Race Across Alaska by Libby Riddles

The first woman to win the Iditarod

Libby Riddles' book, Race Across Alaska.

by K.J. Lincoln

Libby Riddles of Teller, Alaska was the first woman to win the Iditarod. She won it in 1985 on March 20th – 18 days after she began the 1,049 mile race. Libby wrote about her experiences on the trail in a book Race Across Alaska – First woman to win the Iditarod tells her story. The book was published in 1988 and was authored by Libby Riddles and Tim Jones.

Libby was 28 years old when she crossed the finish line in Nome under the famed burled arches. In her book she talks about the race from beginning to end. Her stories tell of fatigue, fear, the perils of the trail, how some of her dogs got sick, busted sleds, of extreme cold – and it also talks about her love for her team, her unwavering determination, and everything that helps keep her going despite all the odds.

Each adventure-filled chapter will grip your attention as you pore over the pages with Libby on the Iditarod Trail.

Libby’s partner was Joe Garnie of Teller. Together they raised their team from pups. Libby drove the same team that Joe had placed third with the year before in the Iditarod.

Libby acknowledges her team as the heroes – of the race, of her life as a dog musher, and of all things. She introduces each dog as she harnesses them up for that first ride out of Anchorage.

Libby also likes to eat Eskimo food and she does so on the trail, including seal oil, which she loves, plus akutaq. The akutaq she eats is kamamik. She had been too busy to make it herself so her neighbor made it for her for the race. Ingredients include berries, sugar, and seal oil.

“…hunger struck,” she writes. “I sat up and scavenged around in my sled for some goodies. I found my container of kamamik but had to continue rummaging in the sled until I found my plastic spoon. The kamamik really hit the spot; it’s power food.” She eats some during the 90 miles between Ophir and Iditarod.

Many times throughout the book Libby mentions Dugan, her main lead dog. Dugan, what a pro, she says. He could follow a scent “with barely a track to follow”. It was Dugan who ignored Libby’s commands to keep to the left while on the trail through Ptarmigan Pass.

“Dugan, my lead dog, would have to find the trail for me, catching the scent of the dogs that had passed before him or feeling the firm snow underneath. He started veering off to the right and I “hawed” him back to the left to keep him going in the direction we’d been following. He went that way for a while, then turned the team sharply to the right again.

“I was about to give Dugan a piece of my mind for turning without my permission when, through the blowing snow I made out the white tent, straight ahead. Boy, did I ever feel like a fool. I had to learn to trust this little dog more.

“I stopped the team and slogged through the deep snow to the front of the team. I knelt down in the snow and apologized to Dugan. I told him what a fine fellow he was and scratched him behind the ears. He hadn’t been trying to get away with something, after all. His instinct had proved correct, and I let him know he’d done the right thing. I gave him another quick scratch before returning to the sled, but he was too humble to accept the praise. He shook himself, then stood leaning forward into the harness, all blue eyes and muscular legs.”

There was also a dog on her team named Sister. Sister had the intriguing habit of arranging her straw a certain way while nesting down at checkpoints, wrote Libby.

“Sister had a peculiar habit. She always dug around a little with her front paws, then grabbed some straw in her teeth and placed the pieces just so,” she said. Sister could also lead and she does for Libby across the treacherous sea ice between Koyuk and Shaktoolik. Libby later finds out that some of the markers had drifted away when a lead opened up and then refroze.

“What a dog,” says Libby of her beloved Sister.

An avid skin sewer, Libby sewed her own gear. She had a fur hat malaggaayaq and a pullover style parka made with Tuscany lamb and wolverine. She also had reindeer mukluks. When her axe tore a hole in her sled bag, she sewed it with floss and a needle on her way to the Nikolai checkpoint.

She ran the Kuskokwim 300 thrice – in 1982 where she placed 7th, in 1984 where she finished 5th, and again in 1997 where she came in 17th. In her book she mentions the K300 race about the time she was so fatigued and thought she saw an abandoned sled in the middle of the trail.

“On the Kuskokwim 300 race, where the windblown river surface alternated between glare ice and patches of snow, I saw a sled, a packed toboggan sled right in the middle of the trail. I hawed my dogs around it but when I passed, there wasn’t anything there at all,” she wrote. And she wrote this remembering her time on the Yukon River during that winning race year: “The long hours on the river began working on me. My mind wandered. I was a particle in space, magnetically homing in on the checkpoint. What lay in the bean of my headlight was my whole world. There was no future, no past, just present, gliding along behind my string of dogs, somewhere in Yukon River limbo, trying to keep from freezing to death.”

