The Last Great Race: “They got Black people up there?”
“The Iditarod starts this week” I said casually to eM while making dinner in my Manhattan apartment.
“What’s the Iditarod?” she asked in characteristic skepticism.
I hope I managed to keep the resentment out of my voice when I answered her. “It’s the last great race!” Then, in more detail I proceeded to tell the history of the sport of dog-mushing, and the grueling 1,161 mile race across interior Alaska that takes place every winter- the only race of it’s kind in the world.
Now, since I am an Alaskan myself, born and raised, perhaps my incredulity at her lack of insight was a little unwarranted. The Iditarod sports coverage falls a little shy of March Madness or the Winter Olympics, thought it is internationally televised. The race has attracted partcipants from 14 countries around the world (though the vast majority of participants continue to be locals). This year however, the race has an even further global reach, as the the first Jamaican man to enter the race is competing in the 2010 Iditarod, which started March 6th.
In an interview with the Jamaican pioneer, Newton Marshall, that appeared in The Autsralian newspaper (weird, I know) I read the following lines:
“If he makes it to the finish line, Marshall will become the first black musher to complete the Iditarod. The only other to take part was the late Barry MacAlpine, who competed in the first Iditarod in 1973 but did not finish. “We are confident he is going to finish. Newton does not give up,” said his sponsor. “He is a tough kid. He is very, very determined.” “
CORRECTION. While I honor this man, and wish him all the best, I’d like to set the record straight on one thing.
In 1983, my uncle, Norman MacAlpine completed the race when he was only 18 years old, the minimum age to compete.
My Uncle Norman was, as far as I can tell, the first black man to complete the race. He followed in the footsteps of my incredible grandfather, Barry MacAlpine, whom Marshall references above. You can find my uncle’s name (Norman MacAlpine, #53) in the official Iditarod archives HERE. He finished with his own dog team after 21 days, 2 hours, and 44 minutes alone on the frontier- an amazing accomplishment that I don’t think should go unnoticed.
“I had a choice to call the team the Jamaican Sled-Dog Team or the Jamaican Dog-Sled Team” says Marshall. “I chose dog-sled because it rhymes with bob-sled. Hopefully, one day they will make a movie about the Jamaican Dog-Sled team.”
Whenever I tell people I am from Alaska, they always say the same thing: “They got black people up there?” I wish Mr. Marshall Newton all the best, but he should know that he is following in the tracks of two great Alaskan dog-men, who were Black in Alaska, back in the day. I hope they put that in his movie.
WANNA DIY? All you need is a team of 10 dogs and a good sled. If you don’t have snow, or sand dunes, try wheels! Here are some MUSHING VOCABULARY to get you started:
• Kissing sound: Speed up, faster.
• Gee!: Turn to the right.
• Haw!: Turn to the left.
• Easy!: Slow down.
• Whoa: Stop.
• On By!: Pass another team or other distraction.