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It was Redington who insisted that the 1967 Iditarod race should have a whopping $25,000 purse, befitting the centennial. To assure it, he offered a sliver of his homestead to raise $10,000 and mortgaged the balance to get $15,000 more—and would have been foreclosed if the state had not bailed him out. Although he was almost bagged on the first go, Redington kept campaigning for an endurance race on the old Iditarod Trail. In the early 1970s, at get-togethers, he proposed a round-trip race over the section of trail between the dying town of Knik and the totally dead town of Iditarod—distance, 800 miles; purse, $50,000. Many mushing enthusiasts demurred, logically because such an epic event should begin in a big city like Anchorage, not in Knik, and because Iditarod at the far end was an unheard-of, nowhere place, not likely to ring a bell, and certainly not a bell on anybody's cash register. "All right, we won't stop at Iditarod," Redington replied to doubters. "You have all heard of Nome, and you know where Nome is. We will go all the way to Nome." And so it was that the 1,150-mile ordeal from Anchorage to Nome originated and has survived, although nobody connected with the business end of it has ever been too sure where the next dollar was coming from. Colonel Marvin (Muktuk) Marston, who in the crisis years of World War II mushed more than a thousand miles organizing Alaska's first home guard, kicked in $10,000 for the first race. Bruce Kendall, a hotel proprietor and part-time politician, signed a note for $30,000. A mushing schoolteacher, Dan Seavey from the Kenai, turned back half of the $6,000 he won for third place in the 1973 Iditarod race to keep the affair going. El Paso Alaska, a natural-gas company, put $15,000 into the second race. More than $15,000 was raised by bingo and a lottery based on the time of the first finisher. Atlantic Richfield, one of the companies with a stake in the Alaska pipeline, spent more than $70,000 for the third race.
The Iditarod Trail Race became an instant classic because of the public spirit of titans and plain folks, and it will survive only for that reason. There is no other major sporting event staged anywhere in a setting more spectacular than that of the Iditarod, nor any so perfectly designed not to break even at the turnstiles. Any concessionaire thinking to turn a few bucks parking cars or selling hot dogs along the Iditarod Trail should forget it. A cafe in Knik, which serves as the first checkpoint 60 miles from the starting line in Anchorage, does a good business from spectators as the teams pass through, but once the mushers leave Knik, they virtually leave the human race. Susitna Station, the next checkpoint 38 miles from Knik, has a standing population of 20, and so does Skwentna, the third checkpoint 45 miles farther along. At the Finger Lake checkpoint 193 miles from Anchorage the population is two: Gene Leonard and his wife June. Forty miles farther, where the trail passes into the first steep rises of the Alaska Range at Puntilla Lake, the population jumps to three because Allan and Ann Budzynski now have a kid. Three hundred and six miles from Anchorage at Rohn Road-house, beyond the windy horrors of Hell Gate in the middle of the Alaska Range, there is usually nobody (and no longer a roadhouse).
Counting the 581 people in the big town of Galena on the Yukon and the 271 in McGrath on the Kuskokwim River and every Athabascan Indian in the river towns of Ruby, Nulato, Koyukuk and Kaltag, and counting also Tex Gates, who is the total population of Bear Creek, and adding to that number every sober and` half-sober citizen in the supposedly dry town of Unalakleet, and every Eskimo, half Eskimo and half-frozen European in Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Golovin and the other towns lying on the barren grounds westward to the Bering Sea—all told there are not quite 4,000 people living along the resurrected Iditarod Trail between greater Anchorage and distant Nome.
Although it does not pass within 100 miles of most Alaskans, the race ties the state together emotionally and in fact. Some of the mushers who compete in the Iditarod, like some of their dogs, are pure-blood—Eskimo, Athabascan or European. Others are one-half this and a quarter that. The teams come from over by the Canadian border and the Kenai and the Eskimo lands of the north and far west, from half a dozen small towns outside Anchorage, from the Susitna drainage, and from a dozen Athabascan towns on the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Koyukuk and Tanana rivers. The first race in 1973 was won by Richard Wilmarth, a white miner from Red Devil, who had not mushed for 10 years. The second race was won by Carl Huntington, a three-quarters Athabascan originally from the Koyukuk; the third by Emmitt Peters, a? ths Athabascan from Ruby on the Yukon. The musher who has compiled the best record over three years—a fifth, a third and a fourth—is Herbie Nayokpuk, an Eskimo from Shishmaref on the Chukchi Sea.
