IDITAROD a novel of the Last Great Race is a story set on the cusp of the race becoming the modern professional sporting event. We can see the modern professional sporting event unfolding, follow it every step of the way with André at Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but the folk memory of the early race also deserves to be preserved, not only because it is mightily amusing.
Joe May, winner of the Iditarod in 1980, reminiscing in 2011, says:
In the long ago it was customary for Iditarod mushers to stop by McGuires bar when in McGrath... some stopped longer than others. Puddin Anderson played a wicked guitar and the brothers Anderson, Eep and Babe, if they weren't driving dogs in the race, and other willing locals, kept the party going until sunup... sometimes to the chagrin of party-prone mushers. The old building rocked with singing and laughter and the air was blue with smoke, cigarette and other. "So much for history and what's been lost in the fog of time".
Read the same scene from the 1990 novel IDITAROD a novel of the Last Great Race, reissued for ebooks in 2010.
Here's another amazing story from Iditarod champion Joe May, remembering in 2011:
Before Tokotna became an official checkpoint there was a customary whoop-up at the (only) saloon the night the race passed through. I blew my P-tex runners just shy of town one year and needing a warm place to work ended up changing runner shoes in the bar room, on top of the pool table, in the midst of the party. A domestic dispute raged at one end of the bar and there was as much beer in the air as in the glasses. A half dozen helpful drunks helped me slathering glue on the runners..cigarettes and a lighted propane torch waving around in the explosive fumes. I don't know how we didn't blow up the building. "We" eventually finished the job and got the sled out the door amid a lot of "thank you's and "good lucks", re-hitched the dogs, and headed up the trail for Ophir...a little ahead of Herbie and waaaay ahead of Swenson.
But this has to be the favorite Joe May story of all time:
Ernie Baumgartner, Herbie Nayukpuk, and I slept on the floor of the tiny checkpoint cabin at Ophir in 1980, far ahead of the rest of the field. The checker, radio operator, and cook slept on cots against the walls. Herbie, being the gentleman that he was, woke me in the 3am darkness and asked if Ernie and I wanted to race to Cripple for the half way money. I said, "If we race we could trash our teams for a few dollars and none of us could win the race. You go, get the money. We'll follow in an hour." Ernie concurred. Herbie went, collected the half way money, and eventually finished the race in 2nd place. Ernie finished a respectable third, and I ultimately won the race. Trophies end up in attics, prize money gets spent, but the satisfaction of crossing Alaska by dog team "in the company of gentlemen" is indelible. Breaking Emmitt's record and finishing a day ahead of Swenson didn't hurt either.
On the other hand, you can't top a conversation with Leonhard Seppala:
Some history: Midway between Ophir and Iditarod in 1979, on a windswept tundra desert bisecting the Beaver Mountains, I sheltered the team in a shallow gulley through a long night with leaders sick from rancid dog food. I lay on a snow shelf hacked in the sidehill beside a puny fire of scrub spruce while wind wistled over the trench like a pan flute. It was eerie... the nearest team 90 miles behind me in Tokotna and the nearest human 30 miles ahead in Iditarod. I nursed sick dogs with warm beaver broth through the night.
Overdue when I finally reached Iditarod, someone asked why I was late.
I said, "I was out on the Beavers having a conversation with Leonard Seppala last night."
Seppala had been dead for 12 years.
Not at all surprised, the checker said, "What did Leonard say?"
I replied, "He said I was going too damn slow."
Mushers weren't always rewarded like superstar athletes. Says Joe May:|
I just looked at the arithmetic. 13th place this year pays almost exactly my total "lifetime" Iditarod winnings. In all 4 races I finished well in the money including a win. Don't know if I should laugh or cry.
Not all was fierce rivalry on the trail or off:
Whether through shared hardship, human chemistry, or serendipity, lifelong bonds are often forged between mushers on the trail. In a personal instance the bond was celebrated in a most original way. Herbie Nayukpuk, a friend, named an obnoxious wheel dog Terry Adkins. Terry, another friend, had a wheel dog named Joe May. I drove a wheel dog named Herbie. The dog in the attached photo is Herbie. I think he was making an acceptance speech at the finish banquet.
Joe May on the extraordinary 2011 race while it was still happening, with John Baker taking an odd break at Shastoolik during which his competitors caught up:
Some impressions today tell me this may be an extraordinary ending. Might be wrong..been there before..and predictions can look silly in as little as a day; But, There's been no brutal weather the entire race to challenge the dogs physical condition. No headwinds or blown trail on the river to Kaltag which is the norm and demoralizes both dogs and drivers. My impression is that these teams are reaching the Coast in a rare state of mental and physical condition. From musher interviews on the evening news it looked as though a line has been crossed where the dogs are now stronger than the mushers. Has happened in the past but not to this many teams traveling this close together i.e. the restart at Iditarod. Mushers are punchy..they mumble and stumble and the dogs look terrific. The facetious vernacular is; "from here on the dogs can destroy the drivers. The winner may cross the finish line dragging behind his sled".
Joe May on those nice little lapdoggies at the front end of an Iditarod team:
Lest anyone think sled dogs are house pets, imagine driving an outfit like this down the Happy River steps or the Dalzell Gorge in the dark of night. The dogs have absolutly no regard for the life and limbs of the person on the sled. In the heat of a downhill run, "WHOA!" or, more aptly, "WHOA, YOU S.O.B's", repeated over and over in a pleading voice translates to, "YIPEEEE..LET'S KILL THE TURKEY". I had major empathy with and much admiration for Rick Swenson this year when he did the Dalzell with one arm. That's spitting in the eye of the dragon and living to see another sunrise.
Joe May on the adventurer Norman "Dream Big & Dare to Fail" Vaughan, whose Iditarod runs are another story...
The leader that got Norman to Nome the first time, Boris, was a dog pound refugee my sons trained on the trap line. We gave him to Norman along with a bombproof sled a friend here built for him. Boris was the leader Norman used to haul the Pope across the Anchorage airport. He tried to sign up the Vatican as a sponsor. Norman was a friend... and a character of the first waters.