DIGGING IN THE ARCHIVES: Mushers look back on historic 1991 Iditarod

-- The following story is part of reporter Caitlin Skvorc’s yearlong “Digging in the Archives” series. Each month, Skvorc will look back 25 years in the Frontiersman archives and update readers on stories from 1991. --NOME — Most fans of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race know the race has been been won by a select few — nine mushers have 33 wins in 44 years of racing. Even fewer have been running the Iditarod for 25 years or more, and are still going.In this year’s race, just three mushers could claim that accomplishment: Mat-Su Valley mushers Martin Buser and DeeDee Jonrowe, and Denali Park’s Jeff King.Buser and King both have four wins, but Buser has more finishes to his name. In 33 years of racing the Iditarod, the Big Lake musher has 33 consecutive finishes, compared to King’s 24 finishes in 26 races. Jonrowe has finished 31 of the 34 Iditarods she’s entered.But one race in particular made a big difference in the world of mushing.‘A very important race’ The 1991 Iditarod, Buser said, “was a very important race.”“It was a watershed event for many people,” he said at the Willow restart this year.Changes became apparent on March 6, 1991, when Sarah Phipps reported to the Frontiersman from McGrath that the race “was moving faster than expected with talk turning toward a 10 day race.”Up to that point, the fastest finish was Susan Butcher’s 1990 victory in11 days, 1 hour, 53 minutes, 23 seconds. That was her fourth win, and many expected a fifth in ’91. But Rick Swenson was in the race, too, and he also had four wins to his name.Phipps also reported an apparent change in race strategy in the March 6 story, as most mushers breezed through the Rohn checkpoint that year, where they usually stopped to take their mandatory 24-hour layovers, she said. In the 2016 race, no musher in the top 10 took that layover before McGrath, which is two checkpoints after Rohn.But that wasn’t the case in 1991.“I’ve never seen anyone not take their layover in Rohn. This is really making things interesting,” race manager Jack Niggemeyer told the paper.Butcher and King led out of Nikolai, with Jonrowe and Kasilof’s Tim Osmar following in third and fourth. Terry Adkins, Lavon Barve, 1989 Iditarod winner Joe Runyan, John Barron and Rick Swenson filled out the rest of the chase pack.Butcher led the pack all the way to White Mountain, but as Phipps reported on March 15, “weather threw a wrench into the Iditarod once again.”High winds and “bitterly cold temperatures” forced Butcher, Runyan and Osmar to turn back shortly after leaving the checkpoint, Phipps wrote. (Back then, the mandatory White Mountain layover was 6 hours, not eight.) Meanwhile, Swenson and Buser, pushed on. Eventually, Swenson emerged from the raging storm to win one of the most dramatic finishes in race history.“That storm changed a lot of people’s lives,” Buser said.At 12 days, 16 hours, 34 minutes, 39 seconds — well below the projected finish time of 10 days and change — Swenson drove his team under Nome’s burled arch for his fifth and final win. He remains the only musher two win five times. Buser came in a second, making 1991 his “breakout year,” he said. He went on to win his first Iditarod in 1992, achieving the first finish in less than 11 days.The ‘future’ of Susan Butcher According to Phipps’ March 20, 1991 story, Butcher cried when asked about retirement and raising kids after the race.Butcher never won again. She continued to race until 1994, when she finished 10th — her lowest finish since she started racing the Iditarod in 1978, not counting the time she scratched because her dog team got stomped by a moose in 1985.That was the same year Libby Riddles became the first female winner of the Iditarod, one of four women who finished the race. In ’91 that number grew to seven, and in the 2016 race, 23 women finished the Iditarod.While Butcher has no doubt inspired female mushers around the world, her influence has apparently extended beyond that. About a year after the Massachusetts-born musher died of cancer in Seattle on Aug. 5, 2006, the Alaska State Legislature enacted House Bill 37, declaring the first Saturday of March each year as Susan Butcher Day. In the text, Butcher was described as “a loving mother, devoted wife, world-class athlete, determined competitor, true Alaskan, and four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion,” as well as “an inspiration to Alaskans and to millions around the world.”That inspiration to Alaskans was evident immediately after she died.In a Frontiersman column written by Casey Ressler on Aug. 13, 2006, King was quoted commending Butcher’s ability to “use her spotlight for things she believed in,” such as quality dog care.“She took dog care to new levels and forced everybody else to as well,” Jonrowe was quoted in an Aug. 8, 2006 story written by Ressler. “If you wanted to beat Susan, your dog care had to be as good or better than Susan's for 12 months a year, every year — and it was hard to do.”That quality dog care Butcher was known for perhaps set a precedent for the years to come.“Dog care has improved tremendously,” said Linwood Fiedler, who finished both the 1991 and 2016 Iditarods, at the pre-race banquet in Anchorage this year.Change for the better? Mushers say the race has changed dramatically over the past couple decades. Though Buser said “there’s nothing I’m missing from the ’91 Iditarod,” Fiedler said he laments some of the changes that have been made over the last 25 years.“You can use a GPS now which I think is stupid,” he said, referring to rule 35 in the official Iditarod rulebook. “I don’t like some of the technology that’s been introduced.”The crackdown on two-way communication devices has, in a way, brought Iditarod mushers back to 1991 and earlier, when the only way to contact loved ones back home during the race was by HAM radio. Even then, the message wouldn’t reach home until about two days later, Fiedler said.Fiedler’s wife, Kathy, at least viewed the Iditarod’s GPS tracker as a major improvement.“I love the tracker,” she said. “I was always in the dark (before).”Kathy Fiedler said she also wished the checkpoints would change to include more people from different villages from time to time.Whether that would be feasible in the future or not, it certainly wouldn’t change the danger factor of the Iditarod.The latest four-time Iditarod champion, Dallas Seavey, said in Nome this year that the snowmachine attack on Aliy Zirkle and Jeff King outside Nulato was one of many random and unfortunate events that could occur on the trail.“We’re traveling across crazy country,” Seavey said. “When you have 1,000 sled dogs over 1,000 miles of trail, and you’re interacting with other modes of transportation, dangerous trails, other wildlife, an accident of some sort is gonna happen at some point.”Still, as Linwood Fiedler said, the Iditarod Trail is “not like it was 20 years ago.”“It’s still a rough and tough trail but it’s not as rough and tough as it used to be,” he said.Contact reporter Caitlin Skvorc at 352-2266 or caitlin.skvorc@frontiersman.com.For more: http://www.frontiersman.com/valley_life/digging-in-the-archives-mushers-...

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