The sled dog is, in racing terms, a router. Distance is its bag. A thoroughbred horse prepping for a stakes race rarely works out more than 15 miles a week, easily galloping, breezing or blowing. A sled team often runs that far the day before a race simply to get to the starting line. Without a doubt, in a quarter-mile sprint against a greyhound and a thoroughbred, the sled dog would come in last. The fastest of them probably cannot hit 33 miles an hour unhampered by a sled, whereas a thoroughbred with a human on its back exceeds 40, and greyhounds do about 38.
But as the distance lengthens, the greyhound and horse come back to the husky. Since any sled race less than six miles is considered appropriate only for three-dog teams driven by kids, there are few meaningful sled-dog clockings for the runty distances that greyhounds and horses travel. However, in the annual North American Championships in Fairbanks, any dog team that cannot hit 20 miles an hour for the first four miles of the opening heat and average 16 for the whole 70 miles has little chance.
Beyond 25 miles, strictly on a power-to-weight ratio, the sled dogs are certain winners. At 50 miles, as best one can extrapolate from the few clockings available, a thoroughbred carrying a jockey about 1/10th its weight can average about 12 miles an hour. Dog teams totaling about half the weight of a horse and hauling twice as much have gone 65 miles at the same speed. The best clocking of certain record for a horse for 100 miles is 11 hours, four minutes. Two years ago a dog team mushed by Joe Redington Jr., of Knik, Alaska, covered 120 miles in 11 hours and two minutes.
Nearly 70 years ago, when placer gold was plentiful and worth sluicing at $20.67 an ounce, Nome, the Sodom of the north, staged an annual sled race called the All Alaska Sweepstakes. The course meandered from Front Street in the heart of sprawling Nome to the lesser mining town of Candle on the arctic side of the Seward Peninsula—408 miles round trip over Godforsaken terrain that brought out the best in sled teams and the worst in some of their backers. Toward the end of the 1909 race, pistol-packing patrons of the sport reportedly persuaded a musher driving imported Siberian huskies not to improve his third-place position. The following year somebody moved some of the trail markers. In the 1915 race somebody left a coat studded with porcupine quills under new snow on the trail.
Despite the hanky-panky, the All Alaska Sweepstakes had two worthy effects. For one, it gave the people of bibulous Nome something other than alcohol to think about in the winter. (Even today, when race fever has the town, a sure way to empty a Nome bar is to yell through the door, "Dog team on Front Street.") The Sweepstakes also improved the breed. The Siberian huskies in the 1909 race were the first in Alaska, and whether their third place was enforced or not, they were so impressive that three more teams were imported for the next go-around.
From the loose old Nome days until recently, sled-dog competition was confined largely to shorter stints. The world championship staged annually in Anchorage consists of three 25-mile heats on consecutive days; the annual North American in Fairbanks has two 20-milers and a 30-miler. Three years ago, as a result of general enthusiasm and an all-out effort by a select few, a marathon event was born equal to the heroic proportions of the state. The race, a 1,150-mile gut-buster that starts in Anchorage and finishes in Nome, is worthy of the best Alaskans, men, women and dogs, but it is oddly named. From a promotional point of view it might have been called the New Alaska Sweepstakes or possibly the Yukon Marathon, since 140 miles of the course runs on the frozen back of the big river. It is called instead the Iditarod Trail Race, although probably not one in five Alaskans knows what Iditarod is or ever was.
Iditarod today is an obsolete dot on the map, situated on a winding tributary of a winding tributary of the winding Yukon. In the early 1900s Iditarod boomed briefly as a gold town and died without a whimper, barely known. Its name lingers only because it was once a central point on the long dog-sled trail that in winter connected icebound Nome with the ice-free port of Seward in southern Alaska. The Iditarod race was conceived and named for an abandoned trail through a dead town because nine years ago Dorothy Page, secretary of the Aurora Dog Mushers in the almost dead town of Knik, thought there should be a special sled race in 1967, the centennial of the Alaska Purchase. As a test of man and dog, the Iditarod race of 1967 was the usual modern "sprint" affair: two 25-mile heats run a short way over the historic trail. But the purse offered, $25,000, was more than twice that of the world championship and attracted twice as many competitors. The Iditarod race might have ended as a costly, one-shot affair except that the management of it passed to a transplanted Oklahoman named Joe Redington Sr., who in his years has more than adequately proved that anything he gets into is apt to get out of hand.
Redington, now known as the father of the Iditarod race, was born and bred a gypsy. Tagging after a father who off and on was a farmer, cattleman, roustabout, hunting guide and basketmaker, Redington spent some of his boyhood in the seamy parts of big cities and more of it in little towns like Kingfisher, Okla., Kintnersville, Pa. and Spearman, Texas. During World War II, when almost everybody settled down to his assigned task, Redington was as much a gypsy as ever. He started in the horse artillery, then got into a motorized unit, later became a flying sergeant and after that a paratrooper. From that lofty pinnacle he sidestepped into airborne artillery and finally saw action on le Shima at ground zero in a heavy tank battalion.
During his boyhood Redington had many plain dogs, most of them named Pal. After the war, when he headed for Alaska with the usual dreams of an outsider, he had six sheepdogs with him, but as soon as he crossed the Canadian border he started collecting hand-me-down huskies, notably a bitch named Dodger that straightaway dropped 11 pups. To help make his way at first in Alaska, Redington winked slightly at the provisions of the G.I. Bill, which allowed $100 a month to any homesteading ex-serviceman who owned livestock and attended a husbandry course. Although 46 dogs were his total stock, Redington dutifully went to husbandry class and ended up leading it in one test. When asked to bring in milk from one of his dairy cows for evaluation, Redington turned in a sample from a bitch that had recently littered. Since the nutrient solids in canine milk exceed what any prize cow puts out, Redington won the protein and butterfat competitions going away.
In the 1950s, of all Redington's odd jobs, the one of most pertinence today was a search for a section of the old Iditarod Trail, which the military wanted to reactivate. Disregarding 50-year-old maps and often dog-sledding less than a mile a day through second growth, Redington and an Army crew were able to retrace more than 100 miles of the old trail by blazes still showing after half a century. Redington kept a daily log on every dog he owned and mushed. By 1961, when he eased up on his bookkeeping because it was crowding his living space, the total number of dogs was more than 2,400. "I just naturally like dogs," he said.