Long Hard Trails & Sled Dog Tales

My Adventures in Tracking Dogteams Across Alaska and What I Learned Along the Way

This week’s book excerpt is the opening chapter of the book published in 2014 by my Northern Light Media, which also publishes Alaskan History Magazine. The book is “a memoir of sorts, an adventure story to be sure, and a look at what it’s like to follow a champion sled dog racing team across thousands of miles of Arctic wilderness.” You can learn more about the book and order a copy at this link.

”It’s a dog race and anything can happen...”

–Lance Mackey

Chapter One

McCabe Creek, Yukon Territory

It’s three AM in the middle of nowhere and Donna is determinedly nodding off in the driver’s seat; it’s my turn to watch for them. I scan the dark snowy landscape outside the car, note that all the black shadows are still in their proper places, and go back to watching the northern lights shimmer across the sky.

The colors are almost unreal: mauve, teal, an occasional flare of amber gold. People have said they make noise... I wonder if one could really hear them out here in this land where there’s no sound. I slowly become aware that a few favorite lines of Service are echoing through my mind, and I smile, as they’ve always made me smile: “With the northern lights a- runnin’ wild...”

No, waitaminute, that’s not Service, silly. Horton. Johnny Horton, John Wayne, North to Alaska and all that...

I fret about something I read once, centuries old folklore which held that some ancient peoples of northern Europe cautioned against singing about the northern lights lest they become angry and attack the singer. But surely they wouldn’t get upset about my silently thinking the lyrics to myself.

Besides, the northern lights in the song were dancing over some faraway country, “just a little southeast of Nome.” We’ll get there in a few weeks, but first we need to follow the Iditarod, and before that, this Yukon Quest...

It’s getting cold in the car. Where the hell are those guys? C’mon, Lance...

Donna and I were on the road to cover the 2008 Yukon Quest sled dog race. It had taken weeks of long nights on the computer, emails flying back and forth, researching website after website of trail maps, checkpoint listings, mileages and driving times between cities and villages and checkpoints, learning about the typical weather in February in the Yukon Territory, all to nail down a plan, an itinerary, to make the well-advised reservations for lodging in the only-guessed-at timeframes we’d been given.

Donna was heading into a land she’d never seen before, but I started with at least a bare-bones knowledge of the route, having traversed it a few summers previously with my daughter Jody, then 25. With no schedule to keep and with picture-perfect weather, Jody and I had taken our time, stopping to explore everything that caught our attention, to read the historical signs and to enjoy just being in that big, wide open land. We read Robert Service poems aloud and thrilled to be in the very country where he’d penned his best-loved lines.

I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay; It was jammed in the ice but I saw in a trice, it was called the ‘Alice May.’

I knew there wasn’t much where we were going; I knew the Klondike Highway ran hundreds of miles through sparsely populated country; it would be wise to chart a cautious path, and to think twice before passing an open gas station in February.

The white land locked tight as a drum.

I knew Dawson City was going to be a highlight of the trip, a treasure trove for a couple of history buffs, a gold rush town still a little rough around the edges.

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malemute Saloon...

I knew the weather this far north could turn on a dime, and the temperature could easily drop to minus 50 and stay there.

On a Christmas day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail. Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.

I knew I was going back to a country I’d loved for almost as long as I could remember, and I’d travelled the southern part of it, the Alaska Highway, since I was 15; the land of Sergeant Preston and Yukon King, Jack London and the Bard of the Yukon.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless, and the rivers all run God knows where...

No question about those being the lines of Robert Service.

We were about six months into the video production business when Mark and I decided maybe we’d gotten ahead of ourselves. We really didn’t know anything about producing or selling videos, yet here we were with a little 45 minute video that was steadily getting good reviews but not exactly selling briskly. We felt confident we could edit all our good race footage and interviews into a powerful second video, but we needed more good footage of sled dogs actually racing, and we needed to figure out the distribution game a little better. Producing good videos was only half of the equation; we needed to be able to sell them if we wanted to stay in the game and create more videos about sled dog racing and Alaskan history.

Still, while we didn’t know a lot about videos, we did have almost thirty years of publishing experience under our belts; we knew how to publish award-winning books, and how to sell them. We reasoned that videos couldn’t be that much different. But the one recurring criticism of our first video was that there weren’t enough dogs in it – we needed more film of dogs racing, resting, eating, being harnessed and unharnessed, loaded into dogtrucks, unloaded from dogtrucks, and running. The Yukon Quest, with many of the checkpoints accessible by road, was the perfect place to get the additional footage we needed.

