How the Iditarod Sleddog Race Came to Be


The Collins sisters travel many miles across Alaska each year.

The Collins sisters travel many miles across Alaska each year.

THE IDITAROD BEGAN WITH A RUN FROM ANCHORAGE TO NOME TO DELIVER DIPHTHERIA SERUM IN 1925.

Every March, sled dog racers and fans alike head to Alaska for the Iditarod race, begun in 1973 in recognition of the 1925 diphtheria serum run. From Anchorage to Nome, this race covers over 1100 miles of harsh, frozen land ranging from mountain passes, thick forests and vast tundra, and tests the endurance of each driver and their dogs. Mushers come from all walks of life, from artists, attorneys, carpenters, fishermen, and guidance counselors, and from many countries, including Canada, Norway, France and Switzerland, all to experience the “last great race.” Each has their own reason for competing, whether for the personal challenge, the connection with the past, or simply for the adventure. Each too, has their own story of why they are there, competing not only against the weather and terrain, but also with themselves.

Historian Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. worked together to organize the first race in 1967. The Iditarod started as a short, 50 mile race along the Iditarod trail to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The first year, an Eskimo from Teller, AK,  Isaac Okleaskik, won. There was insufficient snow to hold a race in 1968, but the second race, held in 1969, was won by George Attla, an Athabascan Indian. Page suggested expanding the race from 50 to 500 miles, from Wasilla to the historic ghost town of Iditarod, but Redington and other friends pointed out that there was nothing for the racers to race to. Why not race from Anchorage to Nome, more than 1,000 miles away? This would give racers a place to race to, and also commemorate the 1925 diphtheria run.

Redington was also worried about the decline of sled dog use in favor of snow machines and worried that sled dogs would become obsolete. The goal of establishing the Iditarod Sled Dog Race was to encourage sled dog use and to preserve the dog’s role in the history of Alaska. Although many at the time did not see a purpose or need for the Last Great Race, with Redington’s promise of a $50,000 waiting in Nome, thirty-four teams left Anchorage to run a trail no one had used in forty-eight years. Of the twenty-two teams that finished the race that year, Richard Wilmarth finished triumphantly in 20 days, 49 minutes and 41 seconds.

As stated in Mary H. Hood’s book, A Fan’s Guide to the Iditarod, “In 1992, at age seventy-four, Redington completed his eighteenth Iditarod and announced he planned to pursue other interests. Since then, Redington has led groups of tourists who mush along the trail behind the last of the competitors. Dorothy Page came to the end of her trail in 1989, having seen her local centennial celebration blossom into an international sporting event. Appropriately, her funeral procession was led by dog team. The first running of the Iditarod in 1973 was dedicated to the memory of Leonhard Seppala; the 1990 Iditarod was dedicated to its founding mother, Dorothy Page. In 1991, the spirit of the Iditarod Award, honoring a person who demonstrated the ideals of the Iditarod and whose life and guiding philosophy to preserve that spirit for future generations, was presented to Joe Redington, Sr. Now celebrating its third decade, the Last Great Race is testimonial to the spirit of these “impractical” dreamers.”

The late Bill Vaudrin, 1975 Iditarod finisher and author of Racing Alaskan Sled Dogs, said that “The Iditarod appeals to everything in me. There’s some parts you’ll never lose about waking up in your sled in the morning hundreds of miles out on the trail, with eight to ten of your favorite dogs staked out around you in the snow for company; rousing yourself up to start a fire, and passing your eyes over all the incredible country stretched out to the horizon in every direction…maybe you pick out a pale green mountain in the distance, and warm your insides with the assurance that before you camp again, you’ll be on the other side of it looking back.”

All of this and more can be found in Mary H. Hood’s very informative book published by Alpine Publications, A Fan’s Guide to the Iditarod

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