As the world crowns Dallas Seavey as this year’s Iditarod champ (his third win in four years), this week also marks the 30th anniversary of Libby Riddles’s triumph as the first female Iditarod winner.
She spent 87 hours in temperatures plunging to -50 degrees, tended sled dogs who needed emergency rations, and endured blizzards so bad that the competition had to be stopped twice so the competitors could take shelter. Libby Riddles earned her place in history the hard way — by being the first woman to win the Iditarod — the 1,100-mile trans-Alaska dog sled race often referred to as “The Last Great Race on Earth.”
Born in the “lower 48” Libby Riddles was an unlikely candidate for a champion musher. A Wisconsin native, she moved to Alaska at age 16 with her boyfriend. The couple lived in a cabin in a remote part of Western Alaska where she began to train sled dogs for local racers. A consummate animal lover, she soon wanted to train dogs for her own sled.
Despite having little experience with dogsled racing, she raised her own team of dogs and competed in both the 1980 and 1981 Iditarods. In a male-dominated sport, her presence drew attention, but her poor showings in the competitions left her ignored by sponsors. Without sponsorship, she led a grueling life. Riddles’s home was a trailer without running water or electricity. Her meals consisted of animals she hunted or fish she pulled out of the water. To keep her dogs fed, she sold fur hats to tourists. But in 1985, all that changed.
Riddles tried her luck once again by entering in the Iditarod in 1985. The race did not begin well. Her sled malfunctioned, her team ran away without her. Some of the dogs fell ill to a virus. A full 15 days into the race, the competitors had stopped in the town of Shaktoolik due to a blizzard. Riddles woke up early that morning and made a bold decision to race across the Norton Sound despite the deadly weather swirling around them. “I’m taking a chance going out this morning in this kind of weather,” she told a reporter. “It might be kind of tough on my leaders and stuff, but right now I’m at the point where I’ve got to take a chance or to heck with it, you know. You got to do it.”
The forty-knot headwind left the dogs exhausted, but Riddles was able to build a sizeable lead ahead of the pack. After racing for 18 days, 20 minutes, and 17 seconds, Libby Riddles’s chance paid off. She crossed the finish line in Nome, Alaska — the race’s first female champion.
Life after Mush
Life on the dogsled is long past for Riddles, who turns 60 next April. She doesn’t tweet. Her website doesn’t list an email address, just a post office box in Fitz Creek, population 1600, where she runs a kennel. She has written three books and gives talks on cruise ships visiting Alaska. But her victory endures and has paved the way for women who hope to replicate her feat. Racer Susan Butcher won it four times after Riddles. And although a woman has not won the race in the last 25 years, with females comprising nearly a third of competitors in recent races, experts say it’s a matter of time before a new competitor is crowned queen of “The Last Great Race on Earth.”