Chugiak man wrote the book on Iditarod history

By Matt Tunseth
Chugiak, Alaska (AP) March, 2012
Chugiak's Rod Perry wrote the book on the history of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.

Perry, who ran the original race in 1973, recently published his first-hand account of the trials and tribulations faced by the race's early founders. Entitled “TrailBreakers Volume II: Pioneering Alaska's Iditarod – Founding the Last Great Race on Earth,” Perry's follow-up to his historical account of the original gold-rush Iditarod Trail is likely to raise a few eyebrows with its blow-by-blow history of a race most never expected to happen.

“This race had one chance, one only,” Perry said during a recent interview.

In his book, Perry recounts the difficulties faced by race founder Joe Redington, who according to Perry was looked at as a dreamer in the eyes of the established racing community. Most mushing events in those days were sprint races, Perry said, and Redington's idea to create a long-distance race from Knik all the way to the ghost town of Iditarod and back was seen as foolish – at best.

“There was so much connected with Joe with his pie-in-the sky,” said Perry, who also gained fame as the designer – and model for – the official Iditarod finishers' patch still worn by mushers today.

Redington's previous experience with organizing a sled dog race had nearly cost the Knik homesteader his land after difficulties raising prize money. Only an act by then-Gov. Egan saved Redington and his family from losing their land.

In his book, Perry recalls the events that eventually caused Redington and his co-founders – his wife, Vi, along with Gleo Hyuck and Tom Johnson – to make the race go all the way through to Nome. Had the race not taken place in 1973, Perry argues that the Iditarod fans worldwide know today would have never come into being.

“It couldn't have happened,” he said.

He also dispels some of the myths surrounding the “Last Great Race,” including its misunderstood connection to the famous 1925 serum run. Although many people today think that the race was created to commemorate the life-saving sled dog relay from Nenana to Nome, Perry explains that the serum run and Iditarod race had nothing to do with each other in the early days.

“Number one, it was to hold a race over the old Iditarod Trail. Number two was to bring back driving dogs to the villages and number three to get inclusion of the trail into the National Historic Trail System,” he said.

After the race was lengthened to run all the way to Nome, organizers realized that it would cover some of the same ground that the serum run did, and naturally decided to commemorate the most famous moment in sled dog history.

“It was too good to pass up,” Perry said.

Perry also highlights a little-known hero of the first race in his book. He argues that the Iditarod would never have happened without the help of Maj. Gen. Charles Gettys, who at that time commanded the Army forces at Fort Richardson. Gettys, Perry recalls in his book, was an avid mushing enthusiast who offered to have his troops clear the old Iditarod trail, which hadn't been regularly used since the end of the Gold Rush era in the 1920s.

“The trail was so huge, and when Gettys said, `We'll do it,' all the sudden you had the entire might of the U.S. Army behind it, you knew it was going in,” Perry said.

Running that first race, Perry said, was a challenge like no other. Because long distance racing was viewed as something from a bygone era, most of the best sprint mushers (George Attla was a notable exception) elected not to run. Instead, Perry said the race attracted “bushy” fellows who still used dogs to trap or were still living a rural way of life.

“Joe needed guys that weren't used to much, that didn't need much support, he could depend on them not to die out there if they're left on their own,” Perry said. “He needed these bushwise guys that weren't going to scream and holler if the drop wasn't right or food wasn't there.”

There weren't many people like that left, he said, as snomachines had virtually wiped out village dog teams in the Bush.

“What you had on that first race were the last of the great Indian and Eskimo dog men,” he said.

Among that group was Seward's Dan Seavey, a history teacher from Seward with a keen interest in the historic trail from the ice-free port of Seward into the “Inland Empire” between the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers.

Seavey – who finished third in 1973 and is running again this year – said before this year's race started that the men who entered that first Iditarod never dreamed of becoming professional athletes or celebrities.

“This was for me an opportunity to travel by dog team across Alaska over trails that I had studied and learned about and come to appreciate,” Seavey said.

Dick Wilmarth of Red Devil won the first race, and Perry's book includes firsthand – and often off-color – tales about how mushers like Wilmarth, Herbie Nayokpuk, Attla and Isaac Okleasik fared on and off the trail.

In the four decades since he ran that first race, Perry said he still thinks often about those lonely days and nights out on the trail.

“Just doing something that no one had ever done – that was incredible,” he said.