July 18, 2018

Remembering 40 Years of Iditarod: This is not the Last Great Rest

From the 1987 Trail Annual

From the 1987 Trail Annual

Prior to the 1978 race, three young ladies were in training for the Iditarod.  Susan Butcher, Varona Thompson, and Shelley Gill  Vandiver.  To get in practice for the conditions that would be faced during the race, Susan decided to go for a swim in a hole in the ice at Knik Lake.  With photographers there to record the action, Susan drove her dog team out to the hole in the ice.  She got off the sled, took off her parka, vest, baggy wool pants, bunny boots, and wool socks.  Dressed in a red bathing suit, Susan sat on the edge of the ice and dangled her feet in the water.  Spectators encouraged her.  Susan slid into the water and disappeared from sight.   She surfaced and repeated the process twice.   After the third dip, Susan got dressed and drove her dog team home.

For the 1978 Iditarod, Susan Butcher had two sponsors, the ‘Homestead Café’ and the musk ox produce coop, “Oomingmak.”  At the 1978 banquet, Susan wore and evening dress of qiviut, the downy ash-brown under wool of the musk ox.  The dress was hand knitted and adorned with carved ivory trimmings.

Myron Angstman of Bethel was the race Judge for the 1980 Iditarod.  Myron was an attorney and ran in the 1979 Iditarod.  He operated the “Old Friendly Dog Farm” on the banks of the Brown Slough at Bethel.  His dog farm/kennel was named after his old lead dog that died at age 14. Myron had come to Alaska in 1974 and was a public defender.  He attended the ‘festivities’ in Nome at the end of the first Iditarod.  He immediately wanted to put together a team and participate in the race.  In 1976, he got his first lead dog, “Old Friendly” and started to build his team.  Myron finished in 25th position in the 1979 race.  He stated that he thought he was the first mushers who ever had an Irish Setter lead dog bring a musher into Nome.  Myron was one of the original organizers of the “Kusokwim 300” race.

The 1980 Iditarod started at Nancy Lake.  Poor snow conditions in Anchorage forced the Iditarod Trail Committee to cancel the start of the 1080 Iditarod in Anchorage.  62 mushers had entered the race and they met at Mulcahy Park in Anchorage for a ceremonial start.  The convoy of dog trucks wound their way to Eagle River, the first checkpoint.  Due to the lack of snow in Wasilla, Knik, and the Big Lake area, officials moved the restart to the Nancy Lake Recreational Area, a State Park.  The parking area, about 1 ½ miles down an entrance road at mile 67.5 on Parks Highway, served as the starting line.  According to the 1980 Iditarod Trail Committee President, Al Crane, the snow conditions were good and gave ‘the mushers a straight shot to Susitna Station.” There were 32 rookies that year.  The 62 teams left at two minute intervals and the starting time difference was made up at the 24 hour mandatory layover.

From the 1981 Iditarod Trail Annual, Rob Stapleton of Anchorage, a photographer who began shooting Iditarod photos in 1976 when he worked for the Anchorage Daily News,continued photographing the race as a free lance photographer.  After first meeting Joe Redington Sr., Rob would often meet up with the Redington’s when they came to town.  They drank milkshakes and discussed the future of the race.  In 1976, Rob walked most of the trail between Knik and Susitna to get different views of the teams as they traveled the trail.  In 1979, Rob put together a two tray slide show of colored pictures he took during the 1976, 1978, and 1979 races.  The slideshow was set to music and lasted 18 minutes.  In 1979, Rob left the Daily News and opened his own business. (Rob Stapleton, Photography)  That year, he covered the trail as a free lance reporter, snowshoeing the trail, hanging out of an airplane, and traveled by snowmachine.   Riding with Larry Thompson and impressed with his experiences and shots, he was quoted as saying, “Larry can get one into and out of tight places.  I’ve shot some good photos riding with Thompson… I got a glimpse of the old and the new.  I got the feeling they’re looking back into history and looking ahead to the future Iditarod races.  People at the checkpoints get excited.  They ask the HAM operator, “Who’s in the lead?’  Then they go home and drink coffee for hours, fall asleep in their chairs, wake up and rush down to the HAM operator again.  When somebody calls out, ‘Musher on the way!’ everyone rushes outside to greet him or her. During the 1980 race, Rob covered the race along with his wife, Martha Upicksoun.

Rob was the photographer who was with Joe, Susan, and their guide, Ray Genet, on Joe’s ascent of Mt. McKinley with his dog team in 1979.

Rick Swenson placed 4th in the 1980 Iditarod.  Rick stated that the toughest parts of the trail during that race were ‘from Rohn to Nikolai’ because it was slow going due to the lack of snow and bare spots and from ‘Ophir to Ruby’ because there was deep snow.   To keep warm, Rick wore Gortex outer wear and the standard parka, mukluks, gloves, and a fur hat.  He used a Tim White toboggan.  During the race, he fed his dogs lamb, hamburger meat, cream cheese, honey, dog food, beaver and fish.  For his personal food, Rick took along pizza, steaks, and chicken.  According to the 1981 Iditarod Race Annual, Rick estimated that the cost of running Iditarod was around $8,000. The entry fee for 1980 was $625.  In 1981 the entry fee was $1,049.

In the 1987 Trail Annual, Duane ‘Dewey’ Halverson, who took 5th place in the 1986 Iditarod said this, “I watched Rick Swenson in action at some of the checkpoints.  He’s poetry in motion.  He received the ‘Most Professional Musher’ award in 1986, that’s the one I’d like to get in 1987.”  Dewey had advice for rookies, too.  “Don’t worry about what you’ve been through, just deal with what is ahead.”  Dewey also said, “I don’t approve of the  ‘40 below, we don’t go’ slogan.  I think it’s an abuse of the good nature of all the volunteer checkpoint people, just waiting for all the mushers to get through the checkpoint.  The Iditarod is called the ‘Last Great Race,’ not the ‘Last Great Rest.’”