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iditarod race pioneer

Interview with Rod Perry 

 

Alaska’s fabulous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, internationally famed as The Last Great Race on Earth, each winter renews its place as the most glittering spectacle on the world’s northern sports stage. The first Saturday every March, Anchorage’s downtown pulsates in a wonderful bedlam. More than a thousand eager sled dogs, crazed to be off, overflow the air with their near-deafening frenzy of barks and howls. Scores of intrepid drivers hurriedly load sleds and harness teams. Spectators from around the globe swarm by the tens of thousands to take in the action. At two minute intervals teams in their turn move up to the 4th and B Street starting line and they’re off.

Ahead lies more than a thousand miles of some of the most spectacularly beautiful, yet formidable sub-arctic wilderness in North America. Over the mighty Alaska Range. Through the daunting Interior where temperatures can plunge low enough to put out a lit match. Down that mighty river of legend, the Yukon. Along the blizzard-lashed edge of the Bering Sea ice pack to finish in the famed gold rush town of Nome. It is indeed a race for the ages.

The Iditarod was launched in 1973 amidst a climate of skepticism that something so audacious could be pulled off. But Rod Perry and 36 others were drawn as a moth to a flame. Daring to fail, they went out with the entire fate of the race riding with them. Their success began today’s entire Iditarod phenomenon. Today, Rod is one of only eleven original finishing mushers left. They alone can tell in first person the stories of that greatest Iditarod Race adventure of all time.

Adventure seekers and outdoorsmen, do your nostalgic dreams often take you back to pioneering movements in America’s past?  Join us in reading and sharing this Q&A article with your family members and friends to bring the rich founding history of Alaska’s Iditarod Race into your living room. But why just read about this event when you can also take part either as a spectator or participant!


Rod Perry, what a grand occasion to interview one of the original Iditarod founders in the outdoorsmen’s great tradition that has so prominently figured into Alaska’s intriguing history! Thanks for being with us in this edition of The Christian Sportsman magazine. Let’s get started

1 – Can you give our readers your definition of the word “passion”?      

“It’s an emotion that takes you over when something stirs you deeply. I have written about the lead-up to the first Iditarod, in 1973 a great untried unknown, when most were too cautious to sign up, ‘. . . but to an intrepid few the call is too captivating. Already a primal directive has seized the very souls of 37 driven men so possessed to test themselves against the unknown they can no more turn away than turn down their next breath. They are compelled to go!’  Richard, that’s passion!”

2 – As one of the original founding mushers of the Iditarod Race could you please share with our readers an overview about your family, career and education leading you to move to Alaska in 1963?  

“My father grew up on a homestead and trapline in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies where their hunting and trapping partners were the Sarcee. My mother was raised in a sod house on the plains of New Mexico Territory when Pancho Villa was raiding nearby. I spent my early life in the tiny community (1950s  winter population, 175) of Oceanside, Oregon with the surf pounding out front and great primeval forest in back. The surrounds were rich with fish and game and I had the perfect folks to encourage me to outdoors pursuits. I worked a summer job for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1963. Returning to Oregon State University, I finished a degree in Wildlife Management, then moved to Alaska permanently 50 years ago this April. Where else could I have gone for my kind of self-expression? Had I stayed down in ‘America’ my life would have been dull as dishwater. God didn’t wire me that way.”

3 – It has been rumored that you have actually ridden a bull moose but is there any truth to the story?  

“Now Richard, what do you take me for? Who would be THAT foolish? (Unless he’s my brother Alan, who from his hidden perch above a game trail dropped upon a bull and got the ride of his life.) No, I would never do anything that reckless. I only rode a 900 pound, foul intentioned COW moose. By the way, the ride is way smoother than any horse. But it feels awkward, because the hump forces you to sit so far back.”

4 – It has also circulated among sportsmen and other thrill seekers that you have shared Eskimo delicacies with Alaska Natives known as oshok or walrus flipper. Is that true?  Please elaborate?

