Bud Smyth determined to prove them wrong.  Thirty five mushers left Anchorage on the first Saturday of March, 1973 and twenty two finished. Sled dogs, it was shown, could cross the Alaska Range, trot through deep snow on the Yukon, knife through winds on the western coast, and do it in style.

Over four decades, the race has captured the imagination of the world and there are no boundaries for the transfixed adventurer. A Norwegian, two women, Alaskan natives, outsiders from the lower 48, and transplanted Alaskans, by diligence and skill have won the Iditarod and men and women from all walks of life and corners of the world have run the trail.

Some of these solitary travelers of the arctic, as we would naturally suspect, come from mushing families, a circumstance I wanted to explore.   Mothers, daughters, sons, fathers and multi-generations populate the Iditarod archives.

I chose a few of these mushing families to pique my curiosity.  First, I called Mike Williams Sr., an old friend of mine, living far removed in the village of Akiak, Alaska situated on the Kuskokwim River Delta.  Mike, age 60 and a veteran of 14 Iditarods, is training for Iditarod 2013 with his son Mike Jr.     Yupiaq Eskimo, Mike Sr. is the epitome of a man with his feet in both the modern and traditional world.   College educated, a former football player, a noted leader of his people, a bilingual speaker, he told me “We have just begun catching fish in our traps under the ice.”  Like his ancestors, he told me in a measured voice with a distinct “yupiq” accent, “We feed sheefish, burbot, whale blubber, beaver, whitefish, and salmon to our dogs.  My grandparents travelled far from home by dog team.  It’s part of our culture.”

Mike Jr., 27, finished 8th in 2012 and is a clear favorite for 2013.  “We are putting all our efforts into Mike Jr.’s team with a focus on the Iditarod.”   Mike Jr. is a quiet, steady personality who has attracted considerable support from Western Alaskan business, a clear indication of his credibility.

When I asked what inspired his mushing interest, Mike Sr. surprised me when he acknowledged the Ivan brothers, also of Akiak.  I have been long intrigued by Robert and Owen Ivan.  In the first Iditarod of 1973, when little was known about long distance mushing, the rules allowed “pairs” of mushers to travel with one team.  Although experience has proved otherwise, it was thought that two mushers and one team of dogs would be competitive.  “Robert and Owen are actually my grand first cousins, but in Yupiq we think of them as Grandfather,” Mike told me.  Because of their influence, Mike and his brother Walter ran the Iditarod in 1983. 

Robert and Owen started in Anchorage with a 12 foot freight sled loaded with camping gear.  29 days later, after miles of trail breaking, they arrived in Nome and remain the only pair to have finished the Iditarod with one sled and dog team.  “My wife was going to high school in Unalakleet (a checkpoint on the Bering Sea Coast) and remembered when they arrived.  They were very tanned, dark, from days in the spring sun.  She came up to them and surprised them by speaking Yupiq, the first time they had heard their language since Anchorage.”  Owen passed away, but the elder Robert still maintains a recreational team.  “Robert still remembers the Happy River Steps (a wild descent in the Alaska Range) and asks me if they ever changed the trail.  It must have been very difficult for Owen and Robert, especially with a big freight sled.”   I count four Iditarod finishers in the Williams family.

The early years of the Iditarod provided opportunities for fertile minds to explore the possibilities of long distance mushing.   The art or the science of travelling a thousand miles was not well understood, so the reader may appreciate the contemplations of Bud Smyth, who raced the first 1973 Iditarod and finished 4th in 1976 and  in the money .  Bud Smyth, one of my favorite mushing figures, was not only competitive, he had an expansive and comical view of the world.  He is also the father of present day competitors Ramey Smyth (placed 2nd, 3rd, and 4th and done everything except win) and top ten finisher Cim Smyth.

A mysterious Red Lantern musher hit the Alaskan newspaper headlines in 1977, anonymously driving his team on the Iditarod trail.  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.

In 1978, Bud arrived at the start line with 35 dogs, a hilarious caricature of mushing.  Twenty-five dogs, enough power to pull a plough, were in harness, while the remaining ten were housed in kennels in a huge freight sled.  Bud’s idea was to mush 24 hours a day continuously, stopping only to feed dogs and rotate the ten resting dogs to the team.  His idea had considerable gravitas, but officials felt that Bud had not thoroughly thought through the details of his grand concept and talked him out of the race.  Soon after, the race rules committee wrote a rule that limited teams to 20 dogs.  (Presently, the limit is 16, more than enough dog power.)

