Libby Riddles was the first woman to win
an Iditarod - the year was 1985.
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In 1985 nobody noticed as a woman, slight of
frame, left Anchorage in the Iditarod. She was a
nobody from somewhere. But when she was the first
one to check into Safety - the last checkpoint
before Nome - five hours ahead of the nearest
competitor, everyone cheered in surprise. At 9 am
on Wednesday, March 20th, Libby Riddles became the
very first woman to ever win the Iditarod.
"I foresee running dogs for a long time. I'll
probably have dogs my whole life."
Just before her 17th birthday Libby moved to
Alaska. She lived right outside of Anchorage and
later in a town called Nelchina. She loved all the
dog races, and especially how the dogs seemed to
love racing. She entered a small race in 1978,
winning first place. Then she received a lead dog
from Rick Swenson, a major Iditarod racer. After
placing 18th in the 1980 Iditarod and 20th in the
1981 Iditarod, Libby decided she would have to
breed her own dogs to get anywhere.
A short time later she moved to Shaktoolik, near
Nome, where she worked as a fish buyer. There she
started to train her dogs (and herself!) in the
Arctic conditions. Not long after that she moved
again, this time to Teller which is northwest of
Nome. There she became partners with Joe Garnie and
they bred and trained dogs together.
Joe and Libby took turns racing the dogs in the
Iditarod. In 1984 Joe came in third place. Then
Libby made her amazing race to come in first in
1985. Joe came in second in 1986. They really
proved they had wonderful dogs!
Libby came in first against all odds. When she
reached the Shaktoolik checkpoint she was in first
and a howling windstorm was building. The person
who was right behind her said something to the
extent of "You're crazy! If it's anything like what
I just came out of, it's impossible!". That made up
Libby's mind, she headed out immediately.
Libby described the ordeal: "It was grim. I
could not see from one trail marker to the next. I
let my dogs go so far that I could barely see the
marker behind me, because I didn't want to lose
that sucker. When that was at the edge of my
visibility, I'd put my snowhook in and walk up
ahead of the dogs until I could see the next
marker. And we repeated that process. It was very
slow. For some idiot reason the dogs trusted that I
knew what I was doing."
But she made it! She still races the Iditarod
every once in a while, but she is exploring other
kinds of racing more and more.
Riddles' win opens the
Female mushers proved women can compete with men on
a level playing field
Libby Riddles was the toast of Nome after her
thrilling 1985 victory.
Over the final miles of the 1985 Iditarod Trail
Sled Dog Race, when it was clear she was going to
win, Libby Riddles mushed past a tiny Eskimo
The lady smiled at Riddles and said, ''Oh, you
beat them guys.''
Yes, she did. And the Iditarod was never quite
Nearly 12 years ago, Riddles became the first
woman to win the Iditarod. Battling a vicious
Bering Sea storm, she mushed into Iditarod legend
when other contenders held back. Her victory
ignited an explosion of sexist sentiment and
sisterhood, and won a new national following for
the wilderness race.
A T-shirt industry rushing to capitalize on the
Libby phenomenon introduced to local lexicon such
pithy sayings as, ''Alaska -- Where Men Are Men and
Women Win the Iditarod.''
''Libby did it at a time when women were
assaulting the world,'' said former Iditarod Trail
Committee president Leo Rasmussen, who considers
Riddles' win one of the most important events in
Iditarod history. ''When we were standing on Front
Street after she won, I said, 'You don't know what
you've stumbled into. You're the No. 1 woman in the
''The shock waves of a woman doing what only men
had done before brought attention to the Iditarod
in a way it had never received.''What Riddles
proved was that women could compete with and defeat
men when conditions were equal, a rarity in the
sports world. No handicaps. No special
consideration. Men and women pitted against the
elements, against each other. And a woman showed
she was best.
At the time, Riddles was a little-known
28-year-old musher, and the victory changed her
life. It gave her a title that can never be taken
away and $50,000 in prize money. It made her famous
across Alaska and, at least fleetingly, across the
United States, and gave her entree to writing
books, making speeches and working on Alaska movies
as an advisor.
''It still feels pretty fresh,'' Riddles said
recently. Now 40, she has relocated from the
Western Alaska village of Teller to Knik in the
Mat-Su Valley. ''I've got to pinch myself. It was a
dream come true for me.''
Despite the furor, despite the glory attached to
Riddles' name as a barrier breaker, by 1985 the
triumph of a woman in the 1,100-mile race across
the barren, rugged state was viewed as
Not so in the beginning.
There were no women in the Iditarod when the
race began in 1973. In 1974, Mary Shields and the
late Lolly Medley, two Interior mushers, placed
23rd and 24th, with a half-hour separating them, to
become the first women to complete the race.
Years later, Shields recalled that a male
spectator along the Tudor Track fencing -- where
the race then started -- hollered that she would
never make it. Shields said that attitude stiffened
her determination to finish. On the trail, too, she
said, she felt other mushers didn't take her
seriously because she was a woman.
At the time, there existed an ingrained
perception among many that it took a rough, tough
guy to succeed in the Iditarod. Shields' and
Medley's pioneering performances were the first
steps to set aside the myth.
