Libby Riddles is celebrating 30 years since she became the first woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Riddles battled a storm going across the sea ice on Norton Sound to take first place in 18 days, 20 minutes and 17 seconds. - Photo by Jillian Rogers

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Riddles reflects on decades after Iditarod win

March 13th, 2015 | By Jillian Rogers Print this article   Email this article  

Iceworm stands up on his dog bed and sniffs the air. He makes his way slowly to his person. At 16, the husky is retired from running and is now part of a three-dog pack that lives inside.

Libby Riddles smiles as Iceworm — the great grandson of Inca, from her famous winning team — nuzzles her lap. She strokes his head and whispers in his ear, something about dinnertime still being an hour away. In the kitchen, Chilkat, her rescue cat, is knocking whatever he can off the countertops.

It's an overcast Tuesday afternoon at her Blazing Kennels in Homer, but the mountains, glaciers and ocean are popping with contrast. Riddles sits, sipping one of her neighborhood-famous soy lattes, and reflects on her career in Alaska. She's flanked by the trophies, posters and memorabilia that fill the walls and countertops of her house.

The Big One, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race winner's trophy, sits by itself, still filled with yellow roses.

It was 30 years ago this month that Riddles made history, becoming the first woman to win the 1,000-mile dog race to Nome. After that, her life swerved in an entirely new direction.

"Man, what a great life," Riddles, 58, said. "I'm one of the luckiest people ever, I think."

We all know the story of how Riddles battled the storm and decided to leave the checkpoint at Shaktoolik to cross the sea ice on Norton Sound to become the first woman to take the race, but her road to victory started years before.

After moving to Alaska as a teenager from the Lower 48, Riddles dreamed of a life of solitude and adventure. Born in Wisconsin and raised in Washington and Minnesota, she was just 16 when she made the trek north. She tried her hand at homesteading near Stony River outside the Alaska Range where she learned to live off the land from Alaska Native friends. By the time she was 20, she was getting proficient at moose hunting and had built a log cabin. She got her first sled dogs in 1975 from Jerry Riley and Patty Friend and trained out of a cabin at Nelchina.

"I got into every kind of disaster out there with the dogs and it was just great," she said.

Years later, she landed in Teller, after handling for an Iditarod musher, and running her first two Iditarods in 1980 and 1981, and joined forces with famed Alaska Native musher Joe Garnie. They raised dogs together and took turns racing.

"I learned pretty quick that I didn't want to be a dog handler ... I wanted to be on the sled," Riddles said of her early years. "Our styles of mushing were really different, Joe and I, so we complemented each other's knowledge."

The Last Great Race

In 1985, Riddles knew she had the team to beat. Garnie had placed third the year before in Iditarod with the same team.

"I said to myself 'Alright, Riddles, you've got the golden goose here, what are you going to do with it?'"

The question wasn't whether she had good dogs, she knew she did, but rather whether she would be able to manage and drive the string to victory.

Throughout the race, Riddles leapfrogged with the lead pack. The race wasn't without its disasters, but overall Riddles maintained her position so she was within striking distance.

"I never let my guard down," she said, adding that she learned her lesson years earlier when she was close enough to the finish to see the lights of Nome and still got lost.

"That made me realize that anything can happen."

Heading to the coast in the '85 affair, Riddles was out front, kind of by accident, she said.

She had rested her team a of couple hours before coming up to the lead group resting their teams at a lodge on the Yukon River. It was a cold night, well below zero, and after wavering for a minute, Riddles pressed on down the trail, taking the top spot. She stopped and camped for 12 hours at Eagle Island at 40 below and though the others caught up to her, she had banked more rest.

"We had a lot of fish and seal meat and the dogs were eating well ... we were on a roll. Plus, the dogs knew they were going home."

Training in windy, open country set her up perfectly for what was in front of her.

"On the stormiest days in Teller, I'd be out there training for Iditarod."

In Unalakleet, Riddles was in the top 5, and took off after four hours of rest.

"I was literally sitting at the table in the checkpoint trying to prop my eyes open with my fingers to try and keep myself awake."

Halfway to Shaktoolik, the "weather hit the fan."

She made it to the checkpoint in the afternoon and rested for another four hours. The storm was pummeling the coast, as they often do, but Riddles was still contemplating leaving for Koyuk on the other side of Norton Sound. She asked the advice of a local Elder and they decided that the storm could die down and that this was her shot.

"When does a person get a chance to be in the lead of the Iditarod? I wasn't going to blow it. I took a risk, but I thought I knew what I was doing."

She left Shaktoolik and headed into the wind quickly realizing the storm wasn't letting up. About halfway across, the weather was so bad Riddles had to hunker down inside her sled for 12 hours.

"When I was out there, Joe Garnie told search and rescue 'Just give her a day, she's fine.'"

Her experience in powerful coastal storms gave her the advantage and a day later, she arrived in Koyuk, 50 miles from Shaktoolik.

Back at the checkpoint, the other racers had left as a pack that morning.

"I think they were more worried about my safety more than my winning the race."

