It’s the first Saturday in March 1973, and more than 40 dog mushers are ready to leave the semi-pro baseball stadium in Anchorage and drive their teams more than 1,100 miles to Nome.
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Could they really do it? Well, they did it that year and every year since, of course, in the monumental Iditarod Sled Dog Race, but that first year? The mushers themselves kinda looked at each other and shrugged and wondered. No one alive had ever driven a team that far. I was there, and was privileged to have driven a team in that first race.
Some top-name mushers referred to guys like me — homesteaders who used dog teams to get back and forth to town — as “recreational mushers,” meaning not serious racers. That was true. Our dogs were valued members of our families, just as your dog is in your family. We just had more of them and they pulled a sled for a living.
Iditarod is pronounced eye-DIT-a-rod. The men and women who drive teams in this long, cold camping trip pronounce it IDIOT-road, with reason.
I had seven dogs, the minimum allowed, and I had to borrow a dog to make seven, giving me the nickname “Seven-Dog Slim.”
The dog I borrowed had kennel cough and I had to stop every couple of hours and dose him with cough syrup, which he hated and caused him to run all out in panic when he saw me coming with the bottle. I still think I’d have won that race if all my dogs had kennel cough.
Our race ended ignominiously with a helicopter ride after I crushed an ankle 300 miles into the race.
But there’s something about the first Saturday in March for those who have been there. Wherever we are and whatever we do now, each year on that day we say a prayer for the men and women on trail and wish them good weather, packed trail, and happy dogs. It’s lonely and cold out there, and it’s a very long way to Nome. ———
To buy Slim’s updated ebook version of his 1975 book “Dogsled, A True Tale of the North,” email [email protected].