Libby Riddles beat a blizzard to become top musher

DRIVING a team of sled dogs into a torrent of whipping snow, the first woman winner of Alaska's Iditerod race, Libby Riddles, edged for hours into a blizzard that slowly swallowed any sign of trail or sky or horizon. Arctic winds of up to 60 knots stung her face and cut through her parka. Every few hundred yards, Ms. Riddles stopped to wipe crusted snow from the eyes and ears of 14 husky dogs.

Two weeks and 850 miles into a sled-dog race across the roadless heart of Alaska, Riddles pushed 10 more miles toward the pack ice of Norton Bay until it was of no use. She halted, alone, to spend the night in her sled.

``The dogs didn't know which way to go,'' she said later. ``I didn't know which way to go.''

Riddles had been leading a field of about 50 dog drivers, called mushers, since she arrived at Unalakleet on the frozen coast of Norton Sound early that morning, March 17.

At dusk she came into the wind-battered coastal village of Shaktoolik, with a 70-mile run across Norton Bay pack ice ahead and a dozen top mushers just hours behind on the Anchorage-to-Nome race.

As a windstorm degenerated into a howling ground blizzard, Riddles took a chance and decided to drive right into the storm, putting darkness and wind between her and the other racers. It could win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the $50,000 first-place purse, but once in the midst, Riddles began having second thoughts.

``The whole time I kept telling myself it was the stupidest thing I've ever done,'' she said later. ``But I'm kind of stubborn, and once I got started, I wasn't going to turn back.''

She didn't turn back. While a dozen male mushers holed up in Shaktoolik to await better weather, Riddles hunkered down into a sleigh rocked by gusts.

At dawn, she arose, snacked on seal oil and frozen chocolate, and grabbed a lead she never lost, becoming the first woman to win the 1,100-mile race in its 13-year history.

As a winner, Riddles was a story-book champion. Among a field of mostly male, often-arrogant mushers, Riddles was continually cheerful, matter-of-fact, unaffected, and friendly as she drove to the lead of the race.

``How was it, Libby?'' people asked her.

``It was cold and miserable,'' she answered with a faint drawl, drawing out the syllables in half-humorous deadpan.

At 28, she is a walking contradiction: a slender, almost frail-looking blonde who may be the toughest musher in the state. She is a fur-hat maker who trained a team of impeccably strong dogs on the frozen Bering Sea coast.

Originally from Minnesota, Riddles began mushing dogs at age 16, when she went to Alaska for the adventure. Over the years, she raised better and better dogs, eventually entering the 1980 and '81 Iditarods, taking 18th and 20th places respectively.

It was in that last race that she met her boyfriend and partner, veteran musher Joe Garnie. The two joined forces to raise and train a team of champion sled dogs in Mr. Garnie's native Teller, a Seward Peninsula Eskimo village five times closer to Siberia than to Anchorage.

In the 1984 Iditarod, Garnie drove the couple's team to third place, behind winner Dean Osmar and second-place Susan Butcher. But this year, even though Riddles was running mostly the same dog team, she was not considered a contender. Four-time Iditarod winner Rick Swenson, who took fourth place, and Duane Halverson, who took second, were eyed as the ones to beat.

But the Iditarod, the Super Bowl of long-distance sled-dog racing, pits the wits of a cold, sleep-starved musher against the vagaries of weather, trail, and dogs. More than speed and experience, it takes audacity.

``It's just making the right decisions, I guess, and playing things right,'' according to Riddles.

Riddles had the courage, the dogs, the moxie to drive right into the maw of a deadly blizzard. It could have broken her, but it didn't. The weather was the most brutal of any Iditarod, making Riddles's finish in 18 days, 20 minutes, and 17 seconds the longest winning time in nine years.

When the 61 racers left Anchorage March 2, they found a trail choked with record snowfall. With forests clogged, scores of starving moose were driven onto the trail -- moose that would often fight rather than yield to driving teams of dogs.

One rampaging moose trampled the team of Ms. Butcher, long expected to be the first woman to win the Iditarod. But when the moose killed two dogs and injured a dozen others, she dropped from the race to spare her team from permanent harm.

As the race climbed into the rugged Alaska Range, the mushers drove through a brutal, twisting trail that zig-zagged through the rippling foothills. Half the teams spilled or tipped while negotiating gorges.

From the range, the race dropped into the broad Kuskokwim River drainage and crossed an expanse of tundra and black spruce forest, but not before the foul weather caused the Iditarod's first two race shutdowns by preventing delivery of dog food to keycheck points.

Throughout the early race, Riddles maintained a respectable but unremarkable position. But as the trail veered onto the Yukon River and temperatures plummeted to 40 and 50 degrees below zero, Riddles began to run with the top teams.

When she drove across Old Woman Pass to Unalakleet and the Bering Sea coast, Riddles was in the top five, arriving in the middle of the night. After a few hours of sleep, she arose in an eerie dawn and left Unalakleet in a gathering windstorm as several mushers arrived.

``Keep racing out of checkpoints when those guys are racing in, that's the way to do it,'' she said at the time. ``Right now, I'm at the point where I have to go, or to heck with it.''

Forty miles up the coast, the final blizzard slammed shut behind her, giving her the lead she needed to win. Yet as Riddles drove the last miles and it became apparent she could not be stopped, she still refused to admit it.

``I'll save the braggin' for Nome,'' she said. ``I'm going to have to cross the finish line first. We could have an earthquake or a tidal wave, you know.''

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