The Incredible Iditarod Champions
By: Karla Fetrow
For the Love of Dogs
Dog sled racing has always been a part of Alaskan culture. Long before the Iditarod, early Alaskans would begin training their dogs in mid-winter to partake in the Fur Rendevous race. This twenty mile race was once the highlight of the week long festival. Since the prominence of the Iditarod, it has just become a minor event.
In those early days, Alaska was a very small community. Everybody knew everybody. The Fur Rendevous races created a place where everybody could get together and hob-nob with neighbors as far away as Kenai or Seward. At the starting line were pots of hot chocolate and coffee. The women gossiped, the men placed bets and the children ran around to get themselves acquainted with the racers. There was one main rule. Don’t pet the dogs without express permission. Back then, and even now, not all the dogs were well socialized and not all of them were family pets.
For the Alaskan Centennial, dog musher Joey Reddington was asked to sponsor a race on the old Iditarod Trail to commemorate a historic moment in Alaskan history when a deadly outbreak of diptheria
threatened Nome’s population. The serum was carried by rail from Anchorage to Nenana and relays of dog teams were sent the remainder of the way—674 miles (1,085 km). The race was in honor of Leonhard Seppala, who road at the head of the teams and who is credited as the founder of the Siberian husky.
The 1967 race was a huge success. A few years later, the snow machine made its appearance as a favored mode of winter transportation. Joey, who loved his dogs, became concerned about the number of villages that had forsaken their four legged travel for mechanical ski tracks, began thinking about making an Iditarod race a part of Alaskan tradition. In 1973, he campaigned for and gained the sponsorship for a yearly endurance race to Nome.
Joey never won an Iditarod race, although he nearly always placed in the first five contestants to step over that red ribbon in Nome. More often than not, the North American dog sled races, which dominated the scene before the Iditarod, were won by a character the locals called “Doc” Lombard. Lombard wasn’t exactly a typical Alaskan. In fact, he wasn’t Alaskan at all! The most folks knew about him was that he was a veterinarian from Vermont who bred a fantastic line of Siberian huskies. He brought with him new concepts for maintaining the health and well being of racing dogs as well as the reputation for being the oldest man to win the Iditarod, even beating out racing giant, George Attla, who was twenty years younger. While somewhat begrudging the outsider who made Alaskan racing history, respect for him grew as he competed again and again in the sled dog races, continuing his love affair with his team. He was well into his seventies before he quit racing.
The Iditarod floundered a few times in its early years. Several times during the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, the race was called off due to weather conditions, but the expectations of the last great race kept growing. The days of semi-notoriety were over the day Libby Riddles riveted the world’s attention. On March 20, 1985, Libby sailed into Nome, becoming the first woman to ever win the Iditarod.
Women in dog sled races are nothing new. There has been a woman’s race division since 1943. Women have competed liberally in the North American races, the Fur Rendevous, and the World Championship races, but this was the first time a woman had not only completed, but won the strenuous, grueling, 1,200 mile race set to challenge the mettle of the strongest and bravest men. With the emotional cry, “Libby did it!” plastered over the headlines, the world broke into applause.
The following year, Susan Butcher rose to the top as an Iditarod giant. She didn’t stop there. For three consecutive years she took the first place title, a feat never accomplished by any other Iditarod racer. In 1989, she placed second, but in 1990, she once again swooped over the finish line in first place, giving her four wins in five years, another Iditarod record. Her wins prompted a popular line of tee-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan, “Alaska: Where the men are men and the women win the Iditarod.”
Largely through the efforts of men like Joey Reddington and Doc Lombard, dog sled racing remains a vital part of Alaskan culture despite the advent of the Iron Dog races, which put snow machines on the same unforgiving track of unbroken wilderness as the dog sled races. The mystery has as much to do with the special bonding between man and dog as to this maximum test of endurance. Said Susan Butcher in an interview with Los Angeles Times, “You have to be very selfless in your dedication to your dogs. When you come into a checkpoint, although there may be a wood stove to warm your feet by, you stay outside; you take care of your dogs, get them bedded down and fed. It may take three hours. Then you can go and have your 15 minutes inside, and then it’s time to go and check your dogs, massage them down and get ready to go again.”
Iditarod mushers agree. The first consideration is for the dogs. You let an animal die out on the trail through exhaustion or illness, you automatically disqualify as a winner. You must check into Nome with the same number of dogs you started out with, even if it means placing an exhausted dog in your sled. A true Iditarod champion is someone who does not push the dogs anymore than their ability to perform.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than the saga of Martin Buser. Dominating the scene in 1992, he went on to win the championship three more times; the last in 2002; and set the record for speed until it was broken this year by Kotzebue musher, John Baker. Buser is Alaska’s darling, With the same number of wins as Susan Butcher, Lance Mackey, Doug Swingley and Jeff King and one less than his rival, Rick Swenson, it’s not because he’s unbeatable as a racer. It’s because Buser exhibits a champion’s personality.
Ask any person living within the Matanuska Valley, and you’ll hear a personal account about Martin Buser. A gregarious man with an infectious smile, he always has time to chat with a neighbor, pat a child on the head or give his personal opinion on the issues of the day. It would be difficult to find a person from Big Lake, where he has his home with his family and team, who will admit to not knowing him.