She arrived in Koyuk and rested for five hours with no sign of the rest of the field.

The storm continued all the way to Nome, knocking Riddles over on her sled and causing her to get lost on the final run from White Mountain to Nome. At one point she saw sled tracks and thought it must be a musher from Nome out on the trail, until she realized they were her own tracks and that she was going the wrong way.

Luckily she figured it out and her and her team beat feet for Front Street and the Burled Arch.

She won the race in 18 days, 20 minutes and 17 seconds and was also presented with the humanitarian award for excellence in dog care.

"I wasn't exhausted anymore, when you're winning it, you're over the moon. I was so focused on this Iditarod that that's why I said 'If I die now, it'll be ok' but I hadn't thought at all about what would happen after Iditarod."

The aftermath

In the hours, days, weeks, months and years that followed the historic win, Riddles has been featured in a wide array of publications, from Vogue to Sports Illustrated, on television and at popular events in Alaska and Outside.

The onslaught of interview and appearance requests began immediately, she recalled with a chuckle.

She remembers one request from a tabloid asking for a photo of Riddles standing in her dog yard in a dress. She and her friends in Nome laughed for days at that one.

"I don't take it too seriously, but it's fun and I've met some great people."

Her win has been honored in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame and she received Sportswoman of the Year honors from the Women's Sports Foundation in 1985.

She has traveled the world telling her story and inspiring young and old, men and women, to live their own dreams.

"I'm proud that I was able to have a really great race that year," she said. "It doesn't always work like that. I've enjoyed the Iditarod every time I've been on it, but for things to come together like that ... you're just on this magic carpet ride. What a feeling to have that, even just once in my life."

In the years following the win, Riddles eventually landed in Nome and then Knik and now lives on the outskirts of Homer. She continued racing, running her last Iditarod in 1995, and traveling to Europe and the Lower 48 to compete. Her last race, a women's race in Ewok, was in 2000.

A self-described introvert, Riddles makes her living working for Princess Cruises talking to tourists on ships parked in Juneau in the summertime.

"I feel motivated to it though, because I think it's good for the sport and I get to be my own boss. Tourism is a natural match and it's mostly about educating people."

She's written a few books, one on her 1985 run and two children's books, and sells those along with other books and mushing souvenirs at her shows. She started a glacier mushing business out of Juneau but has been with Princess since the late '90s.

The sport has changed dramatically in the years since her victory — booties were held on with electrical tape and there were no GPS "save me" buttons to be pushed back then. The sleds were large and wooden with no seats or trailers for carrying dogs, and the trail was more, let's say, untouched then it is today.

While she does miss "the good old days" of mushing, she admires the innovation and dedication of today's elite dog drivers.

"It cracks me up," she said. "Sometimes I wish I was out there racing again with hand warmers and seats. It's always been a mix of high tech and low tech and that's what I love about it. That can be the difference between first and second place, because you don't win it doing what everybody else does.

"I follow the race pretty well but I don't even know a lot of the stuff they're doing these days as far as feeding and supplements and training.

"The dogs are becoming more atomic every year and it's just incredible."

Dogs, past and present

These days, Riddles has 26 dogs in her brood. Some are huskies that stem from her own bloodlines, but there are a handful from other mushers, including two young females from Lance Mackey and a handful from Sebastian Schnuelle. She runs dogs nearly every day in the winter, though her race-weary body doesn't always allow.

"I've known a heck of a lot of really great dogs in my life," she said. "I try to be in the present with the dogs I have now and give them my focus. And I try to give them equal treatment, even to the brats like Pumpkin."

Perhaps her most famous dog was her trusty leader Dugan, who led her winning race and won the golden harness for the effort.

A natural leader, Dugan was out Gareth Wright bloodlines. Dugan's father, Grey, was trained by musher Dick Peterson and Riddles had leased Grey for her 1981 Iditarod. Though Grey didn't know his gee from his haw, he was extremely motivated to keep heading down the trail. Riddles bred Grey with another leased husky on her team and Dugan was born.

"I really liked those two dogs and put them together and got my dream team. At six months old, Dugan was already running out in front of the team when I was training for the Kusko 300."

The litter was raised in Teller and they were trained as working dogs — hauling firewood and hunting.

"They were work dogs and running the Iditarod was another way for them to earn their living."

Today, she still has dogs related to Dugan, including his grandson Bean, who was never much of a sled dog, but instead has become her shadow, living in the house and traveling with her to Juneau each summer.

Keeping it simple

These days, her dog runs are short and her teams small, but she enjoys the relaxed pace and being able to take in the scenery while cruising the Caribou Hills on the runners. She still gets requests for appearances and interviews, but for the most part, her life is much more quiet.

"It's been an interesting path," she said. "I really like keeping it simple."

Between running her dogs and keeping track of race standings in the winter, Riddles is always trying to better her presentations in Juneau, but she also takes time for personal projects and trips Outside.

"The Iditarod has given me the opportunity to branch off and do all these other things that I enjoy like writing and photography and speaking. Besides, I'm way too spoiled now to go and get a real job."

 

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