American dogsledder and first woman to win the Iditarod, 1985
The Iditarod is a grueling 1152-mile trans-Alaska dogsled race in which male mushers dominated until 1985 when Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the annual race. She was named 1985 Sports Woman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation and honored by the Iditarod veterinarians with the 1985 Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for her humane treatment of her dogs. In addition, her two lead dogs, Dugan and Sister, won the 1985 Golden Harness Award that year.
Riddles was born in Madison, Wisconsin and grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota. After graduating from high school, she and a boyfriend decided to move to Alaska as homesteaders; her only preparation for dogsled mushing was a love of animals.
Four years after moving to Alaska, Riddles had a team of dogs and entered her first Iditarod. She did not place very highly in the ranking in 1980 or the following years, meaning that she had no ability to raise money through sponsors. However, raising dogs is expensive, so Riddles came up with ways to earn money while still working with her dogs. She made and sold fur hats to tourists and also charged for exhibitions of her sled dogs.
Some consider that the Iditarod is held to commemorate the “race of mercy” that took place in 1925 when a relay of dog sled owners carried medicine to Nome when the children of the city were dying of diphtheria. But in essence, the Iditarod symbolizes much more than this one trip. The route of the current race follows a path that was taken by miners and settlers who were intent on reaching the gold fields of Alaska. Teams usually consisted of twenty or more dogs, and they could pull half a ton or more of supplies. The average distance traveled each day was 50-70 miles.
To understand the importance of dog sleds and mushers, it is important to realize that until the snowmobile was invented, the only way to reach the inland parts of the state during the winter months was by dog sled.
The Race of 1985
The weather that year was particularly brutal. Temperatures plunged to -50 degrees Fahrenheit and twice during the race, the officials halted the competition so that the mushers and their dogs could seek shelter. That year the race was officially halted for a total of 87 hours and emergency rations for the dogs had to be flown in.
Riddles took her lead because of the bad weather. All the teams had stopped in Shaktoolik. Riddles awoke and took a calculated risk her that the storm was such that her dogs could make it through, and she and her team headed out onto the sea ice of Norton Sound. The forty-knot winds exhausted the team, so Riddles stopped for twelve hours for them all to rest, and after the break, the team was ready to go. Riddles ultimately covered the 1152-mile trail in 18 days, 20 minutes, and 17 seconds—three hours faster than the second place finisher.
Today Riddles still raises dogs in Alaska talks and writes about her life. In a children’s book, Storm Run: The Story of the First Woman to Win the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, she writes: “We moved into the blackest of nights. I couldn’t make out any runner tracks. In fact, I could barely see the trail. I was either lost—or in first place.”
For more on Libby Riddles, visit her website: www.libbyriddles.com