Mushers and the dogs willing to die for them.
~~ Comments and Updates~~
Dear Mr. Baker,
Below is a copy of a letter written by one of my colleagues concerning the Iditarod presentation on PBS. However, it mirrors my own thoughts on your presentation! What it does not say is how disappointed I am in the biased information offered in this piece of television rubbish!
In a letter of response from you on Nov. 8, 1999, you assured me that you would be addressing the controversial issues. When you read the letter below, perhaps you will see where you have failed your viewing audience in the Iditarod story. Your presentation of the Iditarod is disgusting and a black eye for PBS programming.
You are responsible for the information you put forth for the youth to view. This program was disgraceful, full of half truths and a disservice to your viewing audience! I can say with easy assurance that I will not support PBS from this point forward. I assure you, Sir, that I am not alone in this decision
Angry and disgusted,
Brenda G. Buehler
Sled Dogs: An Alaskan Epic should not be re-aired. One of the mushers glorified by this PBS (Nature) program was Plettner who admitted to the Associated Press that she culls or kills her unwanted puppies:
"Killing unwanted sled-dog puppies is part of doing business, many Alaskan mushers say. Plettner prefers to handle the job herself....Plettner said she checks her dogs at 5 weeks old for size, appetite and aggressiveness. Then she tries to work with ones that need improvement, testing the pup weekly until they are about 12 weeks old. After she rates the dogs on feet, coat digestive system, angulation of legs, drive and smarts, she culls."
Associated Press in an Anchorage Daily News article titled "Mushers Say Most 'Culling' Not Cruel," October 6, 1991. Anchorage Daily News Archives.
PBS promoted the Iditarod as a commemoration of the 1925 Anchorage to Nome diphtheria serum run. However, there are very few similarities between the two events.
Half of the 1925 serum run was done by train. Dogs ran in relays for the remaining 500 or 600 miles, with few dogs running over 100 miles. In the Iditarod, dogs run 1,150 miles over terrain far more grueling than the terrain found on the serum run route.
The bond between dogs and mushers is not as PBS describes; it is one of abuse and exploitation. If a musher loved his dogs, he would not force them to run 1,150 miles in 9 to 14 days over treacherous terrain in awful weather, so that he could win money and prizes. That's the approximate distance between Denver and LA or New York City and Orlando.
Further, it is not humanely possible as PBS claims for 35 veterinarians to examine every one of the 1,000 plus dogs who go through each of the 27 checkpoints at all hours of the day and night. Visit the website of the Sled Dog Action Coalition, www.helpsleddogs.org for more Iditarod information.
Unfortunately, the program only gave one side of the story and did not have a single interview with anyone from an animal protection organization WNET (PBS-Nature) remains silent on whether it received money, free rental cars, free food and lodging, etc., from the Iditarod Trail Committee. PBS-WNET receives taxpayer dollars and therefore has an obligation to reports the gifts it receives.
Thank you for your comments regarding Sled Dogs: An Alaskan Epic. Thirteen depends on feedback from viewers like you to enable us to continue fulfilling our mission to present quality programming.
The producers of NATURE are aware that certain aspects of the Iditarod are controversial. They wish to emphasize, however, that this film is not about the competitive aspects of the Iditarod. In fact, they chose to follow the progress of three sled dog teams that were not even in contention to win the race. This afforded an opportunity to gain insight into the extraordinary ways in which dogs and humans work together and depend on one another, both on the trail and in the rest camps.
We also wish to note that this program was fully-funded through NATURE's regular funding sources and was in no way supported by sponsors of the Iditarod.
Sled Dogs: An Alaskan Epic is one of a number of NATURE episodes the series is currently presenting that focus on human-animal interaction. As television's longest-running weekly natural history program, NATURE has been on the air for 18 years and has won more than 150 awards, including many from environmental organizations. Promoting an understanding and respect for animals has always been its highest priority.
Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and for your interest in our programming.
Thanks for writing,
Scott McClintock, Thirteen/WNET Member and Viewer Relations
Thirteen/WNET Member/Viewer Hotline: (212)560-2888
Thank you for your response.
However, anyway you want to slice it, the Iditarod is cruel and kills dogs.
extraordinary ways in which dogs and humans work together and depend on one another.
This is casually misleading.
Of course the dogs depend of their mushers for survival on the trial etc. What choice do they have? The fact remains that dogs die 'on the trail' and many more are killed.....excuse me, 'culled'.....in the kennels before and after their time 'on the trail'.
There is just no way to justify this activity. It is obvious that NO ONE really wants to investigate the full story concerning these animals. It is easier to simply accept what those in the fore front, with ulterior motives, choose to display. And the only reason you show such things on PBS is due to the money you receive from the sponsors!
It is a shame that money speaks louder than conscience! My statement still stands..........I will no longer support PBS and will seize every attempt to inform whom ever I can about the truths of the Iditarod and the blind eye of PBS.
Brenda G. Buehler
The original story has now been removed from the internet 1/26/02
Joe Redington Sr., a long-time musher and commercial fisherman, saw the alarming signs throughout Bush Alaska: snowmachines were making working dogs expendable.
By the late 1960s Native villages that once teemed with dogs lots were down to a handful of active mushers. Husky bloodlines developed over generations of practical experimentation with malemutes, Siberians and any other breed showing promise in the North were in danger of vanishing as residents of Athabaskan, Inupiat and Yupik communities turned away from the chores associated with tending sled dog teams.
Redington, a homesteader and commercial fisherman, couldn't imagine Alaska without sled dogs. He was determined to do something to revitalize his sport. The musher from Knik, once the biggest port in Cook Inlet, found the answer in his back yard. ((Together with Dorothy Page, a local historian, Redington began planning a sled dog race on the Iditarod Trail, the overland route used by mail carriers and miners seeking fortune during the early years of this century.))