When Libby reached Shaktoolik, there was a bad blizzard. She had to find a spot out of the wind for her dogs to rest, but wind was everywhere. Libby used a charcoal cooker on the trail to cook hot meals for her team, and that is what she did. Her team curled up amidst the wind with their tails covering their noses. It was 60 miles to Koyuk.

Then she made the decision to go for it through the storm and she did. Visibility was bad and Libby moved slowly from marker to marker.

“For a while I wondered whether I’d ever find the next marker … We found the next marker, and the next, but progress was tediously slow. The dogs just walked … I had to ignore cold and wind and what they were doing to me in order to focus on that next precious stick of wood. I could only see thirty or forty feet ahead, which wasn’t much behind the front end of the team. I kept each marker in sight while searching for the net. I had to stop, set the hook, and walk ahead to look for the next trail stake. Once I had found it, I walked back to the team, which waited for me with great patience. They’d learned, too. Then we drove past the marker until it almost dropped from sight and began the process again.”

The storm pounded them and darkness came. They had been on the trail for about three hours and Libby decided not to go any further. She gave her dogs frozen whitefish and got ready to hunker down in her sled. It was now that she took off her snowsuit and put on her Tuscany lamb parka.

She zipped herself into her sled bag with her sleeping bag and warmed up. She slept until a little before 9am – they had been resting for nearly 12 hours in the middle of the storm. She gave her well-rested dogs pieces of lamb while she drank seal oil and ate chocolate and some juice before continuing on to Koyuk.

There in Koyuk she learned that three teams had left Shaktoolik behind her at around 11am. The food was so good at her friend Vera’s house – cinnamon rolls, simmering stews, roast turkey, everything so delicious.

By now Libby needed a seal oil refill so she asked Vera for some.

“I had one more favor to ask of Vera, a refill for my little bottle of seal oil. She looked at me, surprised.”

“What you want seal oil for?”

“For me, for the trail, so that I can keep warm.”

“Libby, you always have seal oil?”

Vera promised to feed her Eskimo food the next time she came.

Libby dropped Sister in Elim. She had frostbite and Libby didn’t want her to have to face any more discomfort. Sister was the second dog she dropped, the first one was Stripe. She had a five hour lead on the other mushers.

Next was Golovin then White Mountain where she was to take the mandatory 4-hour layover before heading to Saftey, then home to Nome.

Along the way Libby made a wrong turn and ended up in Solomon, which is between White Mountain and Safety but several miles off the trail. A kind old man living in a cabin gave her water to drink and pointed her in the right direction, reassuring her.

He smiled. “Don’t worry. Those guys won’t catch you. Just follow the markers. They go right to Safety.”

At Safety Libby had a bowl of soup and juice, thawed her frozen gear by the stove, and answered millions of questions. By now and even earlier in the race she had become famous overnight, the one who was going to the win the Iditarod and she was a woman.

The closer she got to Nome, the more fans she saw.

“If anyone had told me that I was on the verge of becoming a national representative for my sport and an Alaskan heroine, my poor little brain would have short-circuited. I had never thought much about being the first woman to win the race. I thought of myself as just a sled dog race, not a woman sled dog racer,” she wrote. “What fills me with pride was that I’d proven myself to be a real Alaskan, even though I hadn’t been born here. For someone who’d grown up as a tumbleweed, always moving, this was a great accomplishment: to feel I belonged among those people whom I admired so thoroughly.”

Duane Halverson crossed the finish line 2 and ½ hours after Libby. Then came John Cooper, Rick Swenson, Rick Mackey, Vern Halter Guy Blankenship, Herbert Nayokpuk, Sonny Lindner, Lavon Barve, Tim Moerlein, Emmitt Peters, Tim Osmar, Jerry Austin, Terry Adkins, Roger Nordlum, Glen Findlay, John Baron, Raymie Redington, Burt Bomhoff, and twenty others.

Libby’s amazing lead dogs Dugan and his brother Axle were awarded the Golden Harness award. Sister who was in Elim watched the finish on tv. She went on to lead Joe Garnie’s team to a second place finish the next year. She was given the 1986 Golden Harness Award.

Susan Butcher had also been in the 1985 race but dropped out. A moose stomped her team and two dogs died, sadly. Susan came back to win the race four times in 1986-1988 and in 1990.

Libby was honored to receive the Humanitarian Award given by race veterinarians to the musher who took best care of the dogs during the race. She also won the 1985 Pro Sportswoman of the Year Award from the Women’s Sports Association.

Libby raced again in the Iditarod. In 1989 she finished 16th and in 1995 she finished 32nd. She now lives in Homer where she has a small kennel.