Iditarod Race History

The World was Changing…

Original document by Don Bowers, Edited 2012

Even after the advent of the airplane, dog teams continued to be widely used for local transportation and day-to-day work, particularly in Native villages. Mushers and their teams played important but little remembered roles in World War II in Alaska, particularly in helping the famous Eskimo Scouts patrol the vast winter wilderness of western Alaska.

After the war, short and medium distance freight teams were still common in many areas of Alaska even when President Kennedy announced that the United States would put a man on the moon. During the 1960’s, however, it was not space travel but the advent of the “iron dog” (or snowmachine or snowmobile) that resulted in the mass abandonment of dog teams across the state and loss of much mushing lore.

In 1964, the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee was formed to look into historical events in Alaska, specifically the Mananuska-Susitna Valley, over the past century. 1967 marked the 100th anniversary of Alaska being a U.S. Territory after being purchased from Russia.  Dorothy Page, chairman of this committee, conceived the idea of a sled dog race over the historically significant Iditarod Trail.  Joe Redington Sr. was her first real support for such a race.  Joe and his wife Vi had deep historical interests in the Iditarod Trail since the mid-1950’s and felt this centennial race would help in their quest to preserve the historic gold rush and mail route and get it recognized nationally.  The Redingtons and Pages joined forces.  Dorothy poured her heart and soul into research as a historian and Joe Redington worked non-stop to put together a new sled dog race.

With much volunteer labor (the start of a fundamental Iditarod tradition), the first part of the trail was cleared, including nine miles of the Iditarod Trail.  The two heat, 56 mile Centennial race between Knik and Big Lake was held in 1967 and 1969.  Then, interest in the race was lost.  However, Joe Redington never lost interest, instead his vision grew into a never conceived of before long-distance race.  Countless hours of discussions with fellow mushers followed.  Two of these mushers were teachers, Tom Johnson and Gleo Huyck.  These three men spirited this first-ever, long-distance race into reality and in 1973 a new race was born.  The U.S. Army helped clear portions of the trail and with the support of the Nome Kennel Club (Alaska’s earliest, founded in 1907), the race went all the way to Nome for the first time. Even so, the mushers still had to break much of their own trail and take care of their own supplies.  The winner of the first Iditarod was Dick Wilmarth, taking almost three weeks to reach Nome.

Redington had two reasons for organizing the long-distance Iditarod Race:  to save the sled dog culture and Alaskan huskies, which were being phased out of existence due to the introduction of snowmobiles in Alaska; and to preserve the historical Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome.  To promote both goals, Redington asked Dorothy Page to be the editor of an Iditarod  Annual.  Her enthusiasm, drive, and love of history opened the world’s eyes to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race®.  Unlike what you might read or hear, the Iditarod was not started to honor the Serum Run nor is it run each year as a commemoration to the Serum Run.  Iditarod (the race) and the Serum Run have many things in common, of course, especially the fact that the Serum Run followed a section of what today is the ‘northern route’ of the Iditarod.

The race is really a reconstruction of the freight route to Nome and commemorates the part that sled dogs played in the settlement of Alaska. The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint much as the early freight mushers did. Although some modern dog drivers move at a pace that would have been incomprehensible to their old-time counterparts, making the trip to Nome in under ten days.

While the Iditarod has become by far Alaska’s best-known sporting event, there are a dozen other major races around the state every winter, such as the grueling thousand-mile Yukon Quest, the Kobuk 440, the Kusko 300, and the Copper Basin 300. 

Alaska is the world Mecca for sled dog racing, which has developed into a popular winter sport in the Lower 48, Canada, Europe, and even Russia. Mushers from more than two dozen foreign countries have run the Iditarod, and Alaskan mushers routinely travel Outside to races in Minnesota, Montana, and Wyoming. In earlier years, some had participated in a race in the Alpirod in Europe and a race in the Russian Far East. The Winter Olympics at one time was considering adding sled dog racing as an event and several sled dog races were held in Norway in conjunction with the 1994 games. 

Although the race’s fame causes many people to think of the Iditarod Trail when they think of traveling to Nome, the trail is actually impassable during the spring, summer, and fall. Moreover, its routing is far from a direct course, taking about 1,000 miles to go the 650 or so airline miles from Anchorage to Nome. In addition, the race committee has routed the race to pass through a number of towns and villages missed by the original trail, and has adopted a northern route for even-numbered years to include more villages along the Yukon.

The checkpoints for the first half of the current race are Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip, Willow, Yentna Station, Skwentna, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass (Puntilla), Rohn Roadhouse, Nikolai, McGrath, Takotna, and Ophir. In odd numbered years the middle part of the race largely follows the original trail, from Ophir through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, and Eagle Island to Kaltag. In even years, it swings north from Ophir to Cripple, Ruby (heart of another old mining district), Galena, Nulato, and on to Kaltag.

From Kaltag, the home stretch is the same every year: Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, Safety Roadhouse, and Nome. True to their predecessors, the mushers still run down Front Street past the still notorious saloons into the heart of the Last Frontier’s last frontier town to the burled arch. Every musher’s arrival is heralded by the city’s fire siren and every musher is greeted by a crowd lining the “chute”, no matter the time of day or night, or if he or she is first or last across the line.

 

Dorothy G. Page “Mother of the Iditarod”

Dorothy Page

Dorothy G. Page, the “Mother of the Iditarod” is quoted in the October 1979 issue of the Iditarod Runner on her intent for the Iditarod: “To keep the spirit of the Iditarod the same. I don’t ever want to see high pressure people getting in and changing the spirit of the race. We brought the sled dog back and increased the number of mushers. It is really an Alaskan event. I think the fact that it starts in Anchorage and then ends in Nome has opened up a whole new area for people in Alaska. I think they appreciate that. It puts them in touch with the pioneer spirit.” At this time, Dorothy was fairly ‘new’ to Alaska, and the conversations that she and Joe had blended  with Joe’s knowledge and goals to create a common recognition of the importance of the Iditarod Trail.

 

Joe Redington, Sr. “Father of Iditarod”

In 1997, Joe Redington, Sr. took part in the 25 Anniversary Iditarod Race after celebrating his 80th birthday. The race was dedicated to this great sled dog racing pioneer. He is the only musher to have been given the first position to leave the chute without drawing, as well as to wear the #1 bib.1

Joe never did win the race he loved so much, but that wasn’t as important to him as just being on the trail with his beloved sled dogs.  He raced in 19 races and came in 5th place four times.

Joe Redington, Sr. died in June of 1999 of cancer. He was buried in Wasilla in his favorite dogsled in a specially made vault.

Joe’s name is called during roll call at every Iditarod Trail Board meeting. The Board President always excuses Redington’s absence because “Joe is on the trail.” This routine procedure at Iditarod Board meetings reminds us of the Iditarod spirit that Joe Redington Sr. exemplified and  lives on in the lives of all the mushers, volunteers, and fans of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

A bronze winner’s trophy has been added in honor of Joe Redington and a halfway award prize has been added in honor of Dorothy G. Page.