Since 1973, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has brought together humans and dogs. They work together traversing nearly 1000 miles of brutal conditions across the frozen landscapes of the Alaskan tundra. Author Matt Geiger shares the story of Wisconsin native, Libby Riddles, the first woman to win this world-renowned race.
“With dog racing, I think we say you can have your highest and lowest moments in your entire life out there, because it’s so intense,” said Libby Riddles. We talked on the phone from her home in Alaska.
In 1985, she was thirty miles from the Iditarod finish line, in the belly of a heavy storm in the dark of night. Riddles and her dogs took a wrong turn. Unable to see more than a few feet in front of them, they ran on, unknowingly dashing away from the Bering Sea, into the interior of the Alaskan wilderness — Exhausted and running away from the finish line.
Out of the night, Riddles saw a small cluster of houses. All were dark, but for one. She rode toward that single beacon of light. She stopped her sled, walked up to the home, and asked the man who appeared in the door frame, that fragile, symbolic portal between the domestic and atavistic spheres, a simple question: “Where am I?” He pointed her in the right direction and said goodbye. She was still in the lead.
Riddles’ headlamp was almost completely dead, and in the primal darkness, she headed back through the night; she, her team of huskies, and their sled surging forward as a single unit, flying toward the finish line.
Riddles was not the first woman to complete the Iditarod, which is often called “The Last Great Race.” She was, however, the first woman to win it. This soft-spoken musher, who was shy in her youth and who did not set out into the world with any great ambitions beyond living and working with animals, had done something never done before. Far from the modern world, far from its paradoxical combination of comforts and concerns, she and her animals had traversed some of the harshest terrain on earth, covering nearly 1,000 miles, besting every other competitor.
“The moment when I won the Iditarod is going to be a pretty hard moment to beat, ever, in my whole life, really,” said Riddles. “One of my less famous quotes was, ‘If I die now, it’ll be okay.’ Because that was just spontaneously what it felt like. It’s like, ‘Wow, how are we ever going to beat this one?’”
Riddles started life in Madison, Wisconsin. From there, her family moved to La Crosse, where she has fond memories of “the bluffs and the thunderstorms.” She says the Midwest was a “great training ground” for what was to come later.
“To me. it seems a pretty universal thing. Animals are very calming, especially dogs, because they have actually co-evolved along with us for thousands and thousands of years. And yet they are kind of like a bridge between the wild animals and humans,” Riddles said.
Today, Riddles lives in the Alaskan bush, outside Homer. In the summer she picks berries and makes jam, some of which she will trade with friends and neighbors for moose and salmon. She doesn’t use a computer often, and her phone only works in one particular corner of her house. Even there, her voice flickers, coming and going, like visions of the trail on a winter night, as she and her dogs pushed on, happy and undaunted by the darkness around them.
“I was a kid who was kind of shy of people, sometimes, except for maybe my close circle,” said Riddles. “Animals seem so much less complicated to deal with in a way than people. It kind of keeps people easier to deal with if you are around animals too, I guess.”