“Through the ages, all people the world over, including our Savior, have socialized and bonded over breaking bread together. Turning your nose up at someone’s traditional food is taken as an offense—‘You think something I eat is revolting, you probably look down on me for eating it.’ Nothing welds me to the people like travelling into their village by dog team and asking to try their food. Oshok is walrus flipper buried in the frozen ground for a year. It’s curing gives it a kind of sour bite like it’s slightly fermented.”

5 – Tell us about your hand-crafted dog sleds that you are known for, and have any of the mushers used them for the Iditarod race?                  

“There aren’t many who know how to construct traditional wooden sleds any more. They are a joy to build, but take hundreds of hours. Driving my big freight sleds I led Iditarod’s Ceremonial Starts in 2011, 2014 and 2015 doing historic reenactments commemorating centennials. The Iditarod Trail was built in 1910-11 and Anchorage was founded in 1914-15. For Anchorage’s Centennial Celebration my brother, old friend Cliff Sisson, and I built a spectacular sled with grant money from the Iditarod Foundation and Wells Fargo. It was modeled after an old time sled used in gold rush days for serious freighting over the Iditarod Trail. When not in use the sled is displayed in Wells Fargo’s Heritage Museum in Anchorage. 

Wells Fargo Express used to haul gold from the mines of Iditarod Country out over the Iditarod Trail by dog team. Their biggest shipment ever was 3,400 pounds carried on several sleds. Calculate that worth in today’s gold prices! My Centennial sled weighs 240 pounds empty and is capable of carrying 1,000-2,000 pounds. 

In the earliest Iditarod races, bush mushers ran the race as they had mushed in their hunting and trapping. The sleds were self-built of wood in the various traditional local designs. Most weighed, empty, around forty to fifty pounds. Of course, the spirit of competition and increasing richness of the race purse stimulated innovation. Now they’re built of polymers and extrusions and cost thousands. Today’s lightest racing sleds weigh 25-30 pounds; they never have to pack much between checkpoints. Running one of my old woodies in today’s race would be like running a Conestoga wagon at Daytona.” 

6 – How has your life as a story-teller inspired you to conceptualize and produce full-length motion picture films such as the highly acclaimed “Sourdough” back in the mid-1970s?

      
“It took most of a lifetime for me to narrow down what God primarily made me. I used to think of myself as a hunter, fisherman, and adventurer. But gaining perspective, I see that even above those I am a storyteller. And necking it down even more to a niche or genre, I am an Old North Romantic. Sourdough was the story of an aged trapper and prospector (played by my late father Gil Perry) attempting to live out his disappearing lifestyle in a dying old-time Alaska. The film we are now making about the first Iditarod will depict it as a throwback to earlier Alaska, a kind of Old North reenactment.” 

7- Your personal history also includes many stories of sheep hunting and even serving as a guide and outfitter. Tell us about your passions for big game hunting and any fishing adventures in Alaska, the Last Frontier.  

         
“My drive to hunt has not diminished much. At 74 I still carry a full pack into the mountains. Of my five kids, three are into hunting and fishing. But two of those three live out in America now so my son Ethan is my stalwart, the perfect partner. I like to find virtually inaccessible game-rich country then devise entries that don’t leave tracks for others to follow. Sneaky? You bet. Just ask well-known Christian minister, comedienne and author, Ken Davis (who’s also a fanatic bow hunter.)

As far as fishing, first and foremost I love to sport fish. One of my favorite memories is almost wearing out my right arm (I was a two-time Alaska state freestyle wrestling champ, so have pretty good arms) with a five-weight, roll casting egg-sucking leeches along a small, brush-choked stream and fighting big rainbows all day. My commercial fishing could be thrilling as well. Once while operating our gillnetter in Bristol Bay, my partner and I netted in 45 minutes thousands of pounds of red salmon worth what I made working an entire year in my job for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.”

