Enjoy this excerpt from Rod Perry’s book Trail Breakers about the early years of the Iditarod. To learn more about Rod Perry and his work, check out http://www.rodperry.com/. – Loren
Poor Boy Race and Broke Racers
Most of today’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race fans did not come into their fanaticism until the contest had become a well-funded, slick, international spectacle. Therefore it is foreign to them to think of the race ever being a seat-of-the-pants, run-on-a-shoestring operation. The great, trailblazing race epitomized our broke-but-go-anyhow mindset.
For the Iditarod Race to gain a toehold and survive to see even so much as a second running—not to mention any future beyond that—we first had to demonstrate to an almost universally disbelieving and unsupportive public that such a wild scheme was possible to pull off. Joe Redington’s vision was for such a quantum leap beyond any other sled dog race in history, there was not only no close precedent, there was no race that had ever come close to serving as even a distant ramp up.
Joe’s new concept in sled dog racing was just so outlandishly grandiose in all of its facets that few believed it could be done. Many scoffed and ridiculed the idea and denigrated its originator as a deluded fool.
It went both ways: lack of belief precipitated lack of money and lack of money precipitated lack of belief.
Joe and his cofounders Tom Johnson and Gleo Huyck (see February 24th Rod’s Blog post Iditarod Cofounders Tom Johnson and Gleo Huyck) had so little budget that it wasn’t worthy of the term. For instance, money for setting up and running checkpoints was close to non-existent. Rainy Pass Lodge was supposed to be a major checkpoint, supply pick-up, and dog drop station. There in the early morning darkness, first arrival Dick Wilmarth awakened caretaker Al Budzinski. Wilmarth had snowshoed through the night breaking trail ahead of his team, desperate for food because not one of his drops had made it out onto the trail. And now he queried Budzinski with a worried question, “Are the Iditarod drops here?” To which Al answered an incredulous, “What? Are they going to hold that?”
Between McGrath and Ruby, they struggled to establish a checkpoint at Bear Creek Mine ahead of the frontrunners, but failed. That left no checkpoint in the hundreds of miles of wild no-man’s land between the Kuskokwim and the Yukon—nothing but empty, blizzard-lashed snowscapes from McGrath to Ruby.
Trail Breaker Carl Fritzler: “Joe said he’d try to have gas supplies cached ahead for us, but there never hardly was. We mostly bought our own and had to haul huge amounts hundreds of miles between gas-ups because of no support. And we either had to finance getting our own broken-down snowmachines evacuated from where they died or leave them out there. If they were ruined, it was all out of our own pocket. Joe didn’t have two dimes to rub together to help with the trailbreaking.”
I suppose there’s a fair chance that the least-funded racer of today puts more money into his run than—exclusive of the $50 K purse—the entire amount the pioneering Iditarod Race had to run on as we blazed trail in 1973. And the individual trailblazing drivers? I don’t know of any that had more than a three-figure sponsorship.
Pre race, I had pounded the pavements of Anchorage and talked ‘til blue in the face with one hoped-for sponsor after another. No one gave the crazy-sounding experiment much chance of even starting, much less succeeding. Finally, on the very day I had set as my succeed-or-abort day, Anchorage Truss came through with $500. I was ecstatic. Whoopee! I was going to Nome! Little did I know when I had my sled banner painted that the sign shop would charge a third of that sponsorship.
Fast forward to the last couple of days of my run west toward Nome. The sun shining brightly from the south out of a crystal clear sky and reflecting off the snow-covered sea ice is sunburning the left side of my face. At the same time the zero temperature is trying to frostbite the right (shadow) side. Then running ahead of my team a major share of the final 32 miles between Solomon and Nome in an effort to top the fastest time between those final checkpoints set by Bud Smyth (Ramey’s pop), I can’t keep my exhalations from fogging my glacier glasses. So I take them off, exposing my eyes to the intense glare, almost guaranteeing some degree of snowblindness. But it matters little in the triumph of making Nome against all odds and after 30 days of doing battle with the trail!
Upon reaching Nome, not only were my eyes watering and shutting in uncontrollable cycles from beginning stages of snowblindness, I was dead broke. What little prize money I had won was spoken-for to pay race debts. I had nothing to get home on. The Nazarene minister provided housing. The Catholic rectory had several other broke mushers and me join at their evening table for meals fed their volunteers and employees. A kindly doctor transported me to the hospital and treated my eyes. Then City Councilman/Fireman/Alaska Airlines employee Bob Evens took me under his wing set about getting me home.
Even two weeks after Dick Wilmarth’s historic finish, every bar on Front Street was so jammed that, had a person been able to somehow wiggle and squeeze his way in, had he passed out he’d have never dropped to the floor. In a very few minutes, stopping at a very few bars, Bob collected more than enough from the celebrating crowds that lustily cheered me as I stood at the door to more than pay my airfare. My dog team got a free flight home, too, thanks to that same good man and his airline job connections that secured me a shipping igloo at no charge.
Founders Redington, Johnson, and Huyck had so little money they couldn’t even afford a measly few extra yards of cheap canvas. They had to have the banner for the race start in Anchorage flipped and the over-the-street-finish-banner lettering for Nome painted on opposite side. Perhaps the best visual remaining today of just what a poor-boy run we made to give the Iditarod a future is the photo from the finish line showing Wilmarth lifted to the shoulders of the cheering crowd, while over Nome’s Front Street is stretched the banner reading from the back side, “Anchorage Start.”