Weather was always an issue when traveling in rural Alaska and we did not want to get stuck in Bethel. Besides in a week the dog sled races were to start and Marshall was the first village to be on the dog race circuit. One of Marshall’s residents, Charlie Fitka Jr., hoped to be in the first Iditarod race that was to start in March but couldn’t find a sponsor. We knew he was a dedicated sled dog racer. It was a fortunate experience for us to be introduced to dog racing by seeing him race.
The dog races brought people from up and down the Yukon River. Over the weekend of February 16-18, 1973, there were an additional 150-200 people in Marshall. That was close to double the population. I had no idea where everyone was staying. People were coming and going on mail planes, charters, dog teams and a few snow machines. Traveling on the frozen Yukon River can be dangerous but was common. Sled dogs were the best means of travel because they could keep you warm as you eventually reached your destination. Snow machines might be fast but they broke down. Breaking down when it is 20 degrees (or colder) below zero was not a happy way to end anyone’s day.
We learned that Marshall’s dog race events included men, women, girls, and boys dog team races. There were also other activities: coaster sliding, snow machine runs, and a variety of general fun races, such as gunnysack and snowshoes. With no written program, it was difficult to figure out where all the different events happened and starting times. It was a fantastic weekend and we were hooked on dog sled racing, especially Jed.
The weekend ended with a potlatch, an Alaskan Native tradition. We observed that potlatches were special gatherings that strengthen the social and cultural parts of villages. They always included food, storytelling and often dancing. With no restaurants people were constantly feeding visitors. People knew that when they traveled to other villages the kindness would be reciprocated. During the Christmas and Russian Orthodox holidays, it was obvious how these events reinforced the spiritual connections of the people to each other as well as their families.
People did not get sick after the dog races like they had after Slavic so kids settled back into school lessons. Students were focused and we were glad to have a full class of students again. There was a lot of discussion about the Iditarod race that was about to start in Anchorage, especially by the Nome radio station. The Iditarod had a proud history and was really the dream of several different people.
Many of the students in our classrooms had never been anywhere other than to Bethel to see a doctor or to one of the close villages by airplane or boat in the summer to visit family or friends. After realizing how limited their perspective of the giant state they lived in was, we decided to use the Iditarod race for geography and math lessons. The few newspapers we were able to get our hands on had articles about the big endeavor of mushing 12-16 dogs across a 1,150-mile trail during the cold of winter.
Being new to dog mushing, we wanted to understand news hype vs. the reality of such an adventure so we talked to a real musher. We contacted Charlie Fitka Jr. since two of his children were in our classes. He agreed to talk to our students about the Iditarod race and how it was different from the races they had just seen in the village. Students began to understand that running dogs for a long distance was very different than the races they were accustomed to seeing during a weekend event.
We discovered that a man named Joe Redington, originally from Pennsylvania, known as one of the key people to move the long-distance Iditarod Race from a dream to an actual happening was key in getting the race going. Joe felt snow machines were replacing sled dogs so one of his goals was to save the sled dog culture and Alaskan huskies. The historical significance of the race was the reconstruction of the freight route from Wasilla to Nome (1,150 miles), which was very different from the air miles (650 miles). The combination of the route and the role sled dogs played was celebrated and honored in the settlement of Alaska. Iditarod mushers traveled as freight mushers did eighty years ago carrying all the gear that would be needed to reach the destination of Nome. They had to break much of their own trail and ensure their supplies didn’t get thrown off the sled. The gear they carried had to include food for the dogs and musher, tools to fix a sled and dog harnesses, as well as an ax and branch cutter for fires or downed limbs along the travel.
The radio stations around the state were actively communicating with each other to keep people informed. In March 1973 the cold and wind chill factor dipped the temperatures into the minus 30 to minus 50 ranges. Breaking trail was not an easy task when the wind was blowing creating 6-8 foot drifts. No one knew how long it would take the mushers and if all of the mushers who entered would even reach Nome. It was a tough race. There were no checkpoints or support teams required or available in 1973.
We used information from the radio and newspapers (when available), as well as people in Marshall and travelers who came through to develop Iditarod lessons. Utilizing the map, we calculated the distances they were traveling as soon as we received a report. Students were learning math in a new way. Even Don Hunter, the local Post Master, gave us information he heard on the radio bands. Students entered school in the morning asking if we knew anything or they would come in saying their dad or uncle had heard about a musher they knew. It was exciting and very stimulating classroom chatter.
In 1973 twenty-two people finished the first Iditarod dog race, nicknamed “The Last Great Race on Earth.” Forty people had entered, 22 had finished, and 12 had scratched and a few didn’t even get started. Twenty of the people who completed received a monetary prize. The city of Nome collected funds to supplement what the Iditarod committee awarded hoping to give everyone that crossed the finish line something. The winner, a rookie musher, finished in 20 days and others took as long as 30 plus days. One dog died and many mushers had breakdowns including breaking through the ice. By the first week of April everyone was glad it was finished and already talking about the 1974 Iditarod Race. Improvements were needed but the race had been a success!