Alaska Geographic puts bark into Iditarod 'tails'

Posted: Thursday, March 07, 2002

With the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race under way and more than 60 mushers winding along a northern route between Anchorage and Nome that is used in even-numbered years, it's the perfect time to curl up with a good book on the "Last Great Race" and discover what the excitement is about.

The history of Alaska's close ties to sled dog mushing and the 1925 death-defying relay to deliver serum to diphtheria-plagued Nome are the solid foundation upon which this 1,000-plus mile course was developed -- and which has snagged the world's attention.

But that's only the beginning. There are the individuals who brought it all together into the race it is today, not to mention the dogs, the mushers and the thousands of volunteers who make it happen.

Pair that with page after page of photos from a variety of photographers and the stage is set for an enjoyable timeout that, while shorter and less demanding than the Iditarod itself, will leave the reader feeling close to the action.

While it's possible to trace the 30-year history of today's race, there are a few more years involved when counting the time the trail has been in use. Sections are identified as trade routes used by Inupiats and Athabaskans. In the mid-1700s, Russian explorers made use of these established routes to haul freight and hike. In the late 1800s, gold seekers came to the United States' newest piece of real estate and found themselves unprepared for Alaska's harsh weather and demanding terrain.

"Partly in response, the military sent out their own teams of trailblazers in search of efficient routes to the goldfields," according to the history provided in "The Iditarod."

However, Alaska proved too demanding. "With 15 horses and eight men, they carried 3,300 pounds of gear and supplies, including 600 pounds of bacon and 1,000 pounds of flour. Finally they became bogged down in the upper Kuskokwim lowlands, so they abandoned the horses and cached many of their supplies, including some bacon."

But gold is a powerful hunger and by the early 1900s, a network of trails connected Seward to the Innoko River Region and Kaltag, and a mail route was developed from Kaltag to Nome.

"Sacks of mail began arriving along with food, dry goods and tools, pulled by teams of strong, hardy, mixed-breed dogs; some of the main trails doubled as wagon roads in summer and sled trails in winter but remained isolated segments or merely side trails from town served by steamboats."

A team of Seattle businessmen came up with the idea of running the Alaska Central Railroad from Resurrection Bay to the goldfields near Fairbanks. And in 1908, the U.S. Army's Alaska Road Com-mission began a survey of what has essentially become the winter route of today's Iditarod.

As newcomers flooded Alaska's interior, they were gripped by two fevers. One was sled dog racing fever. Kennel clubs sprang up and on New Year's Day 1911, the first Iditarod Sweepstakes ran from Iditarod to Flat with a grand price of $350.

The second fever hit in January 1925, when diphtheria knocked Nome to its feet. Medication was located at the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage and transported by rail to Nenana.

On Jan. 27, Wild Bill Shannon left Nenana with the serum in a cylinder that was "protected with quilting and wrapped in canvas." Over the next few days, a succession of teams created from the fastest mushers and dogs available dashed toward the waiting people of Nome. On Feb. 1, Charlie Olson took the serum from Leonhard Seppala and braved a storm so fierce that it threw him, the sled and the team from the trail more than once.

Eventually completing the 25-mile section, he handed the serum to Gunnar Kaasen, whose team was led by Balto. Kaasen battled the 53-mile remaining miles, facing chest-high snow drifts and flooding river water, to make the delivery.

Credited with today's incarnation of that 1925 event are Joe Redington Sr. and Dorothy G. Page.

Redington came to Alaska in 1948 and established Knik Kennels on what is now Knik-Goose Bay Road. Dorothy Page came to Alaska in 1960, eventually settled in Wasilla and formed the Wasilla-Knik-Willow Creek Historical Society. Together, they focused on resurrecting the Iditarod Trail. Page died in 1989, the year Joe Runyan of Nenana won the Iditarod. Redington died in 1999, the year Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., claimed his second of four Iditarod championships.

A "treasure, a jewel of traildom," is how Mike Zaidlicz, Iditarod Trail coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management, describes the Iditarod.

The feet of 35 mushers and teams helped bring a shine to that jewel in the 1973 race. Thirty years later, 64 mushers -- including 37 Alaskans, 32 rookies, 11 women and seven foreigners -- are once again closing the gap between Saturday's ceremonial start on Anchorage's Fourth Avenue and the burled arch that marks the end of the trail in Nome.

And "The Iditarod" offers to close the gap between armchair mushers, who can enjoy frequent race updates over www.iditarod. com from the warmth and comfort of home, and the men, women and dogs who brave weather, trail and untold challenges to keep that jewel sparkling.

McKibben Jackinsky is a free-lance writer who lives in Ninilchik.

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