8 – Regarding the Iditarod Race of 1973, who were some of the personalities that figured into the launching of what has become known as the Last Great Race on Earth?   


“No other can be spoken of in the same breath as ‘Father of the Iditarod’ Joe Redington, a Knik, Alaska homesteader. But my friends Gleo Huyck and Tom Johnson performed so much as his right-hand men Joe always spoke of them as cofounders. Prominently, there were Dick Mackey, Dave Olson, U.S. Army Major General Charles Gettys, and a couple handfuls of others numbered among Joe’s true believers. Without them he could have never even brought his race to the starting line. It was Joe’s small band against the world. Amidst the general nay saying, the biggest opposition was the established sled dog racing community. It wasn’t the kind of racing they’d signed up for and they thought it a cockamamie idea, a fool’s delusion that such a wild, complex, grandiose scheme could succeed.”

10 – We would be remised if we did not ask you as a dog man about your world renowned lead dog in the first two Iditarods by the name of Fat Albert. Tell us about him.  

 
“I bought him from a homestead girl who was going away to college. Cost $60 if I recall correctly. Nowadays, the least dog on a good team is worth a couple grand. He was a natural leader. I could steer him like a car by voice command. He got a lot of local media coverage during the first Iditarod. Then I wrote the “Racing the Iditarod Trail” which appeared in the March and April 1974 issues of Alaska Magazine, and Albert gained wider exposure. Before, during, and after the ’74 race, The Wall Street Journal’s weekly news magazine The National Observer, ran twelve straight weeks of FA stories. They reported that the series brought more written response than any other subject in their history; in second place was Watergate. Observer staff said 168 newspapers around the nation ran some or all of the stories. 

By the time Sports Illustrated came up to do their first Iditarod article, ‘Pull North to Nome’ senior writer Coles Phinizy stated that just as Ruth built Yankee Stadium, Fat Albert had built Iditarod awareness across the U. S. Finally, Readers Digest ran their condensed version of Sports Illustrated’s article. Before it all settled down, millions knew about the dog. 

Once as we tried to break up a canine battle royal inside a cabin, Albert accidentally almost bit my dad’s big toe off, mistaking a white stockinged foot for his white opponent. But that’s a separate story.” 

11 – Why and how are you launching your latest film featuring the history of Alaska’s Iditarod Race?   


“First, we are not doing a history of the race, but a history of the first race. You can’t tell the story of the founding race with any depth by joining it to the whole 44-year race history. The first race was so absolutely one-of-a-kind it does not come close to fitting in the general Iditarod box. It has to be separated and told alone. 

Why tell it? Well, for one, Iditarod holds absolutely huge value to the State of Alaska and its worldwide fan base. Lots of the value is in its wondrous intangibles. But then there is the very tangible side. ‘Iditarod’ has become Alaska’s most marketable and most world famous single word. (Some might argue, ‘Denali,’ but let’s not quibble.) Iditarod-related economic activity has been in the unnumbered hundreds of millions. Just one of our mushers alone grosses over $2 million annually in his summer tourist visits. The way such a phenomenon began is surely worth the telling. 

And then there is the story for the story’s sake itself. So much has been written about the Iditarod, and a few films made, but not much about the greatest of all Iditarod adventures, the first one. That is because back in 1973 it was so doubted, media hardly covered it. That combined with the fact that so many of the drivers were Natives who went back to their remote villages after that first race. So the story of the first race has taken on kind of an aura of unknown mystery and intrigue. No one but we who were there can tell it with what I call ‘unassailable authenticity’ for that is only available to those who can tell it in first person. And our band of brothers is dying. We have lost two more in the last year. If we don’t tell it now, it’ll be gone forever. 

One grand part of the first-race story is the part Alaska’s Natives played. Eleven of the first sixteen finishers were Natives. Now only three still stand, one last Inupiat, a lone remaining Yupik, and the sole surviving Athabascan. We can’t afford to let their stories go to the grave with them. So we are in a most desperate race.

