Mush! Mush! First Woman Wins Iditarod

On Wednesday, March 20, 1985, at 9:00 a.m., Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the dog-pulling sled race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Riddles checked into Safety, the last checkpoint before the finish line, many hours ahead of her nearest competitor. She raced with a thirteen-dog team through debilitating blizzards in 18 days, 20 minutes, and 17 seconds, and won $50,000. Riddles put the Iditarod on the map with her storybook win and her photo on the magazine covers and front pages of many newspapers. The next three Iditarods also were won by a woman, Susan Butcher, who in 1987, had a then record-breaking time of 11 days, 2 hours, and 5 minutes.

Dog Sled Arriving from Iditarod. January 12, 1912. Carpenter Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

The trail first began as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior mining camps at Flat, Ophir, Ruby, and beyond; and to the west coast communities including Unalakleet, White Mountain, and Nome. In 1925, part of the trail became the route for transporting emergency medical supplies to Nome, which was stricken by a diphtheria epidemic.

There were two short races on parts of the trail in 1967 and 1969; the annual race to Nome was first run officially in 1973. Called the “Last Great Race on Earth,” the Iditarod (pronounced eye-DIT-a-rod) to some extent follows the Knik to Nome dogsled mail and supply route of 1910.

The race consists of teams of twelve to sixteen dogs pulling a sled driven by a man or woman, called a “musher.” The trail involves treacherous climbs through the rugged Alaskan wilderness, and the race lasts for eight to twenty days in subzero temperatures, much of it in darkness and blinding winds. The musher might be able to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis; this is the most “daylight” in some arctic regions and northern plains.

Aurora Borie AliceExternal. By Samuel K. Stinger Jr., music; Walter Pierson Jr., lyrics; Philadelphia: Welch and Wilsky, 1909. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries

The route is alternated every other year. The 1,112-mile northern route, run in even years, has twenty-six checkpoints. The 1,131-mile southern route, run in odd years, has twenty-seven checkpoints. The Iditarod begins on the first Saturday in March. Since 1983, teams have left the start line in downtown Anchorage at the corner of 4th and ā€œDā€ streets, many aiming just to complete the race. Congress named the original Iditarod Trail a National Historic Trail in 1976.

The current journey along the National Millennium Trail takes the mushers over mountains (the Kuskokwim and Alaska ranges), through dense forests, and across frozen rivers (the Yukon for 150 miles), the Norton Sound pack ice, and desolate tundra. Mount McKinley (or “Denali,” meaning “The High One,” in the native Athapascan language), located in the Alaska Range, is North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet. GlaciersExternal are also a unique part of Alaska’s topography.

Tagish Indian known as Tagish Charley with dogsled, AlaskaExternal. Eric A. Hegg, photographer, ca 1898. American Indians of the Pacific NorthwestExternal. University of Washington Libraries

The challenges presented by these harsh conditions reflect Alaska’s heritage of survival in the midst of wild, untamed nature. The EskimosExternal[go to p.3] (native Indians of Alaska and other arctic regions) are part of this rich heritage and were conditioned to live on this tough land. Mushing dogsleds was their primary mode of transportation. Eskimos rely on many animals for their survival, including the walrus, seal, reindeer, whale, and polar bear. They use the entire animal ā€” for food, clothing, and shelter.

Many Americans studied the Eskimos in the 19th century, including naturalist E. W. Nelson, United States Special Indian Commissioner Vincent Colyer, and Knud Rasmussen, who was of Danish-Eskimo heritage. Most of these and other explorations occurred after U.S. Secretary of State William Seward brokered a deal to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7 million in 1867.

Map of the Alaskan Gold Fields. T. S. Lee, 1897. Transportation and Communication. Geography & Map Division

Ultimately, buying Alaska proved to be a very good move. Major discoveries of gold were made there in the 1880s and 1890s in the Klondike territory, east of the midsection of the Iditarod race route. The lure of gold was strong; it brought attention and people to Alaska. Further, it also was an invaluable strategic land asset during World War II.

Alaskans approved a referendum favoring statehood in 1946, ratified a state constitution in 1956, and President Eisenhower signed the proclamation admitting Alaska into the Union as the forty-ninth state on January 3, 1959. Today, petroleum transported across the state through a pipeline is Alaska’s richest mineral resource. In addition, military bases provide a major source of revenue for Alaska, as does the fishing industry; major catches include five species of salmon and three types of crab.

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