DOROTHY (Guzzi) PAGE
• