A Tribute to lead dog Nugget—An Iditarod Legend
By Joe Runyan
Lead dogs and their exploits are the subject of countless coffee table discussions. I once told a few friends about the trail finding ability of my leader Rambo. In 1989 he led my Iditarod team for over a thousand miles and secured a win with his steady, undeviating pace. He was voted the outstanding leader of the race and wore the Golden Harness for a year. Like many leaders, I noticed that he remembered parts of the trail exactly. In one instance, he went around a spruce tree, seemingly off the trail. Before I could question the deviation, I noticed a marker from the previous year and then realized he had made a correction—he was right and the trail breaker on a snowmachine had overshot.
The following year I took Rambo and team for 33 days on a 100 mile expedition up Mt. Logan, second highest mountain in N. America. Our route was across the Logan Glacier, an expanse of 2,000 ft. deep ice in the very remote Wrangell/St. Elias National Park of South Eastern Alaska. From horizon to horizon, the interminable snow and ice is as featureless as an ocean. On our return, my partner Ric Atkinson and I expected to spend several days negotiating the ice on our descent, prepared to use our maps and compasses to find our way back to the Chitna River Valley. Several hours after departing our last camp we passed a barely visible bamboo wand left by our lead climber marking a dangerous crevasse. It was clear that Rambo recalled exactly the route we had taken 32 days before despite the absence of any discernible landmarks. Somehow he was placing us on the exact route like the savant that remembers the postal codes of Los Angeles.
As the sun set, I asked Ric if he was willing to trust the dogs through the night. Despite countless storms that had obliterated any remnant of our climb, Rambo took us to the valley floor in one long moonless 100 mile run. The next morning, after a descent of nearly 10,000 feet from the rarified heights of the glacier, and smelling dirt and spruce for the first time in a month, I realized we were precisely on the trail leading us back to the Chitna. My admiration for this animal is immense, but the navigation skill is by no means unique.
My good friend John Baker, 2011 Iditarod Champ, heard my story and offered an anecdote about the trail finding ability of his lead dog HotDog during the 2002 training season. Part of John’s training trail traverses forty miles from his home in Kotzebue, Alaska across Kobuk Lake, a huge fresh water estuary. It was his habit in the previous year to stop about half-way across the immense lake and give the dogs a fifteen minute break. For the rest of the winter, the dogs stopped for their rest at the same location, which overtime became recognizable as the “resting spot.” That spring, of course, the ice melted and fishing boats worked the waters.
The following year he set across the new ice which had formed on Kobuk Lake that fall. A mountain nearly fifty miles away was his guide post to the other side and the confluence of Fish Creek, the location of his camp. On the ice and now headed towards the opposite shore, the team settled into a trot in the general direction of Fish Creek. Confident that his leader would eventually portage to the trail on the other side John settled into one of those reveries common to mushers when sled dogs trot out a reassuring rhythm. Abruptly, his team suddenly came to a standstill. He had forgotten about last year’s fifteen minute break. “I realized he knew exactly where we were on the ice,” John told me. Was is it the exact spot? John thinks so and I do too.
Lead dogs, really outstanding dogs, are so unique that most mushers recognize the legends just as thoroughbred trainers remember great race horses. But I must admit, after forty years in the sled dog world, that I was astounded by an interview for this article with 1975 Iditarod Champ Emmitt Peters, the Athabascan Indian musher from the village of Ruby, Alaska. His female leader Nugget is my nomination for top dog of the century.
In 1973, the first year of the Iditarod, Emmitt loaned Nugget to his good friend Carl Huntington, the famous Athabascan sprint musher from Galena, Alaska. At TEN years old, Nugget lead Carl’s team to a victory in the Fur Rendezvous, Alaska’s premier sprint race held every spring in Anchorage. To do that, she strung out a team of much younger dogs and loped 15 to 20 miles an hour on a 25 mile course through the streets of Anchorage. The race follows a race format of three days, so, in total, Nugget was sprinting for 75 miles at a demanding championship level.
Carl was so impressed with Nugget that he asked Emmitt if he could once again borrow her for the 1974 Iditarod. Now ELEVEN, Nugget lead Carl’s team over a very difficult 1200 mile trail, often breaking trail for hundreds of miles. Remember, this was the second running of the Iditarod, and long sections of the trail had been overgrown and forgotten since the Gold Rush days. For the second time she took Carl to the Winners stand in a time of 20 days 15 hours. It also put Carl in the records book as the only musher to win both the prestigious Fur Rendezvous and the Iditarod.
Meanwhile, Emmitt was busy laying plans for the 1975 Iditarod and training his team, most of them grand pups of Nugget. Digger, the grandson of Nugget, was leading the team. Thinking, however, that Digger might need some company and moral support in the front, he decided, as an afterthought, to take Nugget, who was now TWELVE and going on THIRTEEN.
“I had no idea where I was going but Nugget remembered the trail when she went with Carl,” Emmitt Peters recounted. When the mushers and teams entered one of 18 villages along the trail, a local Iditarod official would direct the musher to a host family who would provide food, a couch or bed for a quick nap, and hot water for the dogs. Nugget dismissed these formalities and on entering a village went directly to the same cabin. Emmitt Peters is one of the great Athabascan mushers, and has probably spent more time after midnight driving sled dogs than most good mushers in a lifetime, but a trademark of the Yukon Fox is his subtle sense of humor. He is well known in Alaska and certainly recognizable in Alaskan villages as a sports figure. “Nugget took me through the village to a cabin. A guy came to the door and said, in a loud voice, “Who Are You?” and I told him I was with Nugget and asked him if Carl Huntington stayed here last year?”
Nugget stayed in the lead with Digger to the Bering Sea Coast. “I had never been on ocean ice so I just let her go, never said gee or haw. She remembered where to go.” At White Mountain village, just seventy miles from the finish, Digger got tired and was put back in the team. Nugget, the grandmother of many of the dogs in the team, took command in single lead, taking Emmitt Peters along the windblown coast to the finish in Nome and secured a SECOND Iditarod victory in 14 days 15 hours. That time was a record, six days faster than 1974, a record that stood for the next five years. Emmitt concluded, “That’s how I ended up in Nome with Nugget.” In 2006, Emmitt was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
At this championship level of competition with animals, the indescribable connection between coach and athlete is an experience reserved for the fortunate few. What could have Nugget accomplished in the Iditarod at her prime of five years? This dog deserves a movie.
Finally, for the reader’s information, consider Diesel, Beetle, and Sable (lead dogs in the lineup for returning champ Dallas Seavey) and Aliy Zirkle’s (second place 2012) Olivia and Quito. I want to watch these phenomenal leaders in action. To really understand the race, check out the Insider for the invaluable gps tracker, updates, and race video.