In connection with Alaska's centennial in 1967, Page, Redington and the Aurora Dog Mushers Club reopened the first miles of the Iditarod Trail for 27-mile heat, three-day race. Isaac Oleasik, an Inupiat Eskimo from Teller, won the event, which had attracted a big field with its $25,000 purse. Two years later the race was repeated on a smaller scale, with George Attla, an Athabaskan sprint-mushing champion taking top honors.
Redington, meanwhile, had raised his sights. He began talking up the idea of staging a sled dog race to the ghost town of Iditarod itself, a distance of roughly 500 miles each way, more than twice as far as the long-defunct but still celebrated All-Alaska Sweepstakes, a $15,000 winner-take-all race first held in 1908.
Rod Perry, an Anchorage film-maker and musher, got involved helping Redington line up coverage for his planned 1,000-mile race. "At first, we were going to have to pack out all of our stuff," he recalls.
The pieces began coming together in November 1972, when Redington received pledges of fund-raising support from an ad-hoc Democratic party group. But the party advisers suggested a route change. Instead of racing to Iditarod, a place no one had ever heard of, Redington was told he should shoot for Nome, Alaska, a famous Gold Rush town on the Bering Sea. Dick Mackey, a Wasilla musher, says Redington called him at 2 a.m. to test out the idea. "It's a great idea," responded Mackey, who declared he would be the second one to sign up. "I assumed that Joe would be the first."
Perry says most mushers found the Anchorage-to-Nome route a lot more appealing. "Everybody liked the idea of going from Point A to Point B." Military Assistance
Back country trails require maintenance. The Iditarod Trail, though obvious from the air in many spots as a disturbance in the natural forest cover, was largely overgrown. Redington needed someone to break trail, clearing obstacles and setting a new path for dog teams to follow.
Maj. Gen Charles M. Gettys, Fort Richardson's commander, was planning a Jan.1972 mission to test the application of Alpine snow machines for military use. Redington and Mackey met with the general, who was a sled-dog racing fan. Getty agreed to delay the expedition a few weeks and have his soldiers tie ribbons remarking the Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome.
In February 1973, Mackey was in Knik when the trucks arrived and started unloading the Army's heavy-duty snow machines. Gettys flew in by helicopter and gave the expedition leader, Capt. Lockhart, a pep talk. "If you're not successful," the general said, "don't return." The army's departure set the stage for the first-ever Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an trail-blazing 1,049-mile odyssey, even competitors had doubts could be done.
By the time Redington's race took shape, Attla was living in Fairbanks, Alaska's second largest city. His nickname, the "Huslia Hustler," referred to the Athabaskan's village roots, as well as his sprint-mushing savvy. The 39-year-old musher easily recognizable by his trademark limp and stiff-legged kick behind a dog sled, a legacy a fused-knee treatment for childhood tuberculosis, had swept both the 1972 Open North American in Fairbanks, as well as the year's Fur Rendezvous World Championships in Anchorage. The victories were Attla's third each in the mushing world's top sprint competitions.
Attla's name topped the list of mushers who accepted Redington's audacious 1,049-mile challenge. "Most of us who did it were just curious if we could do it,"' he recalls. "It was pretty far out, but the old timers in Huslia they said it could be done."
The race drew 35 entries. The actual number of mushers was 38, because three teams were taking advantage of a rule allowing tandem drivers. One musher would drive, while the other rested in the sled. "What I thought,'' Attla recalls, "was it would be a struggle, so we're just going to go camping."
The sprint champion said as much at the pre-race banquet in Anchorage, where he drew starting position No. 7. His "big camping trip"' description of the upcoming event circulated widely.
Indeed, few, if any of the mushers were talking about racing to Nome. Most were concerned with survival on trails overgrown through decades of abandonment and stripped of the roadhouses that once offered refuge to mushing miners and mail drivers.
Redington differed. Not only was the Iditarod's lead organizer certain the trip was feasible, he declared at the banquet that he expected mushers would reach Nome "in 10 to 14 days."
The prediction seemed incredible to Dan Seavey, a school teacher from Seward who'd drawn position No. 14 in the starting chute. "I thought he'd fallen out of the tree."
By BRIAN PATRICK O'DONOGHUE
It wasn't George Attla's style of dog race.
The "Huslia Hustler's" reputation rested on mushing mastery of the 20- and 30-mile sprint-racing circuit. The 1973 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race promised to be a whole new animal: 1,000 miles through wilderness following the U.S. Army's lead on trails recreated from gold-rush-era history accounts.
But even as the 39-year-old Attla told friends that he might skip the whole thing, he was quietly picking out the dogs he would take if the race to Nome actually came off.
"I took the big dogs, my old slow dogs," says Attla, whose selections included old Blue, a lead dog already 6 years old when she helped win the 1969 Open North American. "I just thought in my mind they wouldn't be sprint dogs when I got done with them."
Herbie Nayokpuk, of Shishmaref, saw Iditarod as a ticket home. The lure of the Fur Rendezvous World Championship sprint races had brought Nayokpuk, a 42-year-old ivory carver and his fast dogs to Anchorage. Afterward Nayokpuk decided that he might as well stick around for Joe Redington's epic race. Crossing the finish-line would put the Inupiat Eskimo's team within 110 miles of his village on the Bering Strait. There was one problem.
"We were not prepared for the long race," Nayokpuk recalls, "I came down for the Fur Rendezvous only. I'm not planning for the Iditarod. That's why I have so many young dogs."
Nobody knew how to pack for a mushing marathon across such diverse country.
Dick Mackey, of Wasilla, figured he would be putting on a show when he drove team No. 15 out of the starting chute with a 10-foot-long freight sled. But Nome musher Howard Farley easily topped that with his 16-foot-long chariot, designed for hauling big loads on the open coast.
Nayokpuk and a helper spent three days building a heavy freight sled for the coming trip. The ivory carver's wife stitched together a small personal tent for him to carry. Another friend gave him a five-cell flashlight for traveling at night.
Isaac Oleasik of Teller, another Eskimo village north of Nome, brought a Coleman lantern and a high-powered rifle. "It was four-foot long," Nayokpuk recalls. "Nobody knew to bring a pistol, or headlight."