A year previously we’d decided to write a book about the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and I thought the experience of being out on the Quest trail might provide good perspective for that project as well. I knew a thing or two about the original running of the now world-famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, because 35 years before I’d been living in an old log cabin near Wasilla, and I’d dropped in on a few organizational meetings, which were often held in the back room of the Kashim restaurant. I knew a couple of the people involved with the preliminary efforts to get the Iditarod off the ground, and I did some legwork to help raise money and garner publicity for the race. I talked it up to a writer friend at the Anchorage Times newspaper, and finally one afternoon I dragged him out to Knik to meet my dad’s friend, Joe Redington, who was happy to chew his ear off about how the plans were coming together.

My friend wrote a couple of good articles, which probably helped a bit, but unfortunately he couldn’t see the true significance of it all, and not long after that we drifted off in separate directions. I sent a query letter to National Geographic, advising them that the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was going to be a historic event and they should send writers and photographers to cover it. They thanked me but politely declined my hot tip, which I always figured was their loss. I kept their rejection slip for many years as my own weird little trophy of the initial race.

It’s funny what comes back to you after three decades. Snippets of conversation, pieces of memory floating about like jigsaw puzzle pieces with no puzzle to fit into. I recall a meeting at the Kashim when the discussion was what the drivers should carry in their sleds for the trip. The looming question seemed to be whether or not they should be required to carry a gun. No one questioned whether or not it should be an option, only whether it should be mandatory gear. I don’t recall the outcome, and I don’t know what the rules are today regarding firearms on the trail, but I remember sitting there at that long table in the back room and listening to the earnest conversation of those trail-hardened men.

In early December of 2006 the sled dog racing world lost a giant of a musher when Herbie Nayokpuk, known as “The Shishmaref Cannonball,” passed away. Herbie had run the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973, coming into a very respectable fifth place finish behind Dick Wilmarth, Dan Seavey, Bobby Vent, and George Attla; and just ahead of Issac Okleasik, Dick Mackey and the rest of an illustrious field of mushing pioneers. Iditarod Hall of Fame nomination committee member John Larson said, ''If I had to chose one heart, it would be Herbie's. If I could only meet one Iditarod musher ever -- Herbie again. This Eskimo from Shishmaref was everything that was good about the Iditarod: tough, strong, savvy, kind. No one was more respected on the trail, and his team was a thing of beauty to see.''

Herbie Nayokpuk’s passing reminded many of us that the original mushers were becoming lost and forgotten in the escalating glamour and glitz of the now world-class race, and that loss was underscored the following spring when jazz musician-turned-musher Barry MacAlpine, another of the original 1973 mushers who started for Nome, perished when his cabin burned to the ground. That was in June, 2007 in Chugiak, just north of the Anchorage suburb of Eagle River. Barry MacAlpine didn’t finish that first Iditarod, being one of the 14 mushers who scratched that year, but ten years later, in 1983, one of his sons, Norman MacAlpine, completed his run in 21 days, becoming the first black man to successfully finish the Last Great Race.

As I read the many glowing tributes to Herbie, and then read about Barry’s sad passing, I found myself remembering two other people who were no longer around to talk about the first race, Joe and Vi Redington. My parents were casual friends with the Redingtons, seeing them around Wasilla occasionally, but always sharing some time when they bumped into each other, which usually meant mom and Vi rifling through the local Salvation Army store for nifty treasures while dad and Joe swapped tales as they waited outside.

Joe didn’t run his big race that first year because he was too busy orchestrating the event and trying to secure funding for the finisher’s purse. His son Raymie was tasked with taking Joe’s team from Anchorage to Knik as a kind of Redington presence in the race, and he was expected to drop out at that point, but he didn’t. Brian Patrick O’Donoghue later explained what happened: Raymie Redington, the race-organizer's son, was only supposed to drive his father's team as far as Knik. But the 28- year-old musher couldn't bring himself to quietly bow out of the historic event.

’I started with nine dogs and they was running so good I decided to keep going,’ Raymie Redington recalls. ‘But I wasn't packed or anything, I didn't have nothing.’

Raymie and Joe’s team did eventually scratch that first year, but the following year, 1974, saw Raymie place seventh, and he ran the race another ten times after that. His brother Joee, a world champion sprint musher, took ninth place in 1974, and third place in 1975. Joe Redington Sr. ran his own team in the 1974 race, and in the next 18 years he only missed one Iditarod. He placed in the Top Ten seven times, placing fifth four times, and in 1979 Joe and his friend Susan Butcher made an unprecedented trek, taking their dogteams to the top of Mt. McKinley.

And then there was Vi. My mom always said Violet Redington reminded her of her sister Phyllis, having the same quiet, almost shy demeanor, while under the surface roiled a feisty, perky personality. The obituary for Vi in the Frontiersman newspaper, April 2, 2006, noted her importance to the race:

'A dog race to Nome is impossible' seemed to be the general consensus of everyone around. But a few hardy (many would say foolhardy) souls, led and inspired by Joe Redington Sr. and supported all the way by Vi, made it happen. Though not officially known as the ‘mother’ of the Iditarod, few would argue that Vi was the matriarch of the event - hosting, sometimes tolerating, musher after musher in her never-locked home in Knik and in various cabins, including a much-loved place in the Petersville Hills.

