By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Seward musher and Iditarod Race pioneer Dan Seavey officially launched his new book, The First Great Race; Alaska’s 1973 Iditarod during a book- signing event at the Seward Community Library Museum Saturday Nov 9th. It was a fitting place to launch it, surrounded by family, friends and well-wishers, and Seavey, an experienced high school history teacher and speaker appeared in his element as he held forth at the podium about his early dog racing days. He gave his talk in front of a window whose curtain backdrop was a print of a historic photograph of a dogsled team lined up on Fourth Avenue, being loaded to travel the Iditarod Trail.
Although The First Great Race is a book with a lot of amusing tales based in the Seward area, (with 87 present and former residents indexed, and 113 photographs), the book’s significance is really to all Alaskans and folks Outside as it contains a front-end perspective of the first great race to Nome, and is authored by Seavey, one of its founders. As far as Dan knows he’s also the only historian to write about the race who actually participated in it.
The first part of the book covers Dan and Shirley’s young family, and their life in Seward from the time they arrived here in 1963 from central Minnesota for Dan’s high school social studies teaching job. It highlights how he fell in love with mushing, and slowly figured out how to raise and train a dog team at a time when the practice had almost vanished from Alaska. Seavey’s natural storytelling abilities and wit and shine through, making it an extremely enjoyable read.
In addition to raising many generations of dogs, Dan and Shirley Seavey brought up three generations of Iditarod racers, six in all including son Mitch, the 2004 and current 2013 Iditarod champion, and his son Dallas, the 2012 Iditarod Race champion. Both Mitch and Dallas have already written and published their own Iditarod books, beating their elder to the punch.
“This book is a big deal for the Seaveys,”Dan Seavey said. “The kids beat me to it—but they don’t have much to say,” he joked.
There’s the amazing story of how, while out moose hunting with a friend, his faithful dog team ran off down the Seward Highway toward Cooper Landing, rather than the old truck, and how he and his friend finally found them and got them back. I personally loved the story of how Seavey drove his entire dog team through two floors of the old Seward High School, up and down the staircases, on a $5 teacher’s bet. Longtime residents may remember Seavey driving his dog team to school, and home in the dark, or narrowly avoiding his dogs as he ran the team in the dark along the highway, without headlamps or reflective tape. After reading this book, people will realize how difficult and painful it is to extract porcupine quills from a howling dog’s mouth, and how challenging and beautiful it is to be out on the wilderness trail, narrowly avoiding avalanches, while sledding by moonlight. They’ll learn why a good anchor for ones’ sled is more valuable than a life-insurance policy.
The book then leads into what has become Alaskas’ most famous annual event.
“The second part covers the first Iditarod race in 1973 when a lot of doubting Toms said it couldn’t be done,” Seavey put it. “The big question was can you do it continuously for 21 days?” The answer, of course, was yes if you were among the hardy early mushers who broke their own trail, built their own open campfires to sleep around, fetched snow for their dogs, and prepared their own dog food after running all day.
“Fires are a thing of the past. There’s no time for that anymore,” Dan said. When Seavey ran the Iditarod in 2012 at age 74, the race had become so much safer, and more predictable, it hardly resembled the old event he remembered. When the Iditarod began, if a musher got lost, no one knew where you were for days. “I couldn’t get lost in 2012 without the whole world knowing it. Everybody but me knew where I was!” he said.
Asked by Mitchs’ wife Janine how contemporary Iditarod mushers would compete under the conditions of the first race, he said: “They would all curl up under a tree and call for a rescue on their satellite phones,” Seavey joked. “No, there are some tough dudes out on the race again,” he added, “but they’d have a learning curve like how to start a fire, how to cook dog food, how to walk on snowshoes.”
Seavey wrote his book over a busy two-year period that included some rather big Iditarod Races for the Seaveys, and the family property off Exit Glacier Road being flooded. He wrote every word by hand on a yellow lined note pad, and after finishing each part, he gave it to Shirley type.
The materials for the book were incredibly helpful to the writer’s memory of the event, and gives the book a “you are there” feeling, and some forgotten details that brings the first great race to life. These historic documents sat in the Seavey’s basement for 38 years, in a cardboard box marked “Race 1973.” Seavey credits Doug Capra, a Seward writer, fellow schoolteacher and historian for realizing the significance of the first race at the time, and for creating and transcribing much of the materials he used. The box contained the interviews Capra made with Seavey right after the first race; transcripts of cassette recordings and journal entries Capra had asked Dan to make himself, while running the actual race; Capra’s descriptive radio narration from the starting line of the very first race, old slides and slide projector and more.
At the book signing Seavey presented Capra with a copy of the book. He also gave one to Lee Poleske, another friend and former fellow teacher who helped prepare the book’s 113 historical photographs.
The book’s 44 page appendix includes Seaveys’ gear list for the 1973 race; the first race rules, and letters between the race founders and politicians predicting that the race would help the economies of rural Alaska, and revive the dying tradition of dogsled mushing. The appendix also contains the lyrics to “Dan Seavey Was a Musher,” by Dot and Dori Bardarson, and Shirley Seavey’s Trail Cake recipe.
Seavey has 2,000 of these self-published books at his home, and he and Shirley will begin marketing them at festivals and book signings across Alaska. They will sell books at the Seward Holiday Arts and Craft Fair in December, or you can call and order one from him directly at 907 224-3518, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or online at squareup.com/market (search Seavey)