52 years of Iditarod and counting

Aunt Phil's Trunk

The two legendary visionaries who conceived the 1,049-mile race from Anchorage to Nome hardly could have imagined the success and changes that would happen over the next half century of the "Last Great Race."

In 1964, a history buff who lived in Wasilla had an idea. Dorothy Page, secretary of the Aurora Dog Mushers Club, saw that snowmachines were fast taking the place of dog teams and mushing. She thought a sled dog race on the historic Iditarod Trail, which originally began in Seward during the gold rush days and stretched to Knik, then on to the gold camp of Iditarod and eventually to Nome, might revitalize a longtime Alaska tradition. But Page knew that she would have to find a musher to share her dream before it could become reality.

She endured comments such as "are you crazy?" for two years, until she talked to Joe Reddington Sr. during a break at the Willow Winter Carnival sled dog races in 1966. Page explained her idea to the veteran musher, who had traveled over sections of the historic Iditarod Trail while homesteading near Flat Horn Lake.

His response, "I think that's a great idea!" has been echoed by hundreds of mushers from all parts of Alaska, the Lower 48, and even foreign countries ever since.

Fifty-eight mushers signed up to compete for $25,000 in prize money for the 1967 inaugural race. Since only nine miles of the trail had been cleared, the race ran from Knik to Big Lake on Saturday, and from Big Lake to Knik on Sunday, for a total of 56 miles. Isaac Okleasik, an Alaska Native from Teller on the Seward Peninsula north of Nome, won the "Iditarod Centennial Race."

Due to a lack of snow in 1968, a lack of money in 1969, and a lack of interest from 1970-1972, the race was put on hold. But the behind-the-scenes work continued as volunteers cleared the brush from both the Nome and Knik ends of the trail.

Finally, on March 3, 1973, amid the cheers of hundreds of well-wishers, 34 mushers left Anchorage headed for Nome in pursuit of not only a dream, but also $50,000 in prize money pledged by Reddington Sr.

Dick Wilmarth, a hard-working gold miner from the Interior village of Red Devil, crossed the finish line first. It took him 20 days, 49 minutes, and 41 seconds to travel the old winter trail that mushers hadn't used for 45 years.

Alternating every year between the southern route and the northern route, the current trails cross the Alaska Range, Kuskokwim Mountains, Nulato Hills and over 200 miles along the mighty Yukon River. Once the mushers take off from Knik, they leave civilization behind and only have small towns and villages such as Skwentna, Nikolai, Ophir, and Unalakleet to break the monotony of traveling in bone-chilling cold until they reach the historic Gold Rush town of Nome, perched on the shores of the Bering Sea.

It seems fitting that Ryan Redington, grandson of "the father of the Iditarod," was the first musher to cross under the burled arches in Nome on March 14, 2023, to win the 51st running of the great race with a time of 8 days, 21 hours, 12 minutes, and 58 seconds-less than half the time it took Wilmarth in that first race.

"It means everything to bring that trophy home. It's been a goal of mine since a very small child to win the Iditarod, and I can't believe it. It finally happened," Redington said in a story printed by the Anchorage Daily News.

He is the first Redington to win the race since his grandfather and Page conceived the idea more than half a century ago.

This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.

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