Iditarod Trail Race Conceived 50 Years Ago

A dog team howls along the Iditarod Trail.
A dog team howls along the Iditarod Trail.

Alaska’s 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race unofficially begins on Saturday, March 1, with a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. And after weeks of worry that a lack of snow could jeopardize the famous race, about 70 mushers will take off from Willow and begin the dash to Nome in earnest on March 2.

The two legendary visionaries who conceived the 1,049-mile race to Nome hardly could have imagined the success and changes that would happen over the next 40-plus years of the “Last Great Race.”

It all started when a history buff living in Wasilla had an idea in 1964. Dorothy Page, secretary of the Aurora Dog Mushers Club, saw that snowmachines were fast taking the place of dog teams and mushing. She thought a sled dog race on the historic Iditarod Trail, which originally began in Seward during the gold rush days and stretched to Knik, then on to the gold camp of Iditarod and eventually to Nome, might revitalize a longtime Alaska tradition. But Page knew that she would have to find a musher to share her dream before it could become reality.

She endured comments such as “Are you crazy?” for two years, until she talked to Joe Reddington Sr. during a break at the Willow Winter Carnival sled dog races in 1966. Page explained her idea to the veteran musher, who had traveled over sections of the historic Iditarod Trail while homesteading near Flat Horn Lake.

His response, “I think that’s a great idea!” has been echoed by hundreds of mushers from all parts of Alaska, the Lower 48 and even foreign countries ever since.

Fifty-eight mushers signed up to compete for $25,000 in prize money for the 1967 inaugural race. Since only nine miles of the trail had been cleared, the race ran from Knik to Big Lake on Saturday, and from Big Lake to Knik on Sunday, for a total of 56 miles. Isaac Okleasik, an Eskimo from Teller on the Seward Peninsula north of Nome, won the “Iditarod Centennial Race.”

Due to a lack of snow in 1968, a lack of money in 1969 and a lack of interest from 1970-72, the race was put on hold. But the behind-the-scenes work continued as volunteers cleared the brush from both the Nome and Knik ends of the trail.

Finally, on March 3, 1973, amid the cheers of hundreds of well wishers, 34 mushers left Anchorage headed for Nome in pursuit of not only a dream, but also $50,000 in prize money pledged by Reddington Sr.

Dick Wilmarth, a hardworking gold miner from the Interior village of Red Devil, crossed the finish line first. It took him 20 days, 49 minutes and 41 seconds to travel the old winter trail that mushers hadn’t used for 45 years.

Forty years later, modern mushers have cut that time by more than half through new technology in sled design and the breeding of faster dogs. Last year’s champion, Mitch Seavey of Seward, crossed the finish line in Nome in 9 days, 7 hours, 39 minutes and 56 seconds.

Alternating every year between the southern route and the northern route, the current trails cross the Alaska Range, Kuskokwim Mountains, Nulato Hills and over 200 miles along the mighty Yukon River. Once the mushers take off from Knik, they leave civilization behind and only have small towns and villages such as Skwentna, Nikolai, Ophir and Unalakleet to break the monotony of traveling in bone-chilling cold until they reach the historic Gold Rush town of Nome, perched on the shores of the Bering Sea.

#AuntPhilsTrunk #AlaskaHistory

14 comments on “Iditarod Trail Race Conceived 50 Years Ago

  1. This is a great story. I am surprised about the large prize money back then, I would have thought less. Is the prize money more in todays races?

    • Yes, Jason, there is some good money in the Iditarod purse. Last year’s winnings were $600,000 split by the top finishers. I think up to 30th place then get $1,049 (the race is 1,049 miles long) to help offset the cost of preparing for the race with dog food and other supplies and training. The first musher across the finish line in Nome also gets a new truck.

    • You are most welcome, Veronica – I love finding cool stories about my wonderful state to share with readers!

    • Yes, Deanna – modern technology has more than cut in half the time it takes to race from Willow to Nome now!

  2. I am so glad I found this article. Our family always went to Willow Winter Carnival while we lived in Alaska and I remember watching the inaugural race. This race is rarely mentioned when they talk of the Iditarod race today and I was beginning to think the race we watched was something else. We always went to Fur Rondy in Anchorage also, we loved watching those dogs race. Was saddened to read of George Attla’s passing recently. I remember his kick. Love your blog.

    • Thank you so much, Jenni! I currently am writing Volume Five in my Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series and one of the stories featured is that first race and the people behind the development of what the Iditarod race is today. I am tickled you are enjoying my blog. Some feedback suggested I was blogging too much (every week) so I’m cutting back to a couple articles a month 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.