Ken Chase, an Athabaskan Indian musher from Anvik, recalls there was a lot of ingenuity displayed in the sleds and "shoes," as the shields applied to sled runners were then called.
"People had wood shoes, steel shoes, some had brass runners or ivory shoes," Chase says, chuckling at the thought of the technology used before the advent of slip-on runner plastic. "Of course, there was also a lot of kerosene used on wood runners."
Chase and Mackey were each ahead of their time.
"I had black PVC pipe on my runners for some of the ways," Chase recalls. Mackey more closely anticipated present-day designs, screwing thick strips of plastic to his sled runners. His was an economy move. "The more affluent guys had stainless steel," he recalls. Raymie Redington, the race organizer's 28-year-old son, didn't worry too much about packing. "Dad was supposed to go," the musher recalls. "When he couldn't get the money for the race. He told me to just go as far as Knik with his team."
The Redingtons were, in effect, showing the family flag. "Dad had sponsors and stuff," Raymie Redington said. "He wanted me to run them that far and then scratch."
By BRIAN PATRICK O'DONOGHUE
There was nothing ceremonial about the 1973 version of the Anchorage-to-Nome Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Iditarod's pioneer field of mushers left directly for Nome from Tudor Race Track in Anchorage. No trucks. No restarts. The racers just pulled the hook and aimed for Nome.
The luck of the draw gave Bud Smyth, of Houston, Alaska, position No. 1 in the 35-team field. He hooked up 20 dogs, the largest team in the race and left Anchorage about 10 a.m. March 2.
Dan Seavey, of Seward, had put about 1,500 miles on his team training for the Redington race. The 35-year-old school teacher figured his experience using dog teams on back country expeditions offered good preparation for the 1,000-mile trek ahead.
None of Seavey's training prepared him for the U.S. Army's version of a sled dog trail.
"There was a trail making effort starting at Fort Richardson," Seavey recalls, referring to the military post northeast of Anchorage business district. "It was sort of down in the ditch by the side of the road. Absolutely terrible. We had no snow to start with and they used some sort of half track, which chewed up the ground. We were riding on the muddy ruts.''
Anchorage musher Rod Perry felt like a zombie driving his 11-dog team out of the starting chute. After wasting precious weeks trying to interest ABC Sports in covering the race, without success, he'd been up for three days straight getting ready for his own trip.
In the Anchorage Times account of the start, Perry took second-billing to his lead dog, Fat Albert, a lumbering half-malemute, half Siberian, known for occasionally hitching a ride on the sled, where he posed like a ship figurehead. A fan greeted the dog and driver with a banner urging them to show the world what the team could do.
"Albert didn't know he was supposed to show the world anything," the Times reported. "Well, almost anything. After two nature stops within the first 50 feet, Albert got the message and picked up the pace."
After the crash-effort getting ready, Perry was feeling sleepy as he approached the railroad tracks exiting town. He was caught off guard when Raymie Redington suddenly passed him. "The sled flipped and I was just so dog tired, really in dreamland,"' Perry recalls, "that I just let go."
Jolted awake by the ground's impact, Perry leaped to his feet. Fat Albert and the team were happily trotting away. "Albert. Albert," cried the helpless musher.
The big lead dog, often ridiculed by other mushers, yet beloved by the public, for once lived up to his reputation.
"He just jammed up the whole team and turned it around," Perry recalls. "He was an amazing dog."
About 25 miles northeast of downtown, the Knik and Matanuska rivers feed into Cook Inlet. The Knik seldom freezes solidly. As they approached the first bridge, Iditarod teams were directed right out onto the highway.
"Between the Knik and Matanuska bridge we ran right down the bare pavement," Seavey recalls. "Once we got beyond the Matanuska there was a little more snow and ice, and we followed somewhat of a jeep trail."
By Skwentna, 118-miles up the Iditarod Trail, a pack of front runners was taking shape in the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
George Attla, the 39-year-old sprint champion, mushed the first team into the settlement Sunday night, the Anchorage Times reported. The "Huslia Hustler" continued straight on through the scattered community of cabins and lodges, driving another six miles up the Skwentna River before camping.
Following Attla, who had started the race in 7th place, came musher No. 27 Bobby Vent, of Huslia, Norvik's John Coffin, who had started in 24th position, Red Devil's Dick Wilmarth, the 33rd driver out of the chute, and musher No. 14, Seward's Dan Seavey.
Wilmarth, 28, wasn't impressed with the school teacher's survival skills. "Skwentna was the first time I had any dealings with Seavey,'' Wilmarth recalls. "He didn't have an axe and he had gotten wet. I had to make a fire for him.'' The 1,049-mile race to Nome had already seen three casualties: Goat Creek's Barry McAlpine was late getting started, immediately had a tangle, then watched his race end in a dog fight; Anchorage musher Alec Tatum was disqualified when he arrived in Knik with two dogs fewer than he started; Darrell Reynolds of Anchorage also called it quits in Knik, the last stop on Alaska's road system.
One musher took aim at Nome contrary to Joe Redington's plans.
Raymie Redington, the race-organizer's son, was only supposed to drive his father's team as far as Knik. But the 28-year-old musher couldn't bring himself to quietly bow out of the historic event.
"I started with nine dogs and they was running so good I decided to keep going," Raymie Redington recalls. "But I wasn't packed or anything, I didn't have nothing.''
By Monday, the third day of the 1973 race, "Ageless Bobby Vent" as Anchorage Times reporter Gordon Fowler dubbed the 59-year-old musher, was reported to be setting the pace for Attla and Coffin. The trio were reported to be alone in front of the field at Rainy Pass Lodge in the Alaska Range, roughly 300 miles up the trail toward Nome.
Twenty-five years later, Wilmarth fumes at a glaring error in the new reports.
"I was the first musher to Rainy Pass Lodge,'' the Man from Red Devil recalls. "I was having breakfast and feeding dogs when George (Attla) showed up. Nobody had any dog food there so I fed 'em hot cakes.''
