Feb 23, 2021| Alaska History & Culture
The story of how the modern Iditarod began starts with Joe Redington, Sr.
But the history of the legendary race across Alaska has roots that go back to 1925, with a 700-mile emergency run by a dog team to Nome with a diphtheria anti-toxin serum.
The Iditarod Race, which starts on the first Saturday of March, commemorates the Historical Mail Trail from Seward to Nome and lasts roughly two weeks until the last finisher arrives. (The fastest time for the 1,000-mile race is an incredible 8d 3h 40m 13s!)
While the race traditionally begins in Willow and ends in Nome, which plays a key role in the Iditarod’s legacy, the 2021 race has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and will instead run about 850 miles from Deshka Landing in the Matanuska-Sustina Valley and loop around the gold mining ghost town of Flat and return via the same route. The route is appropriately named the Gold Trail Loop.
The Iditarod Trail, which is managed by local volunteers and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, has cultural significance. It is a symbol of frontier travel and was once an important commercial artery, serving mining camps, trading posts, and settlements between 1880 and 1920 during Alaska’s gold rush. It followed pre-existing trails used by the Alaska Native people.
Whatever path the trail takes, the history of the Iditarod race is rich with fabled heroes, both human and canine.
It was Joe Redington, Sr., an Oklahoma transplant, who created the Iditarod to save the sled dog culture and preserve the historic Iditarod Trail. The Alaska Sports Hall of Fame calls Redington the "Father of the Iditarod,” saying that he created the Iditarod in 1973 because he feared that the advent of snowmobiles would lead to a phase-out of the Alaskan Husky.
The Hall describes Redington as an adventurer who mushed more than 250,000 miles. He brought the sled dog back to prominence by overseeing the organization and fund-raising for the first 1,100-mile Iditarod in 1973. Redington solicited volunteers, recruited mushers, helped clear the trail, and raised the $50,000 purse – then the largest payoff in mushing history.
When he created the race, Redington was already a legend himself, having led an expedition to the summit of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley (now Mt. Denali) in 1979. He was a tireless Iditarod promoter and a member of its governing body’s board of directors. He successfully lobbied Congress to designate the Iditarod Trail as a National Historic Trail.
Although Redington is credited as the driving force behind the Iditarod, he had help. Dorothy Page, known as Mother of the Iditarod, conceived the idea of a sled dog race over the historically significant Iditarod Trail. Redington’s two closest founder partners, Tom Johnson and Gleo Huyck, both legendary mushers themselves, worked directly with Redington in creating the Iditarod.
It is because of Redington’s advocacy, though, that the winner of the Iditarod receives the Joe Redington Trophy in the form of a bust of the event’s most prominent creator.
Redington died in 1999 at the age of 82, but his legacy lives on in the historic Iditarod.
One of those who has carried on Redington’s proud tradition is Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod and whose victory led to the saying that Alaska is "where men are men and women win the Iditarod.”
Riddles, also a member of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, won the Iditarod in 1985 as a relatively unknown musher from Teller, Alaska. Riddles’ victory was a harrowing story of big storms and heroic endurance.
That year Alaska had been hit by a series of tremendous blizzards that occasionally even halted the race as the leading mushers stopped at a tiny village checkpoint. But Riddles, while her competitors rode out the storm, seized the opportunity to get ahead of her resting competitors and set out on a risky trail beyond Shaktoolik. She raced ahead through the blinding storms, took the lead and never gave it up in spite of conditions that included vanishing visibility and numbing cold.
The Iditarod remains one of the only sports in the world where men and women compete on the same rules and travel the same routes.
The official trail of the Iditarod has changed over the years, traditionally running from Willow to Nome (with a "ceremonial start” in Anchorage for a little fanfare) usually coinciding with Anchorage’s "Fur Rondy,” billed as North America’s largest winter festival. Unfortunately, this year’s race will not feature the traditional ceremonial start in Anchorage due to the pandemic.
This year’s trail begins at Deshka Landing and heads north to Skwentna, then to Finger Lake, and north to Rainy Pass, considered the most hazardous part of the race.
About halfway through the race, mushers will have to travel through 12 towns and checkpoints that include the ghost town of Iditarod itself.
Folklore has it that Iditarod was a word used by Athabascans that meant "far distant place" and "clear water" in another indigenous language. In addition, a "rod" is a measure of distance, so one miner asked another, "How’d you do today?", the miner would answer, "I-DID-A-ROD". That being said, the most commonly accepted meaning is "Far Distant Place".
But when we look at the human contributions to the history of the Iditarod, we also must consider its dog heroes.
The 1925 Serum Run started with a musher named Leonhard Seppala, a team of Huskies led by Togo, and a diphtheria outbreak in Nome. It was not so much a competitive race like today’s Iditarod. It was a race to save lives.
Leonard Seppala with sled dogs from his kennel - from left to right - Togo, Karinsky, Jafet, Pete, unknown dog, Fritz
In 1925 the diphtheria outbreak among Nome’s children was spreading at an alarming pace, and local doctor Curtis Welch feared an epidemic that could put the entire village of about 1,400 at risk of dying from the fatal respiratory disease. To make matters worse, Nome had been hit by one of the worst winters in 20 years.
An anti-toxin serum that would cure diphtheria was needed as soon as possible, but the situation was bleak. The life-saving serum was delivered to a train station about 700 miles away from Nome in tiny Nenana. It was too cold for planes, which were open cockpit in those days, to travel to Nome with the serum. The port into Nome was icebound and inaccessible.
The only answer was to deliver the serum by dog sled.
In what became known as the 1925 Nome Serum Run, dog racing legend Seppala harnessed the sled team led by Togo and trekked the longest distance, about 260 miles, through the harsh Alaska terrain. Balto, another Siberian husky owned by Gunnar Kaasen, led the last team to carry the medicine into Nome. Teams traveled where temperatures at times dropped to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, to deliver the life-saving serum.
It turns out that dogs are as responsible for the race as their human counterparts.
As for the two heroic dogs who led the 1925 serum run, Balto got the Disney movie deal and a statue in New York’s Central Park, although Togo got his due from Disney in a 2019 movie. But Seppala said it was 12-year-old Togo who saved the lives of everyone in Nome.
Balto's Statue in New York Central Park
"I never had a dog better than Togo,” Seppala said. "His stamina, loyalty, and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail."
Today, because of the hard work of Redington and his colleagues, not to mention Seppala, Balto, and Togo, mushing is Alaska’s official state sport for everyone to enjoy and the Iditarod is indeed "The Last Great Race."
To commemorate this year’s Iditarod race, you can get premium Iditarod sportswear, accessories, and home décor featuring beloved premium brands on the Voyij official Iditarod store.
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