The book I’m currently working on is the result of several years of researching, interviewing, and writing, beginning with an idea which took shape in 2007. That’s when I learned that a musher from the very first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Barry MacAlpine, one of those intrepid pioneers who had stood on the runners that morning with his sights set on Nome, 1,000 miles away, had perished in a fire at his cabin, just north of Anchorage.
Only six months before, in early December of 2006, another musher – the legendary “Shishmaref Cannonball, Herbie Nayokpuk – who had also been standing at that starting line in the very first race, had suffered a massive stroke, lapsed into a coma and passed away three weeks later at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.
The loss of these two mushing pioneers just six months apart, men whose names I remembered from the very first race, set me to thinking that the stories of the remaining 1973 Iditarod mushers should be recorded. Their memories of that first 1,000-mile race were an Alaskan legacy, part of our state’s colorful history. These men were the only ones who could authoritatively share the first-hand accounts of what it was like to be out there on a trail which had never been traveled in this manner, as a race route, and which many people at the time doubted could still be navigated its full length.
Over the years an aura has developed around that first race, and most fans know the lore and the rudiments of the story, how it was Joe Redington Sr.’s pie-in-the-sky dream, how he wrangled others into sharing the dream with him and doing the groundwork necessary to make it happen. The history of how the race began can be found in almost every book about the event, because it’s a darned good story, colorful and compelling and full of true-life characters and exciting adventures.
There are also many classic tales which have been told and retold enough times to be become part of Iditarod lore, but there is so much that has remained untold, unwritten, unknown. And so in 2007 I set about tracking down and visiting the remaining mushers from the 1973 race who would share their stories, their memories of what it was like to be one of the original Iditarod pioneers. The bulk of this new book will be comprised of the verbatim words of mushers who made that first journey to Nome in 1973, captured through recorded and videotaped interviews conducted over a span of several years. I am very grateful to the men who shared their long-ago adventures with me.
I am grateful as well for the delightful memories I brought away from our time together, for as I transcribed my recordings for this book, I was once again caught up in each musher’s very contagious sense of wonderment and awe as he described and discussed what he and all of the other mushers had accomplished so long ago. More than once a voice would falter and break, and a long pause would follow. . . . There was a very reverent quality in the way they each shared their memories of that first race.
The Iditarod Trail: Tales from the 1973 Race, by Helen Hegener, publication date March, 2015 by Northern Light Media.