Borrowed Dogs, Borrowed Sled: A Rookie’s Iditarod
A group of people are planning a book on the early years of the Iditarod. This story was submitted as a possible chapter in that book.
Myron's state of the art sled bag, a moldy canvas tarp.
No collection of early Iditarod stories would be complete without reference to the experiences of a beginner on the trail. By beginner, I mean someone without a clue how to travel from Anchorage to Nome by dog team. No such tale could describe a recent rookie doing the race, because the rules now require that rookies have considerable experience and knowledge before starting the race. In the early days, all the race required was an entry fee and a few dogs attached to a sled. That describes my 1979 race, and there is no reasonable explanation for how I made the thousand miles to Nome.
My interest in the Iditarod started with a story in Sports Illustrated about the first race. Reading it while attending law school in Minneapolis this wilderness marathon sounded like a real adventure, and I already planned to move to Alaska after graduation. I ended up in Bethel where there were a few sled dogs, but the local mushers were all sprint racers. By 1977 I owned a few dogs and took them out every day from early November until May 1st. Every dog ran every day, and there were no days off the entire winter. It was so much fun moving down the trail with a bunch of dogs that resting a day seemed like a waste. There was no mentor or book to learn from, but instead it was trial and error, mostly the latter.
With only a couple twenty mile races behind the sled, with poor showings in each, I made the decision to enter the 1979 Iditarod. But that decision revealed a problem. I was going to have to round up some dogs before I heading to Anchorage. Gathering dogs proved to be the key to finishing the race for me. I had a buddy in Anvik named Rudy Demoski who finished in the top ten a couple of times with some dogs that were rumored to be extremely hardy. I called Rudy and he loaned me four dogs, including an experienced leader named Moses. That dog was the son of Puppy, one of Jerry Riley's leaders in his 1976 Iditarod win. Moses was big and slow, just right for the team I was assembling. I got a few Aniak dogs from Dave Norr and Floyd Davidson, and later Dean Painter from Grayling showed up with a few dogs of his own to help me train. Dean was a young guy with a wealth of dog driving experience, and he had trained Puppy before the dog was traded to Jerry Riley for a used snow machine.
We started training in the fall, and Nathan Underwood showed up to help get me started. Nathan went on to a lifetime of mushing, including a 1985 Iditarod run. We were feeding a commercial food known as Don's Alaskan, on the theory that an Alaska brand must be better for Alaskan dogs than some outside brand. When the dogs became skinny and lifeless I went straight to the top. I called Iditarod champion Dick Mackey for advice. Dick was full of help. He steered me to Iams Plus, still the best food I have ever used. I also started feeding beef hearts. The change was dramatic. The team was shaping up and we were doing 40-50 mile runs mainly on the Kuskokwim River and nearby tundra. One such run almost ended the plan. Dean and I were training near Bethel in December with marginal snow and ice conditions because of a late winter. We turned into a slough, and in a moment, the front dogs broke through the ice. We jumped from the sled and splayed out spread eagled on the ice. Within minutes, a plane happened to fly over and circled after seeing us on the ice. We knew we were spotted but didn't know what might happen next, with night time fast approaching. We tried to crawl to the edge of the slough but the ice was cracking and bending so we remained on the ice.
Dean lit a cigarette, and I asked him if he thought the ice might melt from the extra heat. Soon a helicopter appeared and rescued us. They tried to throw us a rope from the bank but I told them we really didn't want to move, so they hovered over us and we climbed on the struts. The story was on statewide news within minutes, and also made Alaska Magazine. The dogs made it off the ice into the brush with the sled, and we returned the next morning to rescue them, all in good shape.
We trained hard all winter, but with one slight oversight, we never camped out with the dogs. In fact when I started the race, I had never spent a winter night in a sleeping bag outside and had never used a Coleman stove in cold weather. I went to Anchorage with 16 dogs, including my pet Red Setter, Nick who had developed into a fine leader. He was a cross between an English and Irish Setter, and a wonderful dog. There were lots of doubters about Nick, but at least I would have my buddy with me when things looked bad, which turned out to be much of the way. Race week was a nightmare. There were lots of things to be done, and lots of jitters. Somehow we made it to the starting line at Mulcahey Park. The run to Eagle River was uneventful, and I even passed a few teams with what seemed like a very strong group of dogs.