Meanwhile, the late Lolly Medley (1945-1996), the mother of Ramey and Cim Smyth, was thinking about other important global ideas in the early years of the Iditarod.  She and Mary Shields completed the 1974 Iditarod in an historical statement, the first of many women to have competed equally (including Iditarod Champs Libby Riddles and Susan Butcher.)  I knew Lolly when she lived on the Yukon River, a sincere and kind woman with a sense of adventure and love of sled dogs.  Lolly always insisted that musher equality, not gender equality, was her legacy as a woman finisher.

Ramey and Cim Smyth are not only well inherited members of a mushing dynasty but also in my top list of favorites for Iditarod 2013.  That’s four mushers in the Smyth circle of two generations.

Founding mushers Joe Redington Sr., Dan Seavey, and Dick Mackey not only pioneered the Iditarod, they founded three generations of mushers—virtual Dynasties of Mushdom.

Joe Redington, Sr. (1917-1999) was an ardent, dedicated, persistent, and charismatic advocate for the Iditarod.  Although he maintained a huge kennel of sled dogs used for racing, trapping, even rescues to downed planes, and communicating to his homestead near Knik, Alaska, he decided to step out of the 1973 Iditarod.   His son Rayme told me by telephone, “He was supposed to go in the first Iditarod, but at the last minute he decided he better stay and organize the race.  He kept asking me, “Will you take the team?”  So, I decided to go.  The following year, in 1974, my dad, brother Joee, and I ran the race.”  Aside from his non-stop promotion of the Iditarod, Joe Sr. raced the Iditarod 19 times, and finished in the “Top 20” ten times.  Even more remarkably, in my estimation, he logged his last Iditarod at age 80.   In many respects, I think it’s safe to say that Joe Redington Sr. was born a couple of decades late for his passion, the Iditarod.

In the twilight of his mushing career, I remember visiting Joe Sr. in the summer at his home in Knik and marveled at a dog walker he had fabricated from a truck rear end and scrap steel.   While he watched his huskies trot in a wide circle on a graveled circuit, Joe worked out with weights and told me he was getting in shape for the race.  He smiled when he showed me his braking system, added after an exciting first trial with a team of huskies that refused to slow down.

In total, I counted five Redingtons who have completed an Iditarod, with other grandchildren stacked up to continue the tradition.  Grandson Ray Jr., 37, was sixth in 2012 and with his brother Ryan, present an obstacle to any musher looking for an easy win.   Ray Jr. consistently fields teams with excellent blood lines and is known as a reliable top performer.  “Ray Jr., Ryan, and I have our own operations. We maintain our own kennels, but we do share genetics,” father Rayme told me.  Rayme keeps a kennel of 90 dogs for his dog sled concession.

Dan Seavey, who I have already mentioned in that early group of Iditarod mushers, was third in the inaugural 1973 Iditarod, his son Mitch won in 2004, and grandson Dallas triumphed in 2012 and became the youngest musher at age 25 to reach Nome first. Along the way, two other grandsons and a granddaughter in-law also finished the race, a “rite of passage” for the Seavey children.  The Seavey kennels represent over 20 generations of champion Alaskan huskies.  In total, I count six in the Seavey Dynasty who have made it to Nome.

“Growing up with sled dogs and racing is an advantage, but what you make of an opportunity is up to you.”  Dan Seavey, the patriarch and definitive individualist, told me, “I trained with my grandson Conway for the 2012 Iditarod.  His dad Mitch gave him a group of dogs, but that was it. He was responsible for the care and training of the team.  He doesn’t have a driver’s license so his mother drove him to the races.”  Conway won the Jr. Iditarod and Dan, at age 74, finished his fifth Iditarod. 

Beyond mushing, the Seaveys celebrate a sportsman’s ethic.  Dan wrestled in college.  Mitch was Alaska state champ and also wrestled college before he focused on racing sled dogs, then winning the 2004 Iditarod.

“My older boys Tyrell and Danny were preparing for their first Iditarods.  Dallas was younger and kind of left out of the excitement.  I decided to do something special just with him,” recalled 2004 Champ Mitch Seavey.  Noting that Dallas was interested in wrestling, they charted out a disciplined training program.  Dallas went on to become the only Alaskan to win a US national wrestling title.  