12 – Describe for our readers a brief overview of how the race has developed over the years?

“Here’s a brief synopsis that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but explains the progression. The 1973 founding race was the “Lewis and Clark Expedition of the Iditarod,” a voyage of discovery, a plunge into the unknown. As venerable Yukon elder Ken Chase has well said, ‘Rod, there were no rookies on our first run, we were explorers.’ The second race through the next two or three dozen were like covered wagon train passages over the Oregon Trail, with each year travel over the route becoming more known and fine tuned. The Iditarod gradually morphed into a veritable sports car race over the interstate between Independence, MO and Astoria, OR. The race today bears little resemblance to our first test drive, other than it’s still canines pulling a conveyance with a musher aboard. On the other hand, it’s yet captivating as basically a Stone Age transportation method. And there’s still that age-old theme of man against the wilderness; the drivers still have to cope with Alaska’s terrain and Arctic elements. Then there’s today’s dogs—oh, those dogs. Four decades of selective breeding have refined a specialized Iditarod superdog that is truly amazing. They’re able to clip off 130 miles or more day after day and simply love doing it beyond all else.” 

13 – How can our readers participate in helping you to launch the new film project?      


“This is a million-dollar-plus project necessitating we break it into components. That my  collaborator Buzz Rohlfing was an Academy Award nominee for ‘Best Documentary’ evidences this is a shoot-for-the-stars production. We are testing the waters with a www.Kickstarter.com campaign, and there will be more crowd funding to come. Individual patrons will enjoy being named in the film’s credits. By the way, if there might be really big players—either individuals or companies among Christian Sportsman readership—who wish to sponsor beyond levels listed in Kickstarter, we are considering some ‘Executive Producer’ level awards we can custom design (such as sled dog trips?) Regarding company sponsorships, movie advertising is ‘the advertising that keeps on giving.’ Each time the film shows through the years and decades, as the credits roll up the company will be advertised again for all to see. 

The best way to stay up with exciting developments and find how to help is to begin regularly checking www.menof73.com.  It is brand new, just barebones, but what’s coming will be wonderfully rich.”

14 – Rod, you have claimed that God inspired you make this film. How are you so sure? Do you think God really cares about a mere sporting event like the Iditarod Race?          


“Well, God has gifted each of us with a unique talent set. Jesus didn’t waste his parables on trivia. He’s dead serious about expecting us to put our gifted talents to use—his use. Usually he has made you good at what he wants you to do and drawn you toward doing it. In my own experience I don’t allow much angst about whether I’m hearing his voice or my own, I just pray and get moving. Like my old commercial fishing business partner, the renowned Rev. Keith Lauwers says, ‘If you’re in close fellowship with the Lord, and desire above all else to do his will, you can do about anything you want, trusting he will straighten your course.’  So when that first exciting inspiration to write Iditarod history, and then make this film hit me, I didn’t waste time over-analyzing or agonizing about whether it was God I was hearing or just me. Knowing God doesn’t usually steer my ship if it’s docked, I immediately got some water flowing over the rudder and expected his hand atop mine on the wheel to make course corrections.

My excitement soared as God gifted absolute assurances. Richard, you wouldn’t believe—no, actually you and such folk as read this magazine would believe—the many evidences of God directing my steps. Time, after time, after time, he orchestrated “divine appointments,” bringing people I had never met or had not seen for years, who held puzzle pieces, into my path exactly when I needed them. And there were the times I had doors I had thought God had opened to me, suddenly shut. Trusting this film is his errand he was sending me on, I just trusted that it is all in his hands and waited patiently. Every time he has opened a new door that is better. Of course Satan is a destroyer and I expect his opposition. God says (Rev. 12:11) we overcome him “by the Blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony.” So it’s important that when God gifts the project with a new treasure, that as soon as I can, I testify about it to somebody, making sure I glorify God by attributing the gift to his hand. 