The original Iditarod Trail crossed the Alaska Range at Rainy Pass, a 3,160-foot-high notch in the mountains. Mackey, who doubled as trail manager during the 1973 race, said that 10-mile route couldn't be used because the 1964 earthquake had shook loose the logs that once shored up steep-sidehill descents in the area.
Instead, the U.S. Army had to take a 30-mile detour, following icy Ptarmigan Creek through windy Hellsgate Canyon.
"It was just atrocious,'' Mackey recalls. "All kinds of open water.'' Heavy snowfall, meanwhile, left the outside world in the dark. "With visibility almost zero,'' the Times reported March 7, "the exact location of the race leaders... wasn't known.''
With old Blue leading his 10-dog team, sprint champion George Attla was described as "clear cut'' leader as the 1973 Iditarod entered its fifth day. Only three of the 29 teams still on the trail had made it as far as Farewell Lodge, according to the Anchorage Times. Attla reached the checkpoint, roughly 320 miles from Anchorage, about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 7. After a brief stop, the 39-year-old "Huslia Hustler'' continued on.
Seven hours passed before Norvik's John Coffin, driving 10 dogs, became the second musher to reach the lodge by Farewell Lake. Wilmarth followed an hour later, the newspaper reported.
Crossing the Alaska range a few nights before, Huslia's Bobby Vent, then 59 and already down to six dogs, had camped with Wilmarth. The teams didn't get much rest: wolves kept nosing around, keeping the sled dogs antsy.
Wilmarth, 28, had a more serious encounter en route to Farewell, where the Times reported his team broke through river ice. "He was up to his neck in water,'' the newspaper quoted a race official.
Race organizer Joe Redington Sr. kept busy in his plane bombing dog teams from the air with dog food and other supplies, including a pair of boots dropped on Nome musher Howard Farley. He was supposed to relay them to Dr. Hal Bartko, of Palmer, who had reportedly worn his out.
Raymie Redington was one of the care package recipients. The 28-year-old musher's dentures had broken before the race, and since the family plan called for him to scratch in Knik, he left the starting line minus most of his teeth. As he continued up the trail, the musher survived off gumming dry dog food, earning him the Anchorage Times unofficial "Guts Trophy'' of the day.
Redington Sr. came to Raymie's rescue dropping off replacement choppers.
From his vantage in the air, Redington judged that the worst section of the trail stretched between Rainy Pass Lodge and the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. Attla had already completed that tough haul, affirming Redington's confidence in his earlier prediction.
"The worst is behind him and the other leaders,'' Redington told the Times. "I still feel the winner will make it between 10-14 days.''
By Thursday evening, Attla was in McGrath, an old mining supply town 400 miles from Anchorage. Iditarod's leader wasn't a happy camper.
His dogs had made good time but they were weakening. He was feeding mainly dry commercial dog food, with some canned horse meat, a diet Attla had copied from Dr. Roland Lombard, his biggest rival in the sprint-racing circuit. The diet just didn't provide the energy needed to keep working dogs going day after day.
It took an old Athabaskan musher in McGrath to point out the obvious. "How far,'' he asked Attla, "do you think you'd get on corn flakes?''
Dick Wilmarth, of Red Devil, didn't suffer from sprint track illusions about feeding. "I never liked dry food for my dogs," he recalls. "I sent out a lot of fish. But when you don't have anything, anything will do."
Attla remained in McGrath more than 24 hours, gorging his team on salmon, rice and fat. Ten teams caught up before the "Huslia Hustler'' resumed his charge toward Nome. But Attla again led the field Saturday morning, March 10, when the weather cleared and he hit the trail toward Takotna.
Traveling with the second group of teams, Herbie Nayokpuk, the ivory carver from the treeless Bering Strait village of Shishmaref, was tested by his special Iditarod gear.
"It was real hard for me to hold that big flashlight at night on the curves,'' Nayokpuk recalls, "but I always maneuvered my sled good.''
The toll exacted by the 1973 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race steadily rose.
Thirty-five teams left Anchorage, March 3, on the first-ever race to Nome. As George Attla was reached McGrath five days later, the field had dropped to 27 teams and the Air Force was being enlisted for Iditarod rescue missions.
Talkeetna musher Slim Randles was about 20 miles from Finger lake, straightening out his team, when the dogs bolted. In the confusion, the musher's foot was crushed by his heavy freight sled.
"There was no way I could pump,'' Randles later told a reporter. The musher climbed aboard his sled and left the dogs pull him to safety. The Air Force picked him up at Haynes River and flew him to a hospital in Anchorage.
"The x-rays didn't show anything was broken, but it's awful painful,'' Randles said. "I am going to have to stay off it for a couple days.
A few days out of Knik the tandem team of Fairbanks musher Casey Celusnick and Delta Junction's John Schultz ran into trouble. Crossing a ravine, one of the rear runners snapped off and the sled slammed into Celusnick's knee.
By the time the pair reached Rainy Pass Lodge, Celusnick's knee had puffed up to double its normal size, Shultz told writer Judy Feruson in a recent interview. It was clear Celusnick's race was over.
Though the rules left no option for a single member of a tandem team to proceed, Schultz figured he had nothing to lose. Leaving Celusnick in a heated wall tent on Styx Lake, the musher from Delta resumed his trek toward Nome.
Soon afterward Celusnick too received a military lift home.
The military snowmachines also needed constant air support. "They didn't even try to fix them on the trail," Rod Perry recalls. "As soon as one broke down, they flew in replacements. The first few days we had a constant stream of big cargo planes flying over us at Super Cub height."
In planing the race, Redington and Mackey had first assumed that two-men teams would be the preferred way to tackle the 1,049-mile trail to Nome. Field tests were proving otherwise.
Bringing up the rear of the field another tandem team, McKinley Park mushers Ford Reeves and Mike Schrieber, quickly discovered that sharing a sled loaded with 400-pounds of supplies wasn't much fun. Reeves made the 55-mile trip from Susitna Station to Skwentna on foot, according to the Anchorage Times, where the pair called it quits.