Martin Buser spends a lot of time attending schools and giving lectures on the humanitarian care of animals and the spirit of the Iditarod. He loves talking with children and often pays surprise visits with his well-mannered team. This has all helped to make him a very popular musher, but his status changed from popular to hero when a fire spread through the valley in the summer of 2002.
On a blistering day in one of the hottest summers on record, a wild fire swept through the Matanuska Valley, endangering the small towns of Willow, Houston and Big Lake. Residents were evacuated. Buser loaded up his family and sent them on their way, but refused to abandon his dog team. Dashing out to the Big Lake Fire Station, Buser noticed a fire truck that was not in use. The water tank was empty, but this didn’t concern Buser. His home was located just a few hundred yards from the lake. Confiscating the vehicle, he drove back to his property, and filled the tank with water.
The fire was roaring, close to his house, the flames leaping high into the trees. The smoke was so thick, the blue sky looked like it was covered with thick, dark clouds. He began single-handedly soaking down the area that had been abandoned to the fire. His perseverance paid off. After a two day rampage, the fire finally turned and advanced toward the thriving town of Wasilla. People were petrified. Between Wasilla and Palmer was a residency of over thirty-five thousand people, with the even more densely populated area of Eagle River and Anchorage just beyond them. Buser continued to work with firefighters to get the blaze under control. On the third day, with the fire so close, it could be seen from the elevations of the Chugach ridge, it began to rain. The residents of the threatened areas, who had already begun planning what to take with them should they have to evacuate, breathed a sigh of relief.
The firemen didn’t mind that Buser had helped them out, but the mayor and the chief of police took offense to his unauthorized use of State property. A suit was filed against him that was later thrown out of court. He had saved his home. He had saved his dogs. He had helped to save the community. The Alaskan love affair for Martin Buser rampaged higher than the Big Lake flames.
Perhaps something happened to him that day. Maybe the words he had externally spoken about the Iditarod not being a race to win, but a test of endurance, left a deep internal message. Although he continues to race, and places in the top twelve, he says he just lets his dogs go at their own pace; never pushing them, never start them moving again before they were ready. He runs his dogs for their own enjoyment and a sense of personal satisfaction in being a part of the Iditarod.
A few years ago, he was given a tracking device he was asked to wear so they could receive satellite coverage, and do a minute by minute report on the Internet. About half-way through the race, he took off the device and hung it from a tree. No longer able to tell just where he was at, officials were rather surprised when he sailed into Nome, casually joining the top five winner’s circle. Once again, the authorities were not amused with Buser. Asked why he did it, he answered that he thought it would be funny, although the locals murmured that it was because Buser didn’t really like the well-publicized commercialism that had taken over the Iditarod.
Just as younger mushers began pushing the older mushers away from the limelight of Iditarod fame by the mid-nineteen eighties, this second decade of the 21st. Century has pushed aside the 1990’s giants with new faces. Lance Mackey wowed dog racing fans by swooping up three consecutive Iditarod wins in a row as well as one Yukon Quest win in the same time period, making him a unprecedented champion with four championship belts in three years. John Baker, who has raced in the Iditarod every year since 1996, placing in the top ten, eleven times, left a new speed record of 8 Days 18 Hours 46 Minutes 39 Seconds, attaching his name to the list of astonishing Iditarod champions.
The rewards for winning the race are lucrative; an average fifty thousand dollar purse and a spanking new truck to the first place winner, with the cash amounts dwindling until the thirtieth person to step over the finish line, who receives a $1,500 award. At nearly every check point there is a reward waiting for the first person to cross the line; everything from a fantastic dinner and cash awards of over a thousand dollars in one dollar bills to a trophy and gold nuggets at the Cripple Creek half-way point. This disbursement of awards, with combined assets equaling over two hundred thousand dollars, reflect the spirit of the Iditarod; that it isn’t winning that counts, but that you participated in this magnificent feat of human endurance.
There is something about those vast miles of absolute wilderness, that feeling of boundless freedom, that drives the dog musher to return to that old death defying trail again and again. With the world watching, and the temptation of a lucrative purse waiting at the end of the run, it has attracted many with a winner’s mentality, yet the competition continues to remain primarily in the hands of those with an incredible love for their dog teams. The helicopters flying overhead, with rescue operations waiting for any mishap, have minimized the hazards for the Iditarod trail blazer. The cameras and press waiting at the end of each checkpoint have reduced the feeling of complete solitude and brought International publicity to what had once been just local fame. Yet the true Iditarod champions don’t listen to the crowds, only their own pounding hearts and the excited panting of their dog teams. They thrill to the endless wilderness and nature’s wrath awaiting around every corner. Whispering in the wind are the voices of the old time greats; Joey Reddington, Doc Lombard, George Attla, joyfully racing down the trail, encouraging them. Mush on, Iditarod racer. Mush on.
Karla Fetrow- Largely through the efforts of men like Joey Reddington and Doc Lombard, dog sled racing remains a vital part of Alaskan culture