By Russell Stigall for Seward City News –
The history of Alaska’s Iditarod Race is now safe.
Local Iditarod Race pioneer and patriarch Dan Seavey wrote his new book, “The First Great Race,” to preserve foundational story of Alaska’s Last Great Race.
He and fellow mushers of the Aurora Dog Mushers Club, Joe Reddington being one, hatched their 1,000-mile race scheme over beers in the late 1960s – wool sweaters still damp from the day’s club races. The now-famous trans-Alaska race was cooked up by “some grungy dog mushers,” Seavey said during an interview at his home near Exit Glacier.
The original trail moved diphtheria antitoxin serum to Nome in 1925. The Great Race of Mercy, as the serum transport was called, employed 20 mushers and 150 dogs over five days in relay to cover the trail’s 670 miles to Nome.
To celebrate the centennial of Alaska’s purchase from Russia, local dog mushing clubs put on a 50-mile commemorative race on a nine-mile loop of the original Iditarod trail in 1967. This sparked the beginnings of what was to become a race watched around the world.
Seavey didn’t compete in this first race. “I had dogs. I could have entered something, but I didn’t,” Seavey said. “I just wasn’t thinking racing at that time.”
Poor snow conditions for the third running this original 50-miler marked the race’s demise.
“Thankfully…because they were still struggling with debt from the first race,” Seavey said.
This wasn’t the end, of course.
“And this is where I like to give the dog mushers credit,” Seavey said.
The Aurora Dog Mushers Club, with the Reddington family as prime movers, revived and expanded the race to its current 1,000-mile plus, trans-Alaska, sporting and media extravaganza.
“Everything started there on Knik Lake,” Seavey said.
Aurora is still active in Wasilla.
While Iditarod’s history is now safely archived in his book, Seavey is concerned with the future of mushing in Seward and Alaska as a whole.
“How are we going to keep the young people interested,“ Seavey said. “I think every dog club in the country is asking the same question.”
Seavey was able to pass the mushing bug on to his son, Mitch aSeavey, and grandson, Dallas Seavey, both Iditarod champions. However, the investment in time and money needed to maintain a dog team limits the next generation’s uptake of the sport, Seavey said.
“It’s not like buying soccer cleats and a ball and sending them out the door,” Seavey said. “Without parental support it just can’t happen.”
As most kids know, those who have asked their parents for a dog, pets require care; time and money. When your dogs and puppies can be numbered in the dozens, this care morphs into a lifestyle.
This commitment can be a valuable lesson.
“It is sort of like a dairy farmer out west,” Seavey said. “They have to be cared for. Those are your responsibility.”
Seavey’s main mushing partner is his 10-year old great granddaughter. However, Seavey said in a question and answer session at the Seward Community Library, his granddaughter has other hobbies to draw her attention.
“She loves the dogs and all that,” Seavey said. “But also likes to dress up and have tea parties and likes to dance, so we’ll see.”
Seward has seen more than one rise and fall in mushing popularity. Seavey built his appetite for mushing in the early 1960s through reading about an even earlier history of his new home town of Seward.
“The more I got into the history the more I became localized, provincial and I began to realize Seward… I had actually come to quite an important place historically,” Seavey said. Railroad, sea port, Iditarod Trail “Seward was the hub of a lot of things.”
Though Seward played a major role in Alaska’s early dog mushing culture – the town is the southern terminus of the Historic Iditarod Trail – when Seavey arrived nearly 60 years ago there was not one dog team on Kenai Peninsula’s southern side.
“It dawned on me that there was no remnants of the trail that was such an important feature here,” Seavey said. “We couldn’t blame it on the snow machine yet.”
So Seavey started adding dogs to his kennel.
“Finding uses for them,” Seavey said. “To haul wood, water. For recreation.” He had a decade of dog-handling experience before his first Iditarod.
Seavey said he had to travel to Knik Lake west of Wasilla to find fellow dog mushers in the Aurora Dog Mushers Club. During this time dog teams lost popularity to other forms of emerging transportation such as airplanes and snow machines, he said.
Seward’s Iditarod Trail Blazers Committee continues to maintain certain portions of this southern sections.
The launch of the Iditarod race in 1973 rekindled interest in dog mushing.
“It started to perk up people all over Alaska,” Seavey said.
By the 1980s Seward was host to at least half a dozen families keeping dog teams. Seavey was able to list from memory: Schmidt, Fisher, Hollingsworth, Lindquist, Tarpey, Beals. Add to this list, of course, the Seaveys. To avoid paperwork the families put on “unofficial” races at Bear and Summit lakes.