That year a restart was held on Lake Lucille, which was glare ice. There was a cross wind, and the trail hit the woods about 200 yards from the start. Cars and trucks formed a corridor on either side of the trail. We were instructed to use handlers to get from the start to the trees, but I only had two. We couldn't control the team and they veered into the front of the vehicles, and I broke the main stanchion on my brand new sled before I hit the woods.
I gingerly rode the sled to Knik, where I still had a chance to sort out my problem. The checker happened to be a sled builder and he looked at my problem. He said he would fix the sled and send it along up the trail. I had no idea if that would work, but I was happy he agreed to do it. But first I would have to find a new sled. I went into the Knik bar, which was hopping. There were dog trucks all over the lake, and some had sleds. I loudly announced my dilemma. I got one response. Vern Cherniski was having a beer after helping Emmitt Peters at the start. He said he had a training sled on his truck I could buy, for $300. We had a deal, except running the race had left the Angstmans broke and the check I gave him would have to be held for a few weeks until I replenished the account. He agreed. I switched my gear to the new sled, a beast with steel runners. Ouch. In that era, sled bags were a new gimmick. Mine was a mildewed tarp that I wrapped around my gear and tied to the sled. At every stop I untied and unwrapped the gear. I slept in that mildewed tarp for the entire race, and after a while the moldy old canvas started to feel like home.
After a couple hour stop, I headed out of Knik Lake ready to race. I soon discovered the training sled could barely be steered. Within five miles, I broke the brush bow by hitting a tree. I would be stuck with this sled unless my repaired sled somehow made it back to me on the trail. Fat chance, I figured.
I struggled with the sled, and I was about to encounter the first real hills I had ever seen from the back of a dog sled. Ethan Windahl was a checker at one of the early checkpoints. He could tell I was having trouble and gave me words of advice on how to make the sled steer better and helped me adjust the bridle for that purpose. He was a friend from Nome, and one of many who helped herd me along the trail. Early in the race I abandoned my Coleman stove and started using campfires to heat water on the trail. If anyone still has my old green stove, which I left on the Yentna River, I'm glad you were able to make use of it.
Mushers were allowed to use a radio phone at some checkpoints. At Skwentna, I called my wife and asked her to check with a famous musher we knew who had a new sled that I would like to borrow ASAP. I said I would call again from Rainy Pass to find out the answer. I did call, the answer was no, and I have never forgotten that feeling of rejection.
My foot gear was worse than the moldy tarp I was sleeping in. It was warm enough on the west side of the Alaska Range, but when I hit the east side, my toes were so cold they felt like they were on fire. Someone left behind a pair of bunny boots at Rainy Pass. I tried them without much success for a while but discarded them in a trapper's tent near the Pass. I switched back to my original boots and had to run most of the night to Farewell to keep circulation in my feet. That caused wet sweaty clothes, which also required me to keep running. In 1979 the FAA site was the checkpoint at Farewell. The lights of the checkpoint could be seen for hours before reaching there. I arrived there in a mess at 5:30 am. It was -30, but I was drenched from running all night, and completely disorganized. As I checked in, Ken Chase was checking out. He said, "take this room, I slept in it last night and no one cared." I moved in and stayed 24 hours. There was a common area nearby where others stayed but after I spent the first several hours sleeping, I remained in the bedroom which may have saved my bacon. I was able to dry my gear, sleep, feed and water myself, and take care of the dogs. In addition, through some miracle, my sled was waiting for me at Farewell. After the long break I switched sleds, reloaded and was off in about 50th place out of 56 starters. But the switch of sleds after a long rest inspired the whole team. By comparison to the other teams near us, we were flying along the trail.
There were other issues. One night in the mountains I crawled in the sled to snooze a minute, sitting up. I woke up some time later unable to feel the lower half of my body. For a moment I thought it was frozen solid, but soon learned I had cut off circulation by falling asleep while sitting up. I rolled out of the sled, struggled to stand up, and started jogging down the Iditarod trail to get feeling back in my legs.