Of the three tandem pairs that started from Anchorage, only the Ivan brothers from Akiak, a small Eskimo village near Bethel, were still on the trail as Iditarod entered its second week.
The trail was gone.
Crossing the Alaska Range through Ptarmigan Pass, roughly 300 miles from the start of the first-ever Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, fresh, seamless snow greeted Ken Chase, Bud Smyth and Victor Kotongan.
Somewhere ahead, the trio knew the U.S. Army was busy with its heavy snow machines, putting in a trail for Bobby Vent, George Attla and other leaders of the unprecedented 1,000-mile mushing marathon. The Army vehicles were specially equipped to mark their progress reopening the old gold rush trail for Joe Redington's mushing recruits. Unfortunately, the military approach had certain drawbacks.
"They were marking the trail by spray painting snow,'' Chase says, with a trace of amusement that 25 years has done nothing to diminish. "As soon as the wind blew, it was gone.''
Chase and his cohorts were traveling in roughly the third cluster of teams moving up the trail. They blundered onward, occasionally scraping back surface layers of snow for signs of the Army's telltale red paint. In the forest after Farewell Lodge, even that trick failed and an argument broke out among the frustrated mushers.
It ended with Bud Smyth, the man who had led the field out of Anchorage, vowing to quit. The battering passage from Anchorage had already cost him a lengthy stop in Knik, where he rebuilt his sled. He turned what was now a 17-dog team around and mushed back to the lodge.
"I wanted to have it out with (race marshal Dick Tozier),'' Smyth recalls. "He promised us a trail.''
As Smyth departed to settle his beef with race officials, Kotongan turned to Chase. "I'll do whatever you want to do,'' he said.
The young musher from Anvik had no hesitation.
"I'm going to snowshoe to Nome if I have to,'' Chase declared.
The pair continued on.
In the morning, they were joined by Smyth, whose outlook had improved following a good night's sleep. The band resumed their search for the Iditarod Trail.
Bobby Magnuson, a pilot from McGrath, spotted the lost mushers from the air and in the days that followed did what he could to keep them on track toward Ruby, where the trail joined the Yukon River.
Like the Army, the Alaska Bush pilot had his own method of marking the trail. "He would touch down and use his skis to leave marks for us,'' Chase recalls.
Larry Wilmarth couldn't believe it when he heard that his brother Richard was thinking of entering the 1973 Iditarod, the first-ever 1,000-mile sled dog race. "What makes you think you can compete with those professional mushers?'' At the time his brother was riding him, Dick Wilmarth, 28, was working as a Bush pilot. He had learned to drive dogs working on a trapline, picking up the knowledge through necessity. Dick Wilmarth, even his brother now acknowledges, is a man capable of most anything he set his mind too.
When the pair were young, Larry Wilmarth recalls, his brother once landed a truck-driving job with no experience. On another occasion, the pair were applying for a construction job. "Oh yeah, I can drive a Cat,'' Dick Wilmarth assured the boss.
"Since when?'' the brother said.
Dick Wilmarth took Larry aside afterward. "I'd have had that Cat-skinning job right off the bat_if you'd kept your mouth shut.''
Wilmarth didn't have a team when he caught wind of Redington's big race. So he began assembling one. He traded a snow machine for five dogs. He acquired another seven from a Emma Bobby, a woman he helped move from Lime Village to Nondalton. Friends in Stony River contributed a few more.
With Hotfoot in lead, Wilmarth's 12-dog team quickly joined the "professional mushers'' at the front of the pack. "I enjoyed it,'' he says. "It wasn't like working.''
Larry Wilmarth was, by then, on a remote construction job in Kodiak. He figured his fool brother was learning his lesson, because he never heard his name mentioned in the news reports.
The seldom-traveled trail from Ophir to Placerville, an old mining settlement, crossed country that, even by Alaska standards, was desolate and virtually unpopulated. The Army trail breakers encountered drifts from four- to 20-feet deep, according to the Times, and that was before storms cast yet more snow on the path of advancing mushers.
George Attla, then 39, was a frustrated man. The U.S. Army was playing mind games with the "Huslia Hustler" and old Blue.
"Those Army snow gos could back up,'' he recalls. "You'd follow their trails on a dog team and it would dead end. And you couldn't turn the team around. It was a struggle.''
A road stretched south from Ruby, the first village on the Yukon River. That was the front runners target. But the trip stretched from two days, to three and the front pack ran short on food.
"We were stuck there for three days!'' recalls Wilmarth, who had a friend flying air support. When supplies ran short, he says he caught a few beavers and quartered them for his dogs. Wilmarth also says he found Seavey shivering in the middle of the trail at one point and had to haul his scholarly rival to shelter.
Seavey describes that remote section of the trail near Poorman as both the high and low point of his 1973 race, but not for the reasons Wilmarth gave.
"I remember charging along on a moonlit night. Dogs really working good, moving great, we were really covering ground. Then a half dozen dogs bunched up. I was a trail breaker with his machine parked in the middle of the trail.''
In was about that time, Seavey remembers, that front runners found themselves headed up the wrong valley needed to connect with the mining road leading to Ruby.
With food in short supply, the mushers stamped out a message in the snow. "Need Dog Food,'' it read.
Seavey recalls he and Attla were preparing to hunt caribou when a plane flew over dropping sacks of food.
"Once the plane showed up, it really wasn't that long to the road,'' he says.
In many respects the schoolteacher from Seward, in balmy Prince William Sound, a was the odd man out traveling with Attla, Vent and Norvik's Johnny Coffin, three Alaska Native mushers, and Wilmarth, a rough-edged Bush rat.
But Seavey felt confident that his dog team could run with anybody. "I was never intimidated by them. It was anybody's race.''
The schoolteacher's 12-year-old leader was, after all, named Jengis, after the barbarian who stormed out of Mongolia and conquered the known world.
