Here’s what some of the first Iditarod mushers remember about the early years of the 1,000-mile race

A crowded banquet hall
More than 200 people attended a celebration of the first few years of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race at Settlers Bay Lodge on March 1, 2022. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

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A few miles down Knik Goose Bay Road from the Iditarod Museum and headquarters, a couple hundred people packed into the basement of Settlers Bay Lodge last week to commemorate the early years of the Iditarod. 

Raymie Redington — the son of Joe Redington Sr., who’s known as the father of the Iditarod — said he still lives right down the road, and he still runs dogs.

A portrait of a man in a plaid shirt and a "Redington" baseball cap
Raymie Redington, 77, was one of 34 who set out to run the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“I’m at the same place I’ve been since I’ve been four years old,” he said. “I’m 77. I’m still out running dogs on the snowmachine.”

Right now, one of Redington’s sons, Ryan, is out racing the Iditarod. He’s at the front of the pack, and was resting in Nikolai, around mile 260, Tuesday morning. 

This is the 50th anniversary of the race.

Raymie Redington said it’s changed so much. He was among 34 mushers who set off on the first Iditarod. But he said he didn’t even decide if he was going to attempt the whole race until he got to Knik, about 63 miles in.

“I went up to the house and I said, ‘I think I’m going to try it,’” he said.

He said he misses the slower pace of those days.

“I think the older days was a lot nicer, you know? Nobody was in a big hurry like it is today,” he said. 

Dick Wilmarth, from Red Devil, won the 1973 Iditarod in just over 20 days. Now, it usually takes between eight and 10 days to name a champion.

A close-up portrait of a man in glasses
Bill Arpino, 81, also ran the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973. “The first years,” he said, “everything was an unknown.” (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Last week, Bill Arpino, who’s 81, was also at Settlers Bay Lodge, enjoying a drink with his daughter. He said he remembers some confusion about where the checkpoints would be during the first Iditarod, and how a windstorm really didn’t help find them.

“The first years, everything was an unknown,” he said.

Also, he said, mushers were still learning how to equip themselves for such a long race.

“We didn’t know what kind of gear to take,” he said. “I just took the stuff that normally I’d take, you know, for winter camping.”

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Barbara Moore, the 1980 Iditarod red lantern, said what she likes about the race is all genders compete against each other. But there have been some tensions about how that should work. At some point, at least 15 years ago, she said she remembers some mushers pitching a weight rule.

“Everybody had to get weighed with their clothes on,” she said. “If a guy weighed 250 pounds, and a woman weighed 150 pounds, she was going to have to carry an extra 100 pounds on her sled to make it even.”

Moore said that didn’t fly.

Two women wearing name tags pose for a photo
Carla Kelly (left) ran the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2003 and Barbara Moore ran it in 1980. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“Let me tell you, because there was like an uproar of females. And I mean — it did not last,” she said. “It was some of the top male mushers that were bringing that on.”

Gender may not determine who can race or win, but Carla Kelly said money plays a huge role. She took money out of a retirement account so she could run in 2003.

“It’s all about money,” she said. “If I hadn’t completed it, I really wouldn’t have had that option of trying it again. It was just too much money.”

This year, the Iditarod entry fee was $4,000. And then mushers also have to pay to ship out all of their gear and food to remote checkpoints. Plus, that doesn’t account for keeping a team trained and fed all year.

Portrait of a man in a gray hoodie holding an old photo of a dog team running down Front Street in Nome
Ken Chase, 81, of Anvik, holds a photo of him and his dog team arriving in Nome at the end of the first Iditarod Sled Dog Race in 1973. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Ken Chase, a Deg Hit’an Athabascan dog driver from Anvik, said he thinks having more — and shorter — regional races might be a more equitable approach that could help bring back dog mushing in rural communities.

“I think a lot of the guys that wanted to run, even myself, I kind of got out of it because I started dropping back because I didn’t have the funds to compete,” he said. “I had to work, and I had a family to feed and just couldn’t keep up with it.

Chase also competed in the very first Iditarod. He said that back in the early days, Native mushers had an upper hand. 

“Because a lot of us were still into trapping with dogs and feeding them dry fish, you know. Dried salmon and beaver meat and stuff,” he said. “Beaver meat probably was our secret weapon. Everybody started using it after that.”

Early Iditarod mushers also had some advice for the teams racing their first Iditarod now. 

Arpino said that wolves will just watch your team go by — but watch out for moose. And be careful when you sleep out on the trail.

“Don’t breathe in your sleeping bag when you’re staying out,” Arpino said. “Your whole sleeping bag will be full of ice in the morning.

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