For one who’d been there when it all got started, it seemed like a good idea to me to start collecting the stories from the mushers who wanted to tell them, so Mark and I began searching for any 1973 Iditarod mushers still living, and of the original 38 who started, we located over a dozen. It didn’t seem like many, but it was a start.

When word got around that Mark and I were working on a book about the 1973 Iditarod, our friend Donna Quante said she was interested in developing a companion film, and we entered a loose partnership to produce a book and DVD set on the first race to Nome. Donna had recently retired from broadcast television with three Emmy awards under her belt; and she had produced her first independent video, about the Iditarod musher Karen Ramstead, whose “Pretty Sled Dogs” all-Siberian Husky team was a crowd favorite. Donna lived just up the road from us, in Willow, and her easygoing attitude and experiences with her growing family of huskies made it fun to spend hours talking with her about mushing related ideas and projects.

Donna and I spent several months interviewing and videotaping mushers who had ridden their sleds up to the starting line of the first Iditarod: Alex Tatum, Ken Chase, Ford Reeves, Mike Schreiber, Bill Arpino, Dave Olson... Their riveting tales of the trail always left us wanting more – and wondering how we would ever fit everything we wanted to include into a single book and video. Each musher we talked with was delighted to answer my questions and share his memories, sometimes talking for several minutes without any prompting when he came to an especially interesting section of the trek.

Ken Chase, who lived in Anvik, met us at his brother’s lakeside home north of Wasilla and we talked for a couple of hours. He told us about the kinds of runners used on the mushers’ sleds and how they searched in vain for the trail, which had been marked by spray painting on the snow. The wind had covered the spray paint, so the mushers would brush the snow off until they located the telltale marks again, but eventually they lost the trail completely...

Donna and I drove to Denali Park’s Glitter Gulch to interview Ford Reeves and Mike Schreiber, who had teamed up as one of three two-musher entrants in the first race to Nome. Ford, owner of a large gift shop and theater in the touristy Gulch district just outside the park entrance, laughed as he told of their heavily overburdened sled finally getting the best of them, and hiking 50 miles to notify race officials that they were scratching. While he was gone Mike stayed warm with a fire which melted down through the heavy snowfall until Ford returned to find his buddy several feet lower than when he’d left him!

In his Anchorage office Alex Tatum - the first black man to sign up for the Iditarod - explained with a warm, infectious grin how he navigated the route across the Palmer Hayflats, and why he was disqualified when he arrived at the Knik checkpoint minus two of his dogs.

Dave Olson and his wife welcomed us into their Knik home and brought out photo albums and framed pictures. Over coffee Dave told us some of the most interesting ‘tales of the trail,’ and then graciously posed for photos with his granddaughter on the lawn.

We spent an entire day driving to Tok to interview Bill Arpino, who came in 11th in 1973 with a time of 24 days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes, to claim a purse worth $1,000. Bill brought out large envelopes of newspaper clippings, old flyers, his original bib (#13), and photos and tape recordings from the race. We sat in one of the log cabins at his Burnt Paw Lodge in Tok, Bill wearing a specially decorated leather vest reminiscent of his racing career, and he told story after story of running the first Iditarod to Nome. Then he took us on a tour of his collection of historic racing and freight sleds - and told us how he built sleds for many mushers over the years.

With a growing collection of delightful interviews, Mark and I and Donna were on a roll... And then, in midstream, we switched horses.

One of the mushers who was instrumental in organizing the first Iditarod was Dick Mackey, a trucker who’d moved to Alaska almost 20 years earlier, arriving, according to a 2007 article by Doug O’Harra in the Anchorage Daily News, “...in Mountain View with $14, his family – wife Joan, sons Rick and Bill, daughter Becky and the last truck from his fleet. Within a day he had a job.”

After Dick and Joan got divorced a few years later, he married a bush pilot with a penchant for sled dog racing named Kathie, and they had two more sons, Lance and Jason. Dick Mackey loved sled dog racing, and along the way he met Joe Redington, who called him up one day and asked what he thought about running a race from Anchorage to Nome, one thousand miles through the roadless Alaskan wilderness.

According to reports, Dick’s memorable response was “I’ll be the second one to sign up!”

To which Joe asked what he meant, and Dick replied “You haven’t signed up already?”

Iditarod lore includes many stories about Dick Mackey. He ran the1973 race and came in seventh out of the thirty-eight mushers who started from Anchorage. As Mackey headed out on the trail to Nome his father in New Hampshire passed away, and his mother requested that he not be told until he’d finished the race, two weeks later.