Twelve days after leaving Anchorage in the 1973 Iditarod Sled Dog Race, Dick Wilmarth, of Red Devil, mushed the first team into Ruby, a picture-book Athabaskan village perched on a bluff overlooking the Yukon River.
Wilmarth, 28, had the lead, but one of his nine dogs was sick.
Within 90 minutes, Dan Seavey, Bobby Vent, George Attla and John Coffin trailed him into the village. Seavey and Coffin still had 12 dogs to Attla's 10. Vent was down to six, but Attla knew better than to count him out.
"That Bobby he once finished second in the Fur Rondy with five dogs," Attla recalls. "Those dogs were just like him, healthy and tough."
The temperature was dropping as mushers camped overnight in Ruby. In the morning, a fast hard trail was waiting on the heavily traveled river.
Sixty miles later it was the 59-year-old Vent back in the lead. Huslia's "Ageless Bobby" mushed his swift six into Galena, 4:55 p.m., March 16. Wilmarth, Seavey, Coffin and Attla arrived within the hour. The first-ever Iditarod was becoming a true race.
Up until the Yukon River, Old Blue and Attla had dictated much of the pace, streaking ahead whenever trail conditions permitted. By Galena, however, fates were turning on the "Huslia Hustler."
"My dogs were sick," he recalls. "I think I was down to six good ones by then. I brought them inside a house and started feeding them up."
It was bitterly cold. Wilmarth now says Attla and some of the others wanted to call the race in Galena. "It never entered my mind," Wilmarth says, "but I know it entered George's. There was no question in my mind that we were going to get to Nome."
Neither Seavey, nor Attla recalls anything like that_one of many apparent forks in the memory trails after 25 years.
As the 1973 race entered its 16th day, Vent's small string led a trio of front runners into Kaltag, the last village on the Yukon River, roughly 700 miles from the starting line. Wilmarth, driving 8 dogs, and Seavey, still mushing 12, were only minutes behind.
Coffin, Isaac Okleasik, John Komak, Herbie Nayokpuk and Dick Mackey came and went as Attla rested in Galena. Raymie Redington, the 28-year-old son of the race organizer Joe Redington Sr., also mushed off the Yukon into town, but he had no intention of passing anybody.
"It was 50 below and I just weren't ready for it," recalls Redington, who scratched in Galena. "Didn't have no gear. And the dogs were sick."
Attla's Yukon vigil continued. "After a day of staying inside the dogs started looking better," he recalls. "But in my mind I decided they needed another day."
By BRIAN PATRICK O'DONOGHUE
The villager in Unalakleet took pity on Bobby Vent, 900 miles of hardship and near starvation were telling on the 59-year-old musher battling for the lead in the first-ever Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"My boys will put the dogs in houses and feed them,'' the man told Vent, who was staggering under the pain of a leg badly swollen from arthritis.
The villager invited the weary competitor inside to rest a spell.
Vent, a traditional Athabaskan from Huslia drawn out of retirement by Redington's bold 1,049-mile challenge, was quick to accept the family's hospitality. "Good,'' he said, limping into the villager's house, "those dogs need to eat.''
Vent had 11 dogs leaving Anchorage, but that strong team was quickly cut down. "I had bad luck right from the start,'' the musher now says of the difficulties that caused him to drop nearly half his team in the initial 250 miles.
A meager string of six big dogs, led by a malamute whose name slips the musher now, had pulled Vent's sled from Puntilla Lake in the Alaska Range to Unalakleet, the first village on the Bering Sea coast, a distance of some 700 miles.
As with other teams in the 1973 Iditarod, rations had been in short supply from the start. Back in Anchorage, Vent had followed the trail committee's directions and left a 100 pounds of fat and other supplies with Redington to fly out to the villages lining the trail. But the promised deliveries never materialized. "I never seen them no more after that,'' Vent recalls.
He scraped by feeding dry dog food, which mushers had pooled their resources to ship out to the villages, supplemented by anything else edible that crossed the team's path.
According to Dick Mackey, a racer who doubled as trail manager that first race, mushers were mostly fending for themselves. "The first thing you'd ask when you reached a village," Mackey recalls. "Has anybody got a beaver to sell? Does anybody have any fish?"
So Vent was pleased to hear the boys in Unalakleet had fed his dogs two Tomcod's apiece. But the act of kindness misfired.
"Well, I guess those fish were pretty rich,'' Vent says. "Because the next morning two of my dogs were sick.''
Just before 8 a.m., March 19, Dick Wilmarth, the 28-year-old musher from Red Devil, mushed out of Unalakleet. He again held first place behind eight dogs led by Hotfoot. Five minutes later, the old racer from Huslia gave chase. Vent was down to four good dogs pulling his sled and two patients requiring an occasional ride.
Some 180 miles back down the trail, old Blue led George Attla's dwindling team out of Galena. He didn't believe he could catch the leaders, but that didn't mean he couldn't still make a race of it. "Dogs in the first group of 10 teams were all pretty well down," Attla recalls. "My six were rested."
Nearly 500 miles back, Dr. Hal Bartko, of Palmer, threw in the towel at McGrath. "Bartko had fallen so far behind," the Anchorage Times reported, "the trail had drifted completely away in many places."
Of the original 35 teams departing Anchorage on March 3, only 23 remained on the trail to Nome.
Indigestion was still hobbling two dogs in Vent's team as he mushed into windy Shaktoolik. "I put them in the National Guard Armory so they wouldn't freeze to death,'' the musher recalls, "they were that sick.''
Schoolteacher Dan Seavey, who had been rounding out the front trio, was nowhere to be seen as Dick Wilmarth, pulled out of Shaktoolik a hour after Vent's arrival.
The man from Red Devil had been maintaining a three-to-four hour lead, according to the Anchorage Times, and appeared to be running away with the race.
But nature had other plans.
Out on the ice, Wilmarth confronted high winds and poor visibility. Rather than risk getting lost, he returned to Shaktoolik where he spent the night.