The Seavey scorecard is complicated with three generations, but all you need to know is that grandson Dallas Seavey upstaged the Iditarod pack and became the youngest musher at age 25 to win the 2012 Iditarod.   Dallas is an easy favorite to do it again in 2013 with his very physical style of racing.  He hasn’t met a hill he doesn’t mind running, and his arrival in a checkpoint is like a two minute football drill as he feeds and cares for his dogs like a dervish. He is an elite international athlete, fun to watch, mentally tough, and impressively calculating.  Both Mitch and Dallas Seavey, it should be mentioned are compact, wiry, powerful men weighing about  150 pounds and fit the profile for a perfect musher.

His dad Mitch adds, “We’re best friends, but when we are racing, we regard each other as serious competitors.”   The Seaveys have won two Iditarods, understand the discipline, commitment and resources necessary to win, and imminently capable of stealing the marbles in 2013.

Enter now the Mackeys, who in my calculations are the most populated dynasty in Mushdom and, statistically, the most successful.  If I was a young musher, having watched an Iditarod special on TV and mesmerized by the notion of travelling by dog team for a thousand miles in eight and a half days, I would seriously study the Mackey family.

At the top of this dynastic pyramid, resides Dick Mackey, now 80, who placed 7th after 22 days in the first Iditarod of 1973. In 1978, by the closest margin in Iditarod history, he eclipsed the legendary Ric Swenson and won the Iditarod.  Dick Mackey is an unusually extroverted personality, and along with Joe Redington and others tirelessly promoted the Iditarod.  Additionally, he also worked as an Alaskan Ironworker, where I am assuming it helps to be a hard worker and have a tough, streetwise, demeanor.  

His son Ric Mackey won the Iditarod in 1983 thereby becoming the first father/son Champions (the Seaveys did it in 2012.)   The two Richards uncannily resemble each other in appearance and character.  Both are flinty tough competitors and Ric, in particular, was throughout his career almost unbeatable in the last miles of any race, including the Iditarod.  Two other brothers, Bill and Jason, and a grandson Cain have also finished the Iditarod, thereby raising the count to five Iditarod Mackeys.  One more brother, Lance Mackey, brings the total to six.  Dick Mackey joked in our interview, “The only way anybody can beat the Mackeys is to have more than four sons.”

Lance Mackey has also skewed the win/loss statistics dramatically in favor of the Mackey Dynasty by winning the Iditarod four times in a row (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.)   He combines the toughness and savvy of his father and the instinctive understanding of the Alaskan husky of his brothers Ric, Bill, and Jason.   Alaskans also know the come- back story of the Incredible Lance Mackey.

Lance Mackey was thirty-one years old when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001.  Treatments were radical, but, against the odds, he survived.    Advised that the sport of dog mushing was too dangerous, he nevertheless defied his doctors’ medical common sense, and embarked on a furious campaign of racing.  He won the Iditarod four times and also the Yukon Quest (another 1000 mile race) four times, in an almost corporate partnership with his famous lead dog Larry.  No one musher has even come close to duplicating his remarkable accomplishments. (Lance and I worked together on his book, THE LANCE MACKEY STORY (2010), where the reader can learn more.)

Mackey slid in the standings in 2011 and 2012, but he has recently been winning races in Alaska this winter in preparation for Iditarod 2013.  I talked with him by telephone, and he said without hubris, “I’m back.”

So, bottom line, does it help to be well inherited?  Well, I’ll stick my neck out and side with most fans on the inside, and opine about the democracy of mushing, “Nobody cares; you only get respect for an individual effort.”  Still, I have to concede noting well known last names.   Bruce Lee, a retired musher and analyst for Iditarod’s Insider news service, pointed out, “Six mushers in the top ten of 2012 ran their best race.  These are mushers who are emerging and changing the field of favorites for the 2013 Iditarod.”   Three of these new faces come from mushing families.

Some of these top ten men and women of 2012 you have already met—Dallas Seavey, Aliy  Zirkle, Ramey Smyth, Aaron Burmeister, Peter Kaiser, Ray Redington Jr., Mitch Seavey, Mike Williams, Jr., John Baker, and Dee Dee Jonrowe.   Want to follow them in competition for the 2013 Iditarod championship?   For detailed video coverage, GPS trackers, news releases, and my Joe Runyan Iditarod Blog, go to Iditarod.com.

The race starts MARCH 2, 2013.