Few people know the famed Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race has connections to St. Joseph and St. Cloud.
One of the most arduous, dangerous races in the world, the Iditarod is a 1,200-mile trek from Anchorage to Nome.
Dallas Seavey, 26, won the race in record time March 11, his second win in three years. Last year, Dallas’s father, Mitch, won the Iditarod – his second win, too. And Mitch is the son of Dan Seavey, originally from St. Cloud, who helped establish the great race in 1973. Dan completed the race four times but never came in first.
In 1963, Dan and wife Shirley moved from St. Cloud to Seward, where Dan took a high school teaching job. He’d always been intrigued by sled-dog racing so Alaska was the ideal destination. Seavey’s love of the race has become generational. Grandson Dallas was the youngest musher to win the race, age 25, in 2012; son Mitch was the oldest person to win it, 53, in 2013. Dan is now 74.
The first woman to win the Iditarod was Libby Riddles in 1985, with a time of 18 days, 10 minutes and 17 seconds. Her extraordinary achievement was the subject of jubilant international news. Riddles, during her late teen years, lived in St. Joseph – from 1970 through 1973 before moving to Alaska. Her father was a teacher at St. Cloud State University.
I was fortunate enough to have known Libby during the summer of 1973. I’d met her through a mutual St. Cloud friend, Jim, and the three of us and others hung out together quite a few times at social gatherings and parties that summer. Libby was intelligent, with a quick sense of humor. She was a tall willowy blonde, eerily beautiful because of her pale, delicate, almost ghost-like skin and white-blonde long hair.
After the summer of 1973, Libby just disappeared, and all I knew is that I’d heard she’d moved to Alaska.
Flash forward to March 1985: Jim, the mutual friend, called me long-distance one day, his voice filled with flabbergasted amazement. He had some really good news to share.
“You remember Libby Riddles?” he asked.
“Well, of course I do,” I said.
“She just won the Iditarod!”
I was speechless; I just couldn’t grasp it. I would never have dreamed that Libby, so pale and delicate, would ever become a hardy musher. A case of true grit if ever I heard one.
Flash forward to 2007: One day, Jim’s mother in north St. Cloud was cleaning out stuff stored in her basement when she came across an olive-drab backpack. She later showed it to Jim to ask whose it could be. What a blast from the past! It belonged to Libby Riddles. It had been tucked away in that basement for 34 years.
Jim couldn’t wait to show me what he called “a hippy artifact uncovered from the past.” It did look “hippy-esque” because of the colorful yarn sewn long ago onto its surface by Libby in the shapes of stylized birds and a turtle. Jim and I sat and marveled at that “artifact” returned magically from the distant past. Then Jim told me to keep it.
Flash forward to January 2014: While digging through one of my memory trunks, I saw that old backpack. I decided I’ve just got to get it back to Libby. I googled her name and found her snail-mail address. I put the backpack in a box with a letter and mailed it. Then I sat back and imagined, with a grin on my face, her surprise when she’d open it.
Two weeks later, a package from Libby arrived. It contained a very nice letter that began: “Hi Denny! Wow, I get a lot of things in the mail, but this was special. A blast from the past is RIGHT!”
The package also contained an autographed copy of Race Across Alaska, a book written by Libby and co-author Tim Jones about her historic 1985 win. I started it and couldn’t put it down. What a page-turner! Race is a vividly detailed, almost hour-by-hour personal account of that harrowing but exciting trek across some of the coldest but most beautiful territory on the planet. It was a courageous, dangerous journey led by Libby’s trusty sled dogs. Her love for those wonderful dogs and her uncanny understanding of the unique needs and personalities of each of them shines through on every page. I haven’t read a book that interesting in a long, long time. I highly recommend it. A signed book and more about Libby’s fascinating life can be had on her website: www.libbyriddles.com.