Now do I think God cares about something like the Iditarod? I suspect that as a mere sporting event, in and of itself, in his great cosmic scope of things, probably not much. HOWEVER, the Iditarod does provide a grand stage for great Christian practitioners like everyone’s Iditarod Queen, DeeDee Jonrowe to beam her witness and glorify God.”
 

15 – While on the Iditarod Trail all alone in the wilderness with your dogs and your hand-crafted sleds, have you ever found yourself lost, stranded or in a survival situation? If so, did heartfelt prayer figure into your recovery?        


“One of the great polar explorers once stated that in most cases it is the unprepared or incompetent that experience life threatening adventures during expeditions. Driving my team across the Alaska Range in the 1974 race, we were caught right on the exposed summit in the most vicious blizzard in Iditarod history. In Iditarod annals it is called the great 50-50 storm. Minus 50-degree temperatures combined with 50 mph winds to plunge the chill factor off the chart which ‘only’ goes to 128 below. That put me one mistake away from flash-freezing into a 175-pound popsicle. I had grown up in the church and been a life-long church goer, but, lamentably, I had never committed to living under Jesus’s Lordship until 1980. So, no, in 1974 I did not pray—I simply sheltered the dogs, then with Dr. Terry Adkins erected my tent I had customized to allow set-up in a couple minutes and withstand any wind. Then I crawled inside. Covered by God’s patient, gracious hand, I was just a well-prepared, very competent heathen doing his thing.”

16 - Besides big game guiding, working on moose research, commercial fishing and running the Iditarod what are some adventures on the classic Real Alaskan list that you have not been a part of?           


“I have not climbed Denali. I guess it’s because so many have done it that it’s never drawn me. And knowing I’m wont to be an absent-minded dreamer, it’s unwise I be a bush pilot. Oh, and the requisite killing of a brown bear - - - never done that, either. Faced down a few charges, sometimes with a rifle, other times armed only with a camera rolling film. Talked them out of it, or grinned them down like Davey Crockett. One sow with cubs guarding a kill came so close I could have taken a long step and poked her nose with my muzzle. I could have killed a slew of bears while moose hunting, they’re everywhere. But a rifle shot sends my target quarry into deep hiding.” 

17 -What involvement have you had over the years with the Iditarod National Historic Trail Advisory Council and how has that effort served to promote the Iditarod Trail’s significance?

“I was appointed by the Secretary of the Interior under Carter to the original council. Being such an Old North romantic made me deeply interested in the trail’s history. Father of the Iditarod Joe Redington first was enraptured by the romance of the old trail, and that led to his vision for a race over it. Then in a turnabout it was the race focusing a national spotlight on the trail that spurred its inclusion in the National Historic Trails system. Although I have not been an active member of the council for many years, my continued fascination led me to author Volume I of my set, TRAILBREAKERS—Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod, which is about how the famous old gold rush era trail came to be. (Volume II tells how the race that now runs over the Iditarod Trail was born. See my website, www.rodperry.com )”

18 - It has been rumored that you once found yourself in a survival situation causing you to suck milk straight from the udder of a cow moose. Can you deny or substantiate that rumor?

  
“Actually, not once, but twice, and neither were about survival. The first was out of curiosity. We had a lactating cow drugged and down taking samples for research. I had finished extracting an incisor and while awaiting my partner’s drawing of blood, I thought, ‘Mmmmm, I wonder. . ..’ The next time was while hunting and I was famished. It’s got some real body to it, thick and kinda sweet.”

19 – Who are some of your favorite storytellers of faith found in the Bible and why?

 
“I read the Word to know God better and grow in my relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s of far more value than the mere enjoyment of stories. Now that said, who can’t be thrilled by how that fabulous story of Ester has all its pieces come together? And wouldn’t I give anything to be teleported back and have my camera rolling, putting the Creation story on film, recording the biggest miracles for the cinema, and filming the ultimate action heroes, David vs Goliath, and David’s Mighty Men and Samson in the thick of their astounding performances!”

