You’ve probably heard of the Iditarod, but you may not know this year’s race is the fiftieth. Joe Redington Sr. and a few others wanted to revive long-distance sled dog mushing, which was starting to disappear after snowmachines (snowmobiles to some of you) were becoming popular in rural Alaska. After a lot of work, the inaugural race was held in 1973 with 36 teams, mostly hardy Alaskans— sometimes old sourdoughs with lots of bush experience, but newbies tried their hand, too. Mushers were often on their own when it came to finding the trail and taking care of themselves and their dogs. Checkpoints were few and far between, and food drops didn’t always happen as planned. Most of the mushing was done in the daytime. Dick Wilmarth won in 20 days 49 minutes, and 41 seconds, a far cry from Mitch Seavey’s 2017 record of 8 days 3 hours 40 minutes and 13 seconds. Learn more about the first Iditarod in this great Anchorage Daily News article by Zacharia Hughes:
Advances in logistics, gear, and dog nutrition and health have made the race faster and safer in many ways. Several awards have been added, for example the Sportsmanship Award chosen by the racers and the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for outstanding dog care. But the bond between dogs and mushers—and the fans—have changed little since the first year. It’s still the Last Great Race.
I’ve been watching the race since the beginning. (Yes, I’m that old!) I have a lot of memories and favorites among the mushers. Joe Redington commanded respect as the father of the Iditarod. Norman Vaughan was another valued elder. Herbie Nayokpuk and Susan Butcher brought a lightness and joy to their runs. Lance Mackey wins the prize for pure tenacity. DeeDee Jonrowe was the sweetheart of the Iditarod that everyone was half in love with. Even my Fur Rondy favorite George Attla ran the race twice.
I’ve had connections to mushers, sometimes at public events, sometimes more personally. Emmit Peters told great Iditarod stories with warmth and humor. Martin Buser was really nice when I spoke with him on the phone (on a work call). My husband knew Anjanette and Zack Steer from their ownership of a lodge. One of my favorite Iditarod memories is the year one of my students was a relative of John Baker, and we followed the race by checking the class computer every morning to see how he was faring. (Baker didn’t win that year, but he did in another.) Jeff King used to drive buses in Denali Park with my husband, so he’s the family favorite. But this year, my son-in-law’s friend Matt Paveglio is racing, so we have two teams to root for.
Want to learn more about the race or get the latest news? See the official website at
Also, author Gary Paulsen ran the race three times, in 1983, 1985, and 2006. His book Winterdance is an interesting and at times hilarious story about the race, and some of his other books also touch on his experience.