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Military support for Iditarod goes all the way back
Musher Ed Sielstra's team makes the turn from 4th Avenue onto Cordova Street at the ceremonial start of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday. Sixty-two teams, plus this year's honorary musher Tom Busch left the start point on 4th Avenue to kick off the 1,150-mile race to Nome. (U.S. Arir Force photo/John Pennell)
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Breaking trails, making history

Posted 3/9/2011   Updated 3/9/2011 Email story   Print story


by John Pennell

3/9/2011 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Denizens of most northern cities would throw hissy fits if they knew snow was being trucked in and dumped on their city streets this close to spring's escape from winter's woes.

But in Anchorage, on the first Saturday in March, nobody bats an eye.

Not only was the snow brought in by the truckload, volunteers from around the world flocked downtown Saturday to spread and smooth the snow along 4th Avenue and Cordova Street to make a slick path for the dog teams and mushers taking part in the ceremonial start of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Alaska's military has close ties to the historic retracing of the 1925 effort to get much-needed diphtheria serum to Nome.

A group of Soldiers from Fort Richardson drove snowmachines to break trail for the first "Last Great Race" in 1973, and for years the first leg of the race ran from Anchorage to Eagle River - crossing Fort Richardson property including the Moose Run Golf Course.

Retired musher Rod Perry took part in that first race in 1973.

The historic Iditarod Trail was once a major thoroughfare into interior Alaska during the heyday of gold mining, Perry said, but it had fallen into disuse over the previous 50 years.
In fact, nobody was really sure exactly where it was anymore. The wooden tripods that marked the trail had long since rotted and fallen into the tundra.

In an article written about the history of the Iditarod for its 25th anniversary, Fairbanks journalist Brian Patrick O'Donoghue wrote about how the Army became involved.

Army Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gettys, Fort Richardson's commander at the time, was planning a 1972 mission to test the application of snowmachines for military use, O'Donoghue wrote.

Redington met with the general, who was a sled-dog racing fan. Getty agreed to delay the expedition a few weeks and have his Soldiers tie ribbons remarking the Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome.

"About 10 days before the race, a Chinook helicopter landed on Knik Lake and disgorged 10 new snowmachines and 13 Soldiers," Perry said. "The general was there and he told the guy in charge, 'Make it to Nome or don't come back.'

"We knew with the might of the U.S. Army behind the effort, there was no failure," Perry said. "They'd make it."

What the mushers might have expected was the sort of trail a group of Soldiers on snowmachines might create for them to follow.

"That trail was rough!" Perry exclaimed. "Those guys didn't know anything about putting in a dog team trail - at all! They took us through some of the craziest situations.

"You can't side-hill with a sled any more than you can side-hill with skis unless you rock them up and use the uphill edge to carve - and you can't rock a dogsled up on its side," Perry explained. "So it just slides sideways down a slope like two flat skis.

"These guys took us down a steep hill, on a side hill, and right where we'd be going the fastest, right in between two enormous cottonwood trees with just enough room to get the sled through," he remembered.
"I'm amazed there wasn't just a pile of dog-sled kindling there. I was carrying my lead dog in the basket at the time and I had one hand on his head to keep him in the middle of the load so he didn't get his head torn off by one of those cottonwoods."

But Perry said those in on the planning could laugh off the trail conditions and be glad there was a trail at all.

"On the one hand we were just shaking our heads and rolling our eyes at these goofy Army guys, but those of us in the know were just so thankful that they did it," he said.

"We knew they didn't know anything about making a trail; it wasn't like they were professionals at laying out a dog team trail.

"They were just trying to make sure they got through to Nome ... they couldn't take time to cherry up the trail and look for alternate routes."

Perry finished in 17th place - good enough for a $700 share of the prize money.

He said he still thinks about those Soldiers who paved the way for that first race.

"If it hadn't been for the Army," he said, his voice trailing off. "I don't think there would have been a second race."

3/10/2011 12:47:33 PM ET
Great story--thanks to the Army for getting it all started
Bethany, Anchorage
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