1985 – A True Tale From The Iditarod Trail

JD Delancy, W1JD (ex-K1ZAT/KL7)
AARC Life Member #070

Every year, the first Saturday of March, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome AK starts. The trail is said to be 1,049 miles long, it’s closer to 1,100. One year the trail goes Northern and the next it’s a Southern trail, both ending up in Nome. Every year we were in AK, the Anchorage Amateur Radio Club (KL7AA) provided the communications support along the Iditarod Trail. One of the checkpoints is Rainy Pass, approximately 225 air miles northwest of Anchorage.

Rainy Pass during the summer months is a hunting lodge located on a lake between two mountain ranges. During the winter there is little activity at the lodge except for the Iditarod Race. Access to Rainy Pass, as well as the other 26 check points along the trail is either by bush plane equipped with skis or cross country hiking or skiing, snowmobile, ultra-lights or husky dog powered sled. There are no automobile accessible highways or roads leading to them. My wife April (AL7CV) and I usually managed to go to Rainy Pass.

The 1985 Iditarod race was one that went down in the history books with glory. We were both once again deployed to the Rainy Pass checkpoint and ready to do our “thing.” checking the mushers and dog teams into and out of Rainy Pass. I was ready to relay race data. That information consisted of arrival and departure times, number of dogs each team arrived and departed with, whether a Veterinarian or Medical doctor was required, and if a team was declaring its rest period. Each team must take a 24 hour rest someplace in the race. That information went to the Iditarod Race Headquarters in Anchorage on high frequency (HF). April’s job was to collect most of that information and provide it to me from the musher checkpoint via VHF hand-held radio. We had used this method in years past with excellent results since the actual checkpoint was located approximately one half of a mile (with 10-13 foot snow drifts) from the HF radio station we had set up. We also swapped positions every so often, she would operate the HF station and I would do the checkpoint.

1985 proved to be a different year. The first musher and his dog team (each team averaged 19 husky dogs) arrived about 6:30 AM on Monday morning. By 10 AM, Mother Nature had decided to change the weather up the trail for the worst; a complete “whiteout”, featuring blizzard conditions so intense the mushers could not see their lead dog. The two or three teams that did check out of Rainy Pass, after a very brief stop, returned. It was three days before the white out subsided. It was the first time in the history of the race that such poor weather conditions forced a suspension by the race officials. In that three day period, April and I handled over 300 phone
patches, countless messages requesting dog food, medicine, and supplies (air lifted by bush planes and helicopters), and more than 1,450 written messages on health and welfare.

We’ll never forget the nights during the race suspension, with 58 dog teams in the same place (approximately 1,100 dogs), when they all decided that it was time to “sing” as only dogs can. What harmony (sic)! The 1985 race was finally restarted on the third day at about 10:30 AM when the weather started to clear. We relayed the departure times and other statistics in a “rapid fire” fashion with all teams departed Rainy Pass within one hour and forty minutes, the last team left at 12:10 PM. We had the site disassembled and were airlifted out (helicopter this time) and by 2:30 PM were back in Anchorage.

That year, a woman named Libby Riddles, of Teller, Alaska won the race. She finished the race in 18 days, 20 minutes, 17 seconds and became the first woman to ever win the race.

JD, W1JD (ex-K1ZAT/NL7) and April, AL7CV

AARC Newsletter May 2005