Public Radio for the Central Kenai Peninsula
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support public radio — donate today!

Iditarod icons share mushing adventures

Iditarod stars Libby Riddles and Jeff Schultz
Hunter Morrison
Iditarod legends Libby Riddles and Jeff Schultz

In Alaska, it seems more people know who won last year’s Iditarod than last year’s Super Bowl. That’s according to Libby Riddles and Jeff Schultz, two Iditarod legends who spoke as part of Kenai Peninsula College’s showcase series installment. Riddles was the first woman to win the race, and Schultz was right by her side as the official race photographer.

Both moved to Alaska from the Lower 48 as teenagers, Riddles at 17 and Schultz at 18. Riddles lived in dry cabins and off the grid, and worked an array of male-dominated seasonal jobs.

“So later, when I raced with the guys, it really wasn’t a big deal to me, because I had already been working with the guys,” Riddles told the audience. “One of the things I love about Alaska is that I never really saw that many people paid much attention to that, anyway. They don’t care who you are, you have to prove yourself if you want to be respected by Alaskans is what I think.”

Her first experience with mushing occurred in Soldotna in the late 1970s. A friend of hers who was training for the Iditarod invited her to participate in a local dog sled race.

“I had never done a race, never thought I was going to race, because I just thought ‘Oh, I don’t even know what I’m doing,’” Riddles said. “Anyway, I won that race. It was here in Soldotna, Clines Mini Mart five mile race with five dogs,’ and I smoked everybody. I was like ‘Oh, I might be pretty good at this!’”

Borrowing dogs from Jerry Riley’s 1976 winning race, Riddles participated in her first Iditarod in 1980. She placed 18th out of 36 finishers.

Around that same time, Schultz started his photography business while working at a Sizzler Steakhouse in Anchorage. One night, he and his girlfriend attended a concert of Dr. Schultz and the Last Frontier Band. The folk group served as the Iditarod’s official musical artist. Schultz didn’t know the concert was actually a fundraiser for the Iditarod.

One attendee was Joe Redington Sr., commonly known as the ‘Father of the Iditarod.’ Schultz later wrote to Redington, asking if he could photograph him. He thought that photographing a famous Alaskan would help his photography business. By 1982, he was onboarded as the Iditarod’s official photographer.

“For me, it’s all about the adventure,” Schultz said. “It’s all about the adventure. Just like Libby was talking about, there’s a lot that happens between the checkpoints. I get bored at the checkpoints, so I’m trying to travel between the trail.”

During Thursday’s showcase, Schultz shared numerous photographs from past Iditarod races. One of these photos is of Riddles crossing the finish line when she won the race in 1985.

That race proved to be exceptionally challenging. In addition to being stuck in a pass, she was caught in a blizzard along the way. Even so, she knew she was competing against faster teams, and took that as a sign to continue.

“It was such bad visibility, I couldn’t even see from one marker to the next,” Riddles explained. “What I would do is I would keep one marker behind me, still in sight. I would hook the team down, walk out ahead, find the next marker, walk back to the dog team, mush out to that marker, and do it again. I mean it was exhausting.”

Riddles said it took over 24 hours to get through that storm. About 40 miles from the finish line in Nome, she accidentally followed snowmachine tracks and broke from the trail. Miraculously, she found her way back and finished the thousand mile race in a little over 18 days.

During a Q&A session after the lecture, Riddles said powering through sleep deprivation and managing health is one of the most difficult aspects of the race. For aspiring photographers out there, Schultz said to keep at it with fresh perspectives.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL
Related Content