Sleeping was not a problem. I brought my Setter into the sled every time I camped. I would put him in the front of the sled, drape my sleeping bag over him and crawl in. He would keep my legs warm and I would keep him warm. I can still recall the joy of falling asleep in -30 temperatures with my dog to keep me warm.
I fell in with a group of mushers who were about a day behind the lead pack. Our positions ranged from 25-35, and we became well acquainted. Included in our group were a couple of veteran racers Eep Anderson and Bud Smyth. Both provided a lot of help to the rookies. Once I passed Bud who had some kind of problem with his team. As I drew even with him he motioned to keep going. I looked down and his part-wolf dog Bimbo had Bud's arm in his mouth and wouldn't let go. Later he showed me the bite. It proved the dog had big teeth, and that Bud was a tough guy.
My only saving grace was an ability to watch others and learn. Before the race I had never used a bootie. Being back in the pack, there were booties laying around at checkpoints and I used some of them as I learned when they were needed. Many of my dogs wore no boots the whole race, and finished with perfect feet. Dogs from that era were not often allowed to reproduce if they had tender feet, and Rudy's dogs had feet like iron. In modern racing, most dogs wear booties all the time when racing.
Gradually I became aware that my team was actually stronger than most of the teams I was running with. In other words, the dogs were better than their driver. Moses, my main leader, started the race with a painful infection in his anal glands, but that didn't stop him from pulling the team out of every checkpoint when asked. As that infection cleared up, he became stronger and became the key to my team's performance. Nick, my spare leader, would speed up the team when he was at lead, but could only lead a few hours at a time before becoming depressed. I would turn him loose when we stopped and that would cheer him up. Later in the race, I would let him loose while we were running and he would range off the side of the trail and would come back fired up. He even chased a few rabbits for sport. He ended up leading about half the time.
Iditarod was the halfway point in the race, and was a low point for me. I arrived about 4 am and all the checkers were sleeping. I managed to wake one, and asked where water could be obtained. He said there was a hole in the ice in front of the checkpoint. I found the hole, and before getting dog water needed to quench an awful thirst. I was having a hard time getting enough fluids, because of poor planning and knowledge. I shined my headlight into the metal dipper I was using and discovered the water in the Iditarod river was dull yellow. It was -30. I had no choice but to drink several dippers full of that icy water. The cold chewy metallic flavor of that swamp water is a vivid memory today, and not a good one.
In the early years of the Iditarod, camping in homes was allowed. That started for me when I reached Shageluk. I hunted near Shageluk so I had buddies there. Francis, a handicapped person, was the official greeter in Shageluk. When I approached the village, I saw someone standing along the trail. It was Francis and he had walked out the trail to meet me. He was not able to communicate well but I could tell he was happy to see me and I greeted him warmly. I didn't know how far it was to the village. It took me about 45 minutes to reach the checkpoint. I estimate Francis walked about 5 miles out to greet me.
My wife Sue and others flew up from Bethel to greet me at Anvik. Rudy Demoski was my host, and to this day witnesses claim I ate all the spaghetti that was meant for several people at his house. I deny that charge.
Leaving Anvik I noticed that one of Rudy's dogs, a big hairy black dog named Monkey was limping after stepping in a moose hole coming into the village. Rudy said to take him 22 miles to Grayling to see how he looked. Monkey hopped out of Anvik on three legs but was soon using the fourth leg and looked good going into Grayling. That was about 500 miles from Nome. From there to the finish Monkey stiffened up at every stop, limped when we started and pulled hard after a couple of miles out of each checkpoint. Monkey's blood line was prominent in my later teams and still exists today in my yard. He is directly related to leaders who helped win races for Susan Butcher, Rick Swenson, and lately John Baker. He is the toughest dog I have ever used.
At Grayling I was treated to an overnight stay with Henry and Dolly Deacon. They invited my Setter into the house, and he slept with me on the couch. I got dinner and breakfast. Dean was there and he fed and cared for the dogs. It was damn hard to leave in the morning.
