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Libby Riddles and the Iconic Iditarod

In my story, “Cold Welcome,” Cody recounts how his sister-in-law, Miki, had trained sled dogs, following in the path of her Inuit grandfather. In 1985, as a little girl, she saw Libby Riddles become the first woman to take first place in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (popularly known just as the Iditarod). Miki was inspired to do the tough work of training her beloved dogs to become champion sled dogs in Alaska, much as Libby had done. Let’s take a look at the intrepid Libby Riddles and the sled dog race that made her Miki’s heroine.

The Iditarod race debuted in 1973 in a bid to preserve the sled dog culture that had tamed the Alaskan frontier. Dogs such as Malamutes had been an integral part of Alaskan life for millennia, as they were fiercely loyal guard dogs, powerful at hauling sleds and provisions, and provided reliable and necessary transportation across the winter ice and snow. By the 1960s, the snowmobile had become the preferred means of transportation in much of the state, though dog sledding persisted in Alaska’s backcountry.

Iditarod team near Nome
Iditarod team near Nome (CC BY-SA 2.0 by Flickr user ra64)

There are several routes followed for the Iditarod, depending on the year of the particular run. However, these only vary slightly; the courses generally traverse the great Alaska countryside and the Bering Sea coastline. The Iditarod honors and memorializes the 1925 “Great Race of Mercy” as it follows a similar path. The race begins in Anchorage, where the life-saving medication originated, and ends in Nome. This was the isolated Alaskan town about a thousand miles from Anchorage that desperately needed antitoxin serum to combat the diphtheria that was threatening the lives of its townsfolk. Extreme blizzard conditions made plane deliveries impossible at the time. The only way to get the needed medication to Nome, would entail delivery by stalwart sled dogs, trained by the highly esteemed musher Leonard Seppala, who would also serve as a musher guide for one of the sled dog teams. Sending the precious antitoxin cargo with these teams proved grueling and dangerous, but the courage and tenacity of the mushers and sled dogs alike got the medication to the patients in time. Balto was the dog that crossed into Nome first; Togo was the dog that ran the greatest number of miles. These dogs have touched the hearts of millions and have been honored in film, literature, and in statues erected in New York City parks.

Libby Riddles had a special place in her heart for sled dogs; she spent three years breeding, training, and connecting with her dogs before venturing into the Iditarod competition. Eighteen days and twenty minutes after her start in Anchorage, Libby was greeted in Nome by a huge cheering crowd. The first woman to win the Iditarod, she was heralded as the first lady of Alaska. She had endured spills, blizzards and biting cold (temperatures of fifty to sixty degrees below zero) in her determination to win the one-thousand-plus-mile race. Libby credits her dogs’ speed, agility, and tenacity for helping her win that legendary competition. Notably, she was also awarded the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award, as she was judged to be the best of the mushers at taking care of her sled dog team, ensuring they had plenty of breaks to rest and eat.

In contrast to the weeks of grueling racing Libby Riddles faced in 1985, today’s top mushers cross the finish line in nine or ten days. Modern technology and aircraft have made it a significantly easier race. Skillful breeding has resulted in sleeker dogs, who are able to run faster and longer.

Today, Libby Riddles continues to care for her sled dogs, though she stopped official racing about twenty years ago. She gives regular presentations to the guests of Princess Cruises in Alaska and has authored several books on her legendary sled dog victory. Just as Libby’s tenacity inspired Miki decades ago, it has fueled the dreams of countless girls and women all over the world ever since.


1. Alice George, “Facing Blizzards and Accidents, Iditarod’s First Woman Champion Libby Riddles Persisted,” Smithsonian Magazine (online), March 11, 2020

2. ”Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race,” in Wikipedia

3. Matt Geiger and Karl Christenson, “Wisconsin’s Libby Riddles: The First Woman to Win the Iditarod,” Wisconsin Life, March 4, 2021

4. “Who Was the First Woman to Win the Iditarod?” A Life of Dogs, April 27, 2021

5. Will Hank, “The True Story of Togo: Siberian Husky Sled Dog Hero of 1925 Nome Serum Run,” American Kennel Club, March 6, 2020/Updated Aug. 27, 2021