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Tips for the Iditarod

Hey, I was there to help, right? Right there in the kitchenette loaned us by the Roosevelt Hotel in Anchorage. My wife, Pam, ran the headquarters for the Iditarod Dogsled Race, and it was the second year of the race, 1974, and there I sat, a genuine Alaskan long-distance dog musher who had participated in the first race the year before.

So when a nicely dressed elderly gentleman with a thick Boston accent stopped by for coffee and questions about the race … hey, I’m there for you.

He said his name was Norman Vaughan and he had some questions, and we talked for more than an hour. Oh, I explained to this obvious city guy all about how the dogs were hooked up, and how far we could go each day, depending on weather. He was a good student, too. When he rose to go, he said, “Slim, I think we’ll be seeing a lot of each other and become good friends.”

There was something about Norman that I genuinely admired, even if I couldn’t have said exactly what it was.

For the record, the race begins (for 50 years now) on the first Saturday in March in Anchorage, then crosses 1,100 miles of Alaska to end up on Front Street in Nome.  This gives a guy a long, cold camping trip before he gets to Front Street. Many aren’t able to complete the race for various reasons, and I was one of those. Four days in, I crushed an ankle. I crawled in the sled and the team took me 20 miles to the next checkpoint, where I was ignominiously airlifted to a hospital in Anchorage by Army helicopter.

So about a half hour after Norman left, we were discussing him and sipping coffee when the news guy on the radio said, “The special guest at the musher’s banquet tonight will be Colonel Norman Vaughan, who drove a dog team to the South Pole in 1928.”

Yes, there was laughter. A lot.

Norman Vaughan drove his dog team to the South Pole as a possible rescuer in case Richard Byrd’s plane was forced down. During World War II, Norman was in charge of dog team rescue in Greenland, where they could rescue any air crews forced down on the ice cap. More than 100 fliers were rescued by his dog teams.

He and I were friends for the rest of his life, and when Norman Vaughan finally was able to finish the Iditarod Race in Nome, one of my dogs was his leader.

But after giving this polar explorer the benefit of my “vast” experience, about all I could do is grin and shrug and say, “Well, at least now he knows how to do it the right way.”

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