Soon enough, by the end of the 1970s and into
the mid-1980s, a handful of competitive,
hard-driving women demonstrated it was not
necessary to grow a beard to achieve Iditarod
The rise of women in the Iditarod was a steady,
incremental process. Gradually, more women entered
and, gradually, more women did well.In 1978, Susan
Butcher made her first appearance in the top-20
money positions. In 1979, she cracked the top 10.
By 1985, Butcher owned two runner-up finishes and
it was widely assumed she would become the first
woman victor. Instead, the year Riddles won,
Butcher's team was stomped by a moose and she had
The setback only toughened Butcher's resolve,
though, and soon her braided brown hair became as
familiar to Alaskans as her lead dog Granite.
Butcher won four times and fiinshed second between
1986 and 1990.
Butcher, 42, is now retired from the Iditarod
and splitting her time between homes in Fairbanks
''I loved what I was doing,'' said Butcher. ''I
loved my dogs. I also knew it was something I was
going to excel at. I knew I was going to work my
butt off. I guess I rose in about the order I
expected. It was, 'Next year I'll be in the top 10.
Next year I'll be in the top five.' ''
Butcher said she always considered herself a
musher first and a woman second, and wished to be
seen that way on the trail. Yet she said she
eventually felt resented by the men.
''It wasn't till after my second or third win,
that I thought about it,'' Butcher said recently.
''People said, 'Don't you have any idea what you've
done? You've been butting your head on a fairly
closed door.' When I raced in a group they very
much let me know I was not really accepted. I was
not as welcome at the campfire. There was a
brotherhood, but no sisterhood.''
For several years, Butcher was the only female
in the lead pack of males. She said she had
friendships with many male mushers, including her
arch-rival Rick Swenson, the five-time champion,
but when the men worked together on the trail, she
''It was hard because I didn't have that pal out
there,'' said Butcher.
That changed when DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow
emerged as a top-10 racer and the women began
working together breaking trail and plotting
''Finally, there was somebody completely open
with me,'' said Butcher. ''We joined forces and
shared information and the boys bitched about it.
This is what was lacking before. Now you'd have two
sets of eyes instead of one. We were taking turns
helping each other down the trail and they hated
Butcher did not just imagine the slights,
recalled long-time Iditarod musher Jerry Austin of
Butcher was obviously ambitious and made no
secret of her goals, said Austin, and ''it rubbed a
few people the wrong way. I could see where there
was an old-boy network for a few years.''
Whatever prejudice existed against women has
disappeared, said Butcher, whose last race was
1994, but who has followed the race as a television
commentator the last two winters.
''Oh God, yes, it's completely gone,'' said
Butcher. ''You're just a musher out there
Since Riddles' win and Butcher's ascension,
women have made a more significant impact on the
Iditarod. Donna Gentry and Sue Firmin recorded
notable finishes as early as 1980, but there were
five women in the top 20 in the 1993 race. That
year, Jonrowe placed second, her best effort in
eight top-10 finishes since 1988.
Peryll Kyzer, Kate Persons, Kathy Swenson and
Claire Philip, all have produced in-the-money
For a while women did so well that some
200-pound men suggested women might have an
advantage because they are lighter and the teams
had less weight to pull. A brief discussion of
weight handicapping went nowhere.
Currently, Jonrowe, 43, is the pre-eminent woman
mushing the Iditarod. She has been the most
consistent, and with few exceptions, has been a
race constant since 1980. It took her until 1988 to
break into the top 10, but among the honors she has
garnered since are the sportsmanship award,
humanitarian award and most inspirational musher
As a beginner, Jonrowe said, she sensed no
hostility. Rather, as a nervous rookie, she said,
she never would have made it to Nome without the
help of veterans Rudy Demoski and Don Honea.
''I was just so in over my head,'' Jonrowe said.
''I needed somebody to settle me down. They must
have just felt sorry for me. They kind of adopted
Yet despite the graciousness she encountered,
Jonrowe said, it was a special moment for all
female mushers when Riddles rode into Nome.''I
remember feeling a real sense of pride in her,''
said Jonrowe. ''There were tears in my eyes. That
it had happened for her and it had happened for all
Riddles' win expanded the possibilities. It
showed fans, the world at-large and other women
mushers that Butcher was not the only one who could
expect to contend.
''Libby's win started it,'' said Jonrowe.
''Susan's reign cemented it. They showed it's
possible for women to excel on an equal playing
field. Libby's win captured the hearts of people
who thought only an incredible mountain man could
Riddles trains dogs for shorter races now. She
said she still gets mail from young women -- and
some boys, too -- who consider her a role model.
They write for advice, ask how to get started
Despite the passage of time, Riddles still
treasures the lesson of the victory in her own
''It's always something that will be a part of
me,'' Riddles said. ''Just realizing what I was
capable of, going out and doing something I set my
mind to. That's the gift I got out of it.''
All because she beat the men.
* * *
Source: Lew Freedman,
©1996-2023 by of Gordon Clay