20 – What is the scripture reference that epitomizes your life’s adventures and why?

   
“Popping immediately to mind are the first phrases of Ecclesiastes 9:10 ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.’ Of course that directive must be taken in the entire light of Scripture, so the caveat, ‘as long as it is approved of God’ is understood. I’ve always had fairly extraordinary visions and creative ideas and been a ‘Go for it!’ kind of guy. I love my late friend Col. Norman Vaughan’s exhortation, ‘Dream big, and dare to fail!’” 

21 – If some of our readers would like to someday travel to Alaska, “The Greatland”, what activities, sites or people would you encourage them to place on their bucket list?

    
“As I engage thousands of our summer visitors at my Iditarod Central kiosk at 4th and E. Street in Anchorage, I rarely meet barbarians like me. Mainly I talk with pretty civilized vacationers. Those not trussed up in a package tour I encourage to take the Anchorage-Seward-Anchorage train trip rated by one independent train travel magazine the second most beautiful train trip on earth, only behind one in India’s Himalayas. During the several-hour Seward layover, take a half-day Kenai Fjords marine tour. Second, I strongly advise they take a flight-see of Denali, out of Talkeetna.

In this land of jaw-dropping scenery, there is absolutely nothing else that comes close. Then I tell them they’ll find those two on any knowing tourist’s list, but if they want to get under the surface and into the warp and woof of real Alaska life, drive the spectacular Glenn Highway, a National Scenic Byway. At Glennallen, turn north on the Richardson Highway, take it through the grandeur of Isabel Pass, turn around and go back to Paxon and drive the Denali Highway forty miles to Crazy Dog Kennels. There, visit John Schandelmeier and his wife Zoya Denure and stay in one of their rustic little, no-frills cabins. John’s a Yukon Quest champion. Zoya, formerly a high fashion model in Europe and Asia, is now scooping poop tending their kennel and running the Iditarod. John or Zoya may be engaged to take you on a long training run with the team, or a river boat jaunt up to the glacier. Or at least direct you to the best nearby blueberry patch. I’ve never sent anyone their way that did not end up being their great friend and fan. Oops, almost forgot—their two little daughters are soooo cute! Finally, Iditarod Champions Mitch Seavey on the Kenai and Jeff King near the Denali Park entrance have absolutely captivating presentations you shouldn’t miss while in their areas.”

22 – I know this may sound like a loaded question, but would you recommend that church men’s groups participate in a short-term CSF Alaska Wilderness Missions project to help Christian youth organizations with construction projects on the Kenai Peninsula?

      
“Yes, as long as they have plenty of solid work laid out before them and come to work first and play second. I have seen ‘mission-lite’ come up here, appearing to be mostly rationalization for a trip north to knock around Alaska and fellowship with each other.”

23 – Would you lead our readers in a short prayer from the heart of an Alaska sportsman who has experienced much in life to be thankful for from the hand of our Creator, Father God?

“Great and Gracious Heavenly Father, I praise and worship you, and thank you that you have provided for my greatest need, the way of reconciliation from my fallen state into eternal life through Jesus Christ. At base level, that is all I really need. But thank you Lord, that you have gone beyond my base needs, enriching me with dreams and desires and beautiful realms of creation and people with which I can live them out. 

As I hunt, as I fish, as I film, write, and interact with others, open my eyes to more fully recognize and appreciate your hand of creation and blessing. And during it all, help me keep my antennae tuned for opportunities to actively engage in your service. Lord, direct my steps. Help me increase in faith. Amidst honors and accolades, help me stay grounded, regarding myself as your vessel to work through, not glorying in self, but in you.
 
In Jesus precious Name, Amen.

P.S. And Lord, just one last request: may there be Kenai-class kings up there in the River of Life.

Reach Rod Perry at: rod@rodperry.com