Exiting Shaktoolik, the Iditarod Trail winds 20 miles up the coast to Lonely Hill, a tall rock overlooking Norton Bay and then continues some 40 miles across the sea ice to the village of Koyuk.
In the morning, Vent, still burdened with two six dogs, approached the exposed crossing with trepidation. "That time I looked back,'' recalls Vent, now 84.
"But if I go back it was 300 or 400 miles home. It's closer this way,'' the old villager from Huslia decided. He urged his dogs out onto the ice. Nome waited 230 miles ahead.
By BRIAN PATRICK O'DONOGHUE
Mushing toward Elim the evening of March 21, 1973, Day 19 of the first-ever Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Dick Wilmarth held a lead of just under two hours over Bobby Vent and Dan Seavey, his two closest rivals.
Nome, population 2,800, was getting ready for the biggest bash since miners raked gold off the beaches nearby
"Few people here are sleeping," reported an Anchorage Times reporter camped by the finish line of the 1,049 mile race. "...the town keeps a 24-hour vigil on the trail."
A spotter on a radio-equipped snow machine was stationed three miles out of the town. Local firefighters were on stand-by poised to sound the fire siren as mushers approached town. Members of the Nome High School Band were also getting ready to "hit the streets," the Times reported. Nome Mayor Robert H. Renshaw predicted a big welcome for the winner.
"No matter what time of the morning, even 3 a.m., you can bet the whole town will turn out," Renshaw told reporters.
Uncertainty colored the count down.
As Willmarth pressed for Elim on Wednesday evening: Vent's team, trimmed to five dogs, was nonetheless recovering; Seavey was down to seven dogs after dropping four in Koyuk; and George Attla was again on the horizon.
In Shaktoolik, roughly 170 miles from the finish line, Attla's team, refreshed by the 48-hour stay in Galena, arrived within hours of Isaac Oleasik, John Komok, Herbie Nayokpuk, and just minutes behind Dick Mackey and John Coffin.
"Race officials said Attla's team looked sharp and he has, by no means, given up hope for a victory," the Times reported. But Attla says he knew the game was over. He recognized that Wilmarth's team had retained an essential quality likely to make the difference.
"He didn't have a big team, but he always had feed and his dogs were real happy, happy go lucky dogs," Attla says. "They were in their glory those dogs."
Less than 100 miles from the Iditarod finish line, the man from Red Devil began to appreciate that he had the big Anchorage-to-Nome race all but licked.
"Going down Golovin Bay," Wilmarth recalls, "knowing nobody was behind me for a couple hours_that's when I started thinking about winning."
When Nome's siren sounded just before 11. a.m. on Friday, March 23, 1973, it carried the length of Alaska. Rod Perry was listening all the way in back Ruby, 500 miles from the finish line. "I stayed at Emmitt Peters place for 1/2 a day to hear it on the radio," Perry recalls. "I knew it was historic."
Newspapers of the day ran photos of a wind-burned musher wearing long sideburns, a huge grin and the No. 33 starting bib. It was indeed the man from Red Devil: Dick Wilmarth.
Alaska Gov. William Eagan sent a telegram to greet Iditarod's first champion.
"Your superb endurance and that of your magnificent team is a inspiration to everyone..." Eagan wrote.
With the help of business friends in Anchorage, race organizer Joe Redington Sr. delivered on the promised, the top 20 drivers would split a $50,000 purse.
Wilmarth drew his own inspiration from his $12,000 winning share of the $50,000 purse. Iditarod's champion told reporters he planned to use the money to buy a back hoe for use at his gold mining operation.
As for the 20 days, 49 minutes, 41 seconds, he and Hotfoot spent conquering the Iditarod Trail, Dick Wilmarth now says: "It was kind of an ordeal. Nobody ever wanted to break the frigging trail."
It was past midnight before the fire siren sounded a second time. Vent, the old man from Huslia, had outsprinted Dan Seavey, finishing about 50 yards ahead of the school teacher from Seward. In terms of total elapsed time, Vent covered the 1,049 mile trail a full 26 minutes faster. For their efforts the pair won $8,000 and $6,000 respectively.
The race, of course, was far from over for some 20 mushers still on the trail. Resting in a Shaktoolik cabin, the Iditarod hardships were viewed from differing cultural perspectives.
"I'll be glad when we get out of Eskimo country," Mackey recalls one of the Athabaskan mushers commenting. As he tells it, Herbie Nayokpuk couldn't let that comment go unchallenged.
"Boy, I'm glad to be finally out of that Indian country," the Shishmaref ivory carver shot back.
By BRIAN PATRICK O'DONOGHUE
A large crowd was on hand to greet Herbie Nayokpuk as the musher from nearby Shishmaref drove the fifth dog team down Front Street in Nome, some 35 hours after Dick Wilmarth's victory in the 1973 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. At least on the outside, the 42-year-old ivory carver was a changed man.
"I lose 32 pounds on that trip,'' Nayokpuk recalls. "That Iditarod is the best thing a young man can do for his health.''
In truth, Nayokpuk had found his calling in the 1,000-mile race. In the decades to come, the Inupiat villager would become one of the living legends of Redington's Last Great Race, earning the nickname "Shishmaref Cannonball'' for his bold solo charges into the lead.
Before his stroke-forced retirement in 1988, Nayokpuk would attempt the Iditarod 11 times, recording eight finishes in the Top Ten, including 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th.
Three hours earlier, Attla, feeling considerably older than his 39 years, had driven the fourth-place team into town.
"We all headed for the bar. We had to plug out thirst,'' he says of his entrance to Nome after 21 days, 8 hours, 43 minutes on the trail.
Had there been a trail more suitable for race, the "Huslia Hustler" figures he might now possess an Iditarod trophy on the shelf, complementing those shiny souvenirs from 10 Fur Rendezvous and eight Open North American championships. "I think I could have done that pretty easy,'' Attla says.
Thirty-eight mushers, including three teams burdened with tandem-drivers, had started from Anchorage March 3. Thirteen of those 35 teams faltered en route before John Schultz, of Delta Junction, the surviving half of one of the driver duos, arrived in Nome, on April 3. His 32-day 5-hour 9-minute trip still stands as the Iditarod record for perseverance.
Red lanterns are the traditional booby prize for a last-place dog team, but none could be found at the crucial moment. Schultz was presented with a blue lantern for his trouble.
Attla, Seavey, Nayopuk, Ken Chase, Raymie Redington, Howard Farley, and Dick Mackey to name but a few, would return to the Iditarod again. Of those who attempted the 1973 race, however, only Mackey would ever claim the crown waiting at the end of the 1,049-mile trail.
In 1974, Attla got as far as Galena, some 700 miles from the starting line, before admitting to himself that the novelty of the big "camping trip'' had worn thin. The sprint champ scratched, never to return to Iditarod's starting chute.
"There may be people who enjoy that stuff, but from my point of view, the "Huslia Hustler" now says, wearing sunglasses and grinning through his close-cropped gray beard, "I can't imagine doing anything more miserable than the Iditarod.''
Larry Wilmarth, cut off from the world on his Kodiak Island construction site, nonetheless shared in his brother's victory. The Native community in Point Lions, whose objections had been delaying his project, abruptly granted permission to use their gravel. "As soon as he (Dick) won that Iditarod, suddenly I'm a brother too,'' he said.
Returning to Anchorage, Larry Wilmarth found his phone ringing with invitations and endorsement offers for his hard-to-find brother. "Companies wanted him to endorse their dog food, but he just wouldn't do it. Richard, he'd say, 'they're all lying SOBs and they got this blown totally out of proportion.' That was his perspective. "It really bothered the heck out of me,'' the champion's brother recalled. "I set up pretty important meetings and Richard wouldn't even show up. He never did capitalize on it.''
Dick Wilmarth was more interested in getting back on his Cat, staking new gold claims in Red Devil, than he was chasing opportunities created by his new-found fame.
"If I had to do it all over again,'' Larry Wilmarth vows, "I'd say: 'Yeah, I'm Richard Wilmarth. Where do you want me to sign?' "
Anchorage musher Rod Perry, who finished in 17th place, was the musher who briefly tasted the big time due to Iditarod. At least, that was the case with fat Albert, his lead dog.
In the months following the race, photos of the huge Siberian-malamute turned up in newspapers and magazines around world. As the 1974 race approached, the National Observer ran a 12-part series, republished in 160 newspapers according to Perry, on the preparations of Fat Albert and the team.
"I had no clue it would go like that," the musher says now.
The mushing community was equally astounded.
"It was just one of those things," Mackey says. "Here was this huge sloppy dog. Mushers thought he was ridiculous. But people loved him. I think it had to do with the popularity of Bill Cosby's Fat Albert character. Hey, give Perry credit, he capitalized on it."
Perry will grant that he occasionally gave Fat Albert a ride in the sled between checkpoints. "More in the second Iditarod than the first," he says, insisting that Fat Albert was well worth his weight.
"Once he got going," Perry says fondly, "Albert could really pick 'em up and put 'em down."
As for the Man from Red Devil, Dick Wilmarth says he enjoyed the 1973 trip. He enjoyed proving the doubters wrong. But he didn't much care for the hoopla. And 25 years later he's still seething about the errors that kept cropping up in news reports and articles about the race.
"Nope, I didn't want any more of that b-------. That media, I think, was the worst experience I ever had.''
The miner jokes about not wanting to screw up his perfect Iditarod record_one race, one crown, a feat that has never been duplicated. But Wilmarth acknowledges that he always intended to make a second Iditarod trip. Never got to it somehow. Too busy with other projects.
With the 25th anniversary on the horizon, Dick Wilmarth mentioned to his brother Larry that he was thinking he might take another shot. The comment drew a familiar response.
Do you really think, brother challenged brother, that YOU would stand a chance in against today's professional mushers?
"That's the same thing you told me last time,'' said the first champ of the Last Great Race.
There is alsway another side of the coin.
And this seems to be it.
I received a letter from a man named Slim Randles.
He has granted permission to publish his letter ... I think for anyone who wants to see both sided of an issue its certainly worth a read.
Didn't have enough room to finish commenting on your website. I just wanted to add that, as a race official (and one who disqualified Jerry Riley, by the way) I have seen the vets check every single dog at every single checkpoint. Riley was disqualified because a vet told him to drop a dog with sore feet and send it home, and he didn't. I sent him home at the next checkpoint. The race, in its early years, at any rate, was geared around the dogs and their health. "Comfort" might be stretching things a bit, for mushers and dogs, but it's a fact the worst thing you can do to punish a sled dog is to leave him home. For punishment, if you take one out of the team and leave him tied to a tree for half an hour, you'll never have trouble with him again. They truly work as a team. I know few mushers who do this for the money. Only two come to mind. The sacrifices one has to make to raise and train dogs makes doing this for money ridiculous. We did it because we were people of the bush, and we traveled by dog team and we were pals with each other, and the dogs were our family members. You have to remember that the musher is the weakest one in the team. The musher stops to rest before the dogs need it. It might help you to visit a kennel in winter and take a ride and see what goes on. I think it would be an eye opener for you. Are there abuses? Certainly. And those who abuse dogs or the opportunities are 86'd from the race again. One overriding consideration: a dog will not work for someone he fears. He'll do anything for someone he loves. And he also loves to travel and pull a sled. Thanks for hearing me out. If you're interested in seeing what driving dogs is like, let me know and I can arrange a ride for you. My best wishes to someone who obviously loves animals, too,
author of "Dogsled, A True Tale of the North," "Hell, I Was There!, The life story of Elmer Keith," "Raven's Prey," "The Long Dark," "Dancing Through Dark Timber," "Hot Biscuits," and "Ol' Max."
A Thank You goes to Merrie Lindsay for the many hours spent surfing the net to find this information for Wolf Alliance.