Long-time Seward resident and former musher Monty Fisher recalled races in the 1980s. He and his two young daughters worked their way up from a single sled dog to racing a team in local mayoral races. One such race ran the Historic Iditarod Trail from Nash Road to Bear Lake, he said.
Fisher said he got into sled dogs through a friend.
“Richard [Schmidt] had taken up skijoring and had a dog,” Fisher said.
Fisher had a natural affinity for dogs and when Schmidt grew his team to pull sleds Fisher got a chance to take a ride. He was hooked, he said.
In the end Fisher got out of mushing through attrition. Taking care of a team of sled dogs was too much effort.
“It was a fill-time job,” Fisher said.
Richard Schmidt got out of mushing for similar reasons.
“It’s a pretty expensive hobby,” Richard Schmidt said. “You try not to notice.”
However, Schmidt said he and Sue found themselves at one point got to adding up costs. A friend gave him good advice, he said: ‘Either do it or don’t.’
Schmidt said costs became a real issue as snowfall dropped in Seward.
“Not enough winter to make it worthwhile,” Schmidt said. “Global warming pretty much shut us down.”
Starting in the 1990s Schmidt’s family was unable to run sled dogs until enough snow fell in January or February. He tells of a time he, his wife, Sue Schmidt, and friends took four dog teams out before the snow was deep. Sue was unable to find purchase with her sled’s brake and broke her pelvis in a crash, Schmidt said. They had to wrangle four dog teams while getting Sue to help.
“You talk about chaos,” Schmidt said.
Dog mushing can to the Schmidt family organically.
“We’ve always been dog people,” Schmidt said. “Very into dogs.”
Sue was the first to hook up one of their pet dogs and try skijoring. She was thrilled with the ride but her dog soon tired. So she thought “I’m going to hook three of them up,” Schmidt said. “She was having so darn much fun with those three” that he built her a sled.
Extra money, made during the oil spill, went to dogs from Rick Swenson’s kennel in 1989.
“We got some real dogs,” Schmidt said. It wasn’t long before the Schmidt’s had 33 dogs and puppies.
“It was totally out of control,” Schmidt said. He was worried about his neighbors and barking dogs. So he invited his neighbor, Monty Fisher, for a sled dog ride.
“Within a month he had as many dogs as I did,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt hasn’t much looked back at his mushing days. He still handles dogs, but now for search and rescue and avalanche rescue work. His rescue dog, Fiddle, ran in his final team.
“We don’t miss it unless there’s a winter with snow,” Schmidt said. He said he bums a ride off Dan Seavey’s team when he needs a fix.
“Dan will always have dogs,” Schmidt said
Schmidt said he would love to see young folks take up mushing. “But the last three years we’ve had no winter,” Schmidt said. “A farther north thing I guess.”
At lot has changed in mushing since 1973. Through breeding, sled dogs are lighter with higher muscle density. Headlamps have opened up the night to racing. When Seavey first started top dog teams averaged between 50 and 60 miles per day. For Dallas and Mitch, “if they are not doing 100 miles per day plus they aren’t even in the competition,” Seavey said.
Seavey recognizes how years of dog breeding and advances in technology have been strong forces behind falling race times. However, As he looks to the future of the sport Seavey is concerned that modern technology could burden this historic race. Past races, before cell phones, and current ones that limit technology are “a whole lot raw-er,” Seavey said.
When asked if he could take anything back from the present to aid his first Iditarod Race in 1973, Seavey didn’t pick head lamps, freeze-dried food or GPS trackers. He said he would have given his dogs more credit.
“I think they were a better bunch,” Seavey said. “In a sense I babied them somewhat. I probably wouldn’t have had to. I could have driven them harder.” Experience would also have sped his race, he said. The upper reaches of the trail brought very unfamiliar terrain for an outdoorsman comfortable in forests and mountains.
“The Bering Sea is on one side of you and who knows what is on the other side… there are a lot of unknowns,” Seavey said, “fears so to say.” There’s a chance he could have won that first year with the knowledge of the trail he has now.
Winning, however, was never Seavey’s main goal.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as a racer,” Seavey said. “I’ve gone five time and it s always been for the joy of driving dogs and of driving through history. That’s my love of history, that is what I do; relive the past. That’s the joy of history.”
If we left your name out as a former or current Seward musher, please let us know in the comments. Old mushing stories are also very, very welcome.
For more information contact Seward Iditarod Trail Blazers at SITBlazers@gmail.com.