The best performer, man or beast, in the three marathons to date is a 9-year-old mongrel named Nugget, a small winsome bitch that is some part husky and God knows what else. Nugget was the lead dog of the winning team in 1974, racing admirably for Huntington except for one three-mile scamper off the trail after a moose. Last year, leading the team mushed by her proper owner, Peters, this wonder bitch of the far north was again first over the line, averaging 79 miles a day for 14� days. Peters had started out with Nugget and 11 other dogs, five of which were her offspring from two litters. He dropped four tired dogs in the first 350 miles and another with a cut foot at Solomon on the Seward Peninsula. Somewhere in the last 200 miles Nugget became pregnant again. Despite her motherly condition and a tumor on one breast, she was strong across the finish line, still leading her five offspring and a plodding wheel dog named Pete. You most assuredly do not get that kind of gritty, family togetherness in highfalutin horse racing.
From long day to long day on the trail, a musher does not know what trouble may assail him. Sometimes it is the obvious: foul weather with winds over 40 knots that drive the snow horizontally, wiping out the trail and pushing the chill factor down to minus-120�. It can be pneumonia in the musher's lungs or diarrhea in his dogs. Fatigue often turns the ordeal into wry comedy. Ken Chase, a musher from Anvik, remembers the weary fumbling of Rayme Redington, second eldest son of the founder, in the middle of the 1974 race. "When he camped near me," Chase says, "Rayme was trying to put pine tar on his dogs' feet, but he was so groggy he was getting it all over the dogs and more of it on himself. If I had thrown a bag of feathers at him, he would have looked like a turkey." In 1975, as musher Darrell Reynolds moved through the night, in the light of his lamp the gaunt spruce crowding the trail began to look like beautiful women, so much so that he gave a few a cordial pat on the bumps, as gallant Italians are wont to do to the fair sex. The record for frustrated slumber en route belongs without question to Alan Perry, an Anchorage musher who literally ran behind his dogs more than a third of the way. While riding the runners over one 40-mile stretch between Farewell and Salmon River, Perry fell asleep six times, on each occasion tipping his sled over and awakening in deep powder.
A musher's bugaboo on a given day may be the work of God or an illusion of his own tired mind. On other days it may come in very real form, as a wolf, or much more likely as a moose or a human idiot on a snow machine. Two lead dogs owned by Sandy Hamilton of Allakaket on the Koyukuk never made it to the start of the 1975 race because a rogue wolf snatched them off the picket line back home. In 1974, on the night of his 27th day out of Anchorage, Tim White of Minnesota (the only musher from the lower 48 states to compete in the Iditarod) was a cinch to finish 20th, the last money place, until a snowmobiler boiling along the shelf ice of the Bering Sea just 18 miles from Nome struck him from behind, cutting up his legs and injuring his wheel dog. The race committee voted to award White 20th place although he was carried the last 18 miles.
In the Firecracker 400 or the Stink-bomb 200 or any stock-car classic, when Richard Petty and David Pearson have been dicing along barely a rumpled car-body apart, have they ever gotten the yellow flag because a stray cow was on the track? Never. In the Iditarod race the moose is forever blundering onstage. Tired of wandering belly-deep in snow, moose often get on the sled trail and punch holes through the crust deep enough to trip a dog. In the 1975 race, within 14 miles of the starting line two moose leapt right over dog teams, creating a furor and a nasty tangle. Two days later and 120 miles farther along, the four leading teams were held up more than half an hour because a truculent moose would not let them pass.
Since it is the sort of prolonged misery that requires a plastic imagination, after only three years the Iditarod race is already rich in lore. An exorbitant part of the saga now circulating in and outside Alaska involves a lead dog named Fat Albert, a bushy-tailed, luxuriously coated Siberian-Malamute that has done for the Iditarod pretty much what Babe Ruth did for Ruppert's stadium in the Bronx. The world loves imperfect heroes. It matters not whether the Babe ever pointed to center field and sent the next pitch that way. The vision of him taking a swat, then mini-stepping around the bases on skittle legs with some of his stomach hanging over his belt is memory enough. Like the Babe, Fat Albert is a Rabelaisian figure with a lot of clout.
Fat Albert's march to fame began before the first race when his owner, Rod Perry (brother of the Perry who holds the Iditarod record for falling off a sled), was working his team on a small course in Anchorage. On a day when Fat Albert was riding on the front of the sled because of a hurt paw, a veteran musher, Orville Lake, who serves as a radio commentator at many mushy events, pointed at the couchant dog and asked, "What is that?"