The long trip up the Yukon, against the wind, was a challenge. There were two highlights. At Blackburn, a small cabin was occupied by Rudy's cousins, the Thurmonds. The trail went by about 50 yards out from the bank. On a small stake, they had stapled a tiny note card that said food and coffee with a small arrow pointing to the left. Of course I stopped. I had my treats, at about 4 am, and asked how many mushers had stopped. I was not surprised to learn that everyone had followed that arrow.
Headed toward Kaltag, my feet were a problem with dropping temps. All of my gear was performing poorly. I had mostly down outer gear, and after a while the moisture built up, reducing the insulation value of the down. About 30 miles from Kaltag I noticed an old sled near the bank of the river. I needed to get off my sled to warm my feet, so I stopped to check it out. I dug through the sled and discovered an old pair of calf skin mukluks. I couldn't resist. I put them on, and left my boots for exchange. I wore those mukluks all the way to Nome, with warm feet. I thank the person who left them there, and at least can assure them they were put to good use.
Twice during the race parts of the group I was traveling with were stalled by trails that couldn't be followed at night time. The early Iditarod trail was lightly marked, often without reflectors. If the trail was covered with fresh snow, it was a waste of effort to try to poke around in the dark to find the trail. I am told that is no longer a problem in the modern Iditarod. The extra hours of rest were welcomed, even if the teams who made it through in the daylight were getting a big lead.
I traveled with Clarence Towarek during part of the race. Clarence was a pilot from Unalakleet, and a highly regarded outdoors person. We hit it off right away. Rural Alaskans look out for one another, and he noticed I was in need of a little advice on how to survive the Iditarod. He quietly showed me a few things about being on the trail. Around one campfire he said his village was looking for a city attorney. I told him to give me a call in a couple of weeks. He did, and I'm still their attorney. In fact the Iditarod has meant a lot of legal business for me over the years. I have represented several of the champions at one time or another, and several of my current clients are Iditarod veterans. At the end of the 2011 race, as Champion John Baker approached the burled arch, his sister commented, "Leave it to John, he has his former wife, his girlfriend, and his lawyer all waiting for him at the finish line."
When I arrived in Unalakleet after 15 days on the trail, I listened on the radio as Rick Swenson crossed the finish line. I called home to say it didn't look like I would be winning, but I figured to finish. By now, the routine of the race was sinking in, and it was becoming apparent that I had enough dog power to make it to the end. Even in the middle of the pack there was a friendly competitive spirit, and several in our group offered dinner in Nome to the one of our bunch who made it first.
Several of us pulled into Safety within a couple hours of each other. At that time the Safety Roadhouse, a bar, offered refreshments of various kinds for the mushers. The checkers pointed out that the first group of mushers didn't partake of the offerings. Not so with our group. I was there four hours and had a lot of everything that was offered. I probably shouldn't have headed out when I did, but Nome beckoned.
I arrived at about 4 am to a very small crowd. The highlight of the finish was to have my Setter in lead as we came up Front Street. One fellow stumbled out of the Board of Trade Saloon to toast me. When I got close, he got cold, and headed back in. My leader followed him, and I almost ended up in the bar. I finished 25th, a day behind the 24th place team and 3rd among the rookies. I beat all the teams running in my group, and some still owe me dinner. Shortly after I arrived I learned that my seven month pregnant wife had some trying times while I was plugging along the trail. The boiler for our home had malfunctioned and she spent one entire night in our outside utility room sitting in a lawn chair in front of the boiler, hitting the reset button every 15 minutes.
I came home from the race thinking Bethel should have a long distance race and that spring I called together a group of folks to organize the Kuskokwim 300. Of course the success of that race can be directly traced to my involvement in the Iditarod. What else are you supposed to do for 18 days on the back of a slow moving sled but plan for the future?
Rookie mushers today have many miles of racing experience, and they have the benefit of years of racing knowledge and technology that is available to them through seminars, rookie training sessions, magazines, and books. I had a mildewed tarp, some seriously tough dogs and one Red Setter. That plus a dose of good fortune, allowed me to finish the Last Great Race.