One of Alaska’s unique contributions is dog sled racing. The five month race season begins in October, with the most famous event, the 1,000 mile Anchorage to Nome Iditarod, run in early March. In 1985, at 28 years old, Libby Riddles was the first woman to win this grueling race, bringing attention to the sport from outside the state. I met Libby when she gave a lecture on dog sledding on board my cruise ship, the Island Princess.
LIbby Reynolds has got to be one of the most daring and fascinating women I have ever met. At 16 years of age, she graduated early from high school, left her parents and home in Minnesota, and with $1,000 to her name, set off on her own to live in Alaska!!! She was an avid reader and read a lot about arctic experiences when she was younger. It was those stories that set her on her adventure and what kept her going when things got rough.
Because she wanted to experience the real Alaska, when she arrived, she chose to homestead and actually lived in a tent her first winter!!! She learned to live off the land and observed the Eskimo “village ways.” Summer was the time to prepare for winter. Fish she caught was smoked; fruits and vegetables were dried. She still lives that way today.
Next to reading, Libby loved animals and was drawn to dog mushing, Alaska’s state sport. Before trains, the only way to get around in the harsh winters was by dog sled. To preserve this history, the Iditarod Race was started in 1973 and has become an extremely competitive race. Mushers (the human who directs the sled) and a team of 16 dogs (of which at least 6 must be on the towline at the finish line) cover the 1,000 mile distance through the forest in the dead of winter in 9–15 days or more. According to Libby, “Preparing for the race is almost harder than the race itself.” It took her four years of dedicated hard work to get ready for her winning race in 1985.
Handling a team of Siberian Husky dogs requires trust and cooperation between the dogs and their human partner. The trust begins when the dogs are puppies. They train to be “athletes” right from the start, learning the roles they will play in future races.
Libby was a long shot to win her race. She had to overcome a blizzard in order to finish, experiencing high winds and nights with temperatures of 50 below (100 below including the wind chill factor). On the trail, her dogs always came first. They were dressed just as warm as her, wearing insulated dog blankets and booties on their feet to keep from freezing. Libby would also cook their food before her own. It took Libby and her team 18 hours 20 minutes 17 seconds to complete the race. Other racers held back because of the extreme weather conditions. In the end, it was taking the risk to continue racing through the blizzard that got Libby her win. Simply amazing.
Libby raced three more times before retiring. Since then, she has became an author, writing her own story as well as children’s books. She is also a motivational speaker, sharing her lessons of life that she learned from her dog mushing: keep going and keep learning your whole life.
What an amazing woman and role model. She truly inspired me. I will never be a musher in a 1,000 mile dog sled race. but I can put in to practice the ideas she shared. How about you?