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Iditarod pioneer, Minnesota native shares his tale of the trail

Alaska was barely a state, the Iditarod Trail was fading from memory, and sled dogs were largely replaced by snowmobiles and airplanes when Minnesota native Dan Seavey followed a childhood dream to Seward.

Dan Seavey
Minnesota native Dan Seavey has run five Iditarod races and was one of the race's pioneers. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News, MCT)

Alaska was barely a state, the Iditarod Trail was fading from memory, and sled dogs were largely replaced by snowmobiles and airplanes when Minnesota native Dan Seavey followed a childhood dream to Seward.

"(Today), you mention Alaska, you think Iditarod; you mention Iditarod and you think Alaska," Seavey, 76, said by telephone.

The St. Cloud Teacher's College (now St. Cloud State University) grad and his wife, the former Shirley Anderson of Milaca, moved to Alaska in 1963 thinking they'd stay for a couple of years. Five decades later, the Seavey name is synonymous with sled dog racing, and Seavey is credited with helping Joe Redington Sr. launch the 1,000-mile Anchorage-to-Nome race.

The 42nd running begins March 1. Seventy-two mushers from seven countries have registered; 16 of them are rookies.

When Seavey appears in Duluth on Friday in connection with the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, he will share stories about the effort that ultimately preserved both sled dogs and the trail.

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"He's one of those folks that I think most everyone would like to spend a number of hours with in a log cabin someplace with a woodstove and a coffeepot on, listening to the stories that he has well-chronicled in his mind," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod race.

Do it to know it

Seavey, who has run the Iditarod five times, most recently in 2012 to help commemorate the trail's 100th anniversary, said he did so more as a history buff than as a serious racer. He learned about the trail that would transport 65 tons of gold when he was assigned to teach state history.

"You might be interested in history of the game of tennis, but can you really know what tennis is all about unless you at least try to play it? To me, physical experience is most important in learning about something," Seavey said. "You can talk about a segment of the trail being used, but unless you run a team down the Yukon from Ruby to Kaltag, it's just an academic exercise."

Running the first race in 1973 instilled an appreciation for the pioneers who snowshoed over crude trails. Seavey and his team got lost on the trail made by snowmobile.

"You learn what a thousand miles by dog team is. You fall into a routine. You have a traveling routine. Nowadays, they have schedules. We just went from light to dark and camped. The race never really sleeps anymore," Seavey said. "We just huddled around the campfire until morning and took off."

The 1973 winner finished in 20 days. Seavey placed third, finishing in 20 days, 14.5 hours. Today, the first-place finisher runs the route in just under nine days.

"It's not a great campout anymore. It's a get-there-as-fast-as-you-can race," Seavey said. "Those top 10 teams, they're the pros. They're the ones going for it."

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He leaves racing to his children and grandchildren, including son Mitch, the two-time winner who last year became the oldest champion at age 53; and grandson Dallas, who at age 25 became the youngest champion in 2012.

Dog nutrition and breeding have contributed to a faster race. Son Mitch is raising the 20th generation of Alaskan huskies descended from his father's team.

"One of the common questions is what makes these dogs go, how can you travel more than 100 miles a day, day after day, with a dog team? Of course, the answer is nothing makes them go. They simply can't help themselves. They need to go," Seavey said.

Cultural renaissance

Iditarod organizers had two goals: Preserve the sled dog in Alaska and preserve the gold-rush trail.

"Sled dogs were disappearing, so we needed to give them a purpose, and what could be better than a long-distance race," Seavey said. "The second overall goal of those early organizers was to somehow preserve the Iditarod Trail."

A short race along a cleared portion of the trail to commemorate the Wasilla-Knik Centennial in 1967 gave the Iditarod its first push, according to the race's website. Seavey said his role was to spread the word on the Kenai Peninsula, raising awareness and money. He gave talks and wrote letters expressing the importance of Seward in gold-rush history.

"Even the word 'Iditarod' was lost to the then-modern Sewardite. A lot of people, I guess me, too, didn't even know how to pronounce the word. There was a re-education process that had to go on," Seavey said.

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Traveling by dogsled or for 1,000 miles was nothing new.

"The question was could you use the same dogs on a thousand-mile course day after day in the racing mode," Seavey said.

The average person could not afford a team. Most mushers had been in the commercial delivery business. Chances were if you didn't have a mail contract or a freight contract, you didn't have a team.

"I call the result of the founding of the Iditarod Trail sled dog race an Alaskan cultural renaissance," Seavey said.

"But if we go back to when we started on this, the dogs were disappearing. The trail was segmented and disappearing -- literally and figuratively. And a little dog club ... essentially turned that all around, so dog mushing is the Alaskan state sport, and there are more dogs in this country now. Many, many, many, many times more sled dogs than there ever were back in the day."

Seavey said the race's future remained touch-and-go into the mid-1980s. Asked by a newspaper reporter at the 1973 Nome finish whether the race would become an annual event, Seavey said his answer was: "Well, maybe five years."

Define success

How the Iditarod became successful is what John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon President Jason Rice wants to find out when Seavey comes to Duluth.

"I would like to hear him talk about what he sees as ways to stay relevant in a world where there's more and more outdoor sports and extreme sports that are gaining notoriety. How do we stay on top of our game and relevant and challenging and yet not do things that are sensational?" Rice said.

The Beargrease had struggled to retain sponsors after lack-of-snow cancellations in recent years. For a time this fall, organizers called off the race. The following week, they announced its reorganization and new sponsors. The 2014 awards total $35,000.

Rice said the Beargrease competes for sponsorships (which, in turn, draw mushers) with events such as cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding, Snocross, hockey, fat-tire bike racing and fishing tournaments.

What others might find most interesting are Seavey's stories from the trail.

"There's something very unique about traveling through the wilderness of the wilds of Alaska with a team of highly trained, finely tuned sled dogs that are capable of things that most people don't quite comprehend when they think of dogs," Hooley said. "It's a hard thing to describe until you've experienced it yourself."

Growing up in Deerwood, just northeast of Brainerd, Seavey said he listened to the "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon" radio show and dreamed of Alaska. He bought his first sled dog shortly after moving there because a friend's dog had puppies. Moving north of town allowed him and Shirley to raise more dogs.

Despite advances in the sport, some elements remain the same.

"It's still a musher getting a dog team over the same trail and all of the

elements that involves," said Seavey, naming Rainy Pass among his favorite stretches.

"It's like traveling through the clouds. It's very beautiful. Sometimes you can't see the dog in front of you because of the storms. But when that's clear, which it was when I went through last in 2012, it was absolutely gorgeous."

Seavey retired from teaching in 1984. He's worked as a commercial fisherman and retired from a tour and transportation business. Today, he serves on the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance board, works with the Iditarod Trail Committee, and is president of the nonprofit Seward Iditarod Trail Blazers, which maintains 100 miles of trail.

This year, he and Shirley will help family members with race preparation and food drops. For the 23rd time, they'll travel to Nome for the finish.

Meanwhile, Seavey maintains his own 12-dog team. He typically runs them 50 or 60 miles, and still takes winter camping trips. His occasional mushing partner is his 8-year-old granddaughter.

"She'll probably end up being a ballerina, but for now, we're having a good time," Seavey said.

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