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.

Norman MacAlpine / Barry MacAlpine

“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:

The most common commands for a dog team are:
•  Hike!: Get moving ( “All Right” is sometimes also used).

•  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.

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~ by Vy on March 14, 2010.

7 Responses to “The Last Great Race: “They got Black people up there?””

  1. Hey Victoria! I’ve been following your blog for a while now (since you posted it on facebook) so I thought it was about time I posted a comment! This post was really great, thanks for enlightening me to this sport and to your family’s participation of it…that is so amazing! I think you should write to the author of that article to enlighten him a bit.

  2. Hey cuz. Nice article. :) Wow my dad was only my age…I wouldn’t know what to do! Thanks for writing this. I hadn’t even thought about it. I miss papa. :(

  3. Very cool. When does the race end and how did the Jamaican do?

  4. Hi guys! Just an update: Lance Mackey was the first musher to finish the race on 03/16. The Jamaican musher Newton Marshall completed three days later on 03/19.

  5. Uh…this can’t be the same person that you are talking about?
    http://www.inhumane.org/data/NMacAlpine.htm

    I live in Alaska, follow the Iditarod, have a teenage African-American son who hopes to race in it someday, and have enjoyed rooting for mushers that we know, personally, take excellent care of their dogs. We were proud to see Newton Marshall do well last year and hope he does well this year. I had heard there were other African-American mushers in Iditarod history and went looking for more info. I was annoyed that these Black mushers have not gotten more mention in Iditarod lore. I Googled to get more info about them. I am sorry that I found it, based on the sad story of animal cruelty in the above link. It’s okay to delete my message after you read it. I know you probably don’t want this out there and maybe you are not aware of it?

  6. [...] MacAlpine did not live to see his 71st birthday, and he never did make it all the way up the Iditarod Trail. He died, tragically, in a fire at his home in a suburb outside of Anchorage in 2007 surrounded by his dogs. He was 70. One of his sons, Norman, lived his dad’s dream and completed the Iditarod in 1983. [...]

  7. It is unfortunate that this story is out there, but only because it is not factual. Unfortunately stories like this are only news at the outset, and when they are found to be unsubstantiated, there just isn’t any follow-up. Norman was never officially charged and he did not leave his dogs without planning for their care.

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