Dick Mackey was a fixture in the Alaskan sled dog racing scene for decades, serving long after his competitive racing days had ended. But he started out running a team partly made up of pups he’d raised from the family pets: an old black Labrador and a purebred Siberian husky. Mackey ran the first five Iditarod races, placing in the top ten each time, and finally, in 1978, he won the race by one second over Rick Swenson, who had claimed the title the year before and still holds the record for the most wins (five), in the race’s closest-ever and still most controversial Iditarod finish.

The classic telling of the tale was Doug O’Harra’s 1989 article in We Alaskans, the former Sunday magazine of the Anchorage Daily News:

It was a moment that belonged on a poster. The two windburned mushers pausing, their beards crusted with ice, their bodies aching from 1,000 miles of trail. Both had reputations as tough mushers, ruthlessly competitive men capable of seizing any advantage. As they squinted through the predawn darkness, mutual distrust hung between them as thick as the blowing snow. And then, as he urged his dogs forward, Swenson shouted back at Mackey: “We’ve got first and second sewn up. Just stay right where you are!”

And Mackey thought to himself: “Like hell.”

When Dick’s son Lance won the 2007 Iditarod, after having just won the Yukon Quest two short weeks earlier, he made sled dog racing history in much the same way his father had before him. The Anchorage Daily News decorated their front page with Lance Mackey’s nine Super Dogs – an unprecedented honor for the Alaska state sport.

Before Lance even made it to Nome the state’s largest newspaper was crowing, “The dog team of Fairbanks musher Lance Mackey was rolling toward Nome on Monday and a place in the history of Alaska sled-dog lore that could put the driver right up there with the likes of Leonhard Seppala, Scotty Allan and Iron Man Johnson.”

Lance won his place in Alaskan sled dog lore, and on a whim, having only talked with him briefly as friends and I snapped some photos at the 2007 Iditarod vet check, I sent him an email message shortly after he won, asking if he had a book planned yet. I never got a reply, which wasn’t surprising in the midst of all the media craziness following his spectacular dual win.

In November of that year I sent another inquiry, this time suggesting a video documentary. I still didn’t expect a response, but I’ve always functioned on the philosophy of nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I kept thinking that Lance, like his father before him, probably still had a few tricks up his sleeve. It helped that another of our newfound friends, Theresa Daily, was close friends with Lance and had indicated that he might be more interested in something video-based rather than involving a lot of writing and editing.

A month later Lance replied to my email, expressing interest in the idea of a video documentary and giving me his phone number with an invitation to call him. That phone call resulted in a lengthy interview at his home in Fairbanks. I was in Washington state at the time, so Mark and Donna made the trip to Fairbanks together and shot what became the primary footage for the documentary at Lance’s home. A few weeks later they travelled back to Fairbanks to film Lance at the start of the 2008 Yukon Quest.

The 1,000 Mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race follows historic 1890’s Klondike gold rush trails, which later became regular mail delivery and travel routes for those living in the northern reaches of Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory. The race route begins and ends in Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, reversing direction every year. Named for the fabled Yukon River – the Highway of the North – the race follows the frozen lakes and rivers of the northland, crosses four mountain ranges reaching an elevation of almost 4,000’, and travels through remote wilderness camps and villages. Ten race checkpoints allow for veterinarians to ensure the health and welfare of the dogs, and there are four specific dog drops, although dogs can be dropped at any point if needed.

Weather conditions on the Yukon Quest can be life-threatening, with temperatures often dropping as low as sixty degrees below zero, and winds blowing up the Yukon River at speeds of 100 miles an hour. Extremes can swing in the other direction as well, creating dangerous overflows and treacherously thin ice, open water and snow too soft for dogs to run in. The Yukon Quest is known as ‘The toughest sled dog race in the world’ for good reason.

Having finally resolved my business in Washington state, I flew back into Anchorage at 2:00 a.m. on the morning of February 11, 2008, and left for the Yukon Quest checkpoints of Whitehorse and Dawson City with Donna the next day, leaving Mark busy with editing the final production of our first DVD, “Appetite and Attitude: A Conversation with Lance Mackey.”

While I was gone Mark had purchased a state-of-the-art Macintosh computer and a first-rate software program capable of handling the video production, a major investment of several thousand dollars. While in Washington I researched video cameras at length, and then with Donna’s advice on the options I purchased a sweet little Canon HV20A video camera for shooting additional documentary footage, all of which was made possible by the increasing success of our education-based publishing business. But perhaps I should set the snowhook here and go into a little backstory on that...

This week’s book excerpt is the opening chapter of the book published in 2014 by my Northern Light Media. The book is “a memoir of sorts, an adventure story to be sure, and a look at what it’s like to follow a champion sled dog racing team across thousands of miles of Arctic wilderness.” You can learn more about the book and order a copy at this link.