1975 Iditarod winner Emmitt Peters hits the trail again

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2000

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- 1975 Iditarod winner Emmitt Peters is back in the race.

Peters, an Athabaskan, won the 1,150-mile race through Alaska's wilderness as a rookie 25 years ago. Back then, it was all about ego and winning. His friend Carl Huntington had won the Iditarod with Peters' lead dog the year before and Peters wanted to win, too.

''That was fantastic, great. ... Things worked out good for me and the dogs. They were just peaking,'' said Peters of his first-place finish. ''That was a thrill of a lifetime for me.''

Well, maybe not. At age 59, Peters is in the race again after an eight-year absence. This time, when the Iditarod begins Saturday, he's hitting the trail to help give Native children the inspiration to follow their dreams, too.

''I had to make a comeback here now,'' he said. ''There are not very many Natives in this race.''

In return, his people will give him the strength to push forward on the trail from Anchorage to Nome, which crosses two mountain ranges, follows the Yukon River and a long, windblown stretch of the Bering Sea coast.

Peters is looking forward to the race stop in Ruby, the village where he was born, still lives, and drives a school bus.

''I think it is great, for me to see those Native people along the Yukon River. They will cheer me as I come to the village,'' he said.

Peters is credited with turning the Iditarod into a real race with his 14-day finish in 1975, six days less than the previous two winners. He has competed 12 times, placing in the top 10 seven times. His best years were in the 1970s, when after winning, he placed fifth, fourth, third and second. His standings slipped in the 1980s but he still managed to finish in the top 20. After finishing 41st in 1990, he scratched in 1992.

One of the biggest problems was money. The race had become expensive to run and raising sponsorship money was tough because of the attention the race was receiving from animal rights groups. Even the expense of maintaining a small kennel of 20 dogs, getting dog food to his village and training was too much, he said. He gave up his kennel in 1995.

''I just couldn't handle the pressure. I just called it quits,'' he said.

Peters says this Iditarod likely will be his last, but the competitive fire still burns. He's leased top-quality dogs from Two Rivers musher Rick Swenson, the only person to win the Iditarod five times.

''I know Rick is worried about it,'' Peters said laughing, referring to his entry in the race after an eight-year absence. ''He gave me a second string of dogs but I am going to beat him with his own dogs.''

Peters is passing on one of the light-weight aluminum and plastic sleds in favor of a homemade birch sled made by his best friend, Billy McCarty. Instead of a quick-drying snowsuit, he'll be wearing a wolverine parka, mittens made of beaver, and a warm hat of marten. His sister Lilli is knitting him warm socks.

Peters' run is being made possible by two friends who have chipped in more than $10,000 each to help with the $30,000 cost of running the race.

Jess Ellis, a root canal specialist, is not only sponsoring Peters but will provide him with a pickup truck and handlers during the race. He's also had 100 ball caps and 200 T-shirts made up to help raise money.

''It really is tough for the Native mushers out in the villages now. I know how hard it is for them to get sponsors, plus Emmitt is sort of a classy guy,'' Ellis said. ''He was in there in the early years in the Iditarod and helped people like Rick Swenson when they were just getting their start. He's paid his dues and I consider it an honor to help him.''

Don Brusehaber, operations manager for Aggregate Products in Anchorage, is Peters' other sponsor. He's contributing a chunk of his own money and has gotten his company to chip in as well.

''Emmitt is a village Indian. ... This dog mushing thing, that was everyone's dream up there, to be a dog musher, and then he got famous,'' he said. ''This is a dream of his to do it (again), so why not give him a hand?''

Peters is preparing for the race by getting up each morning and doing a half-hour of stretching and running hills near his village. He's more worried about having the strength to keep his eyes open during long, boring stretches.

It's just so easy to take a wrong turn and slip off the trail when nodding off, Peters said.

''I fall asleep standing up,'' Peters said. When his head slumps and his chin hits his chest, he wakes up.

It wasn't sleep deprivation but perhaps inexperience that caused one of his worst moments. It came during his debut run when near Rainy Pass he lost control of the sled on a steep hill. He wasn't hurt but the incident shook him up.

''I flipped right over the handle bar. The dogs went one way and I went the other. I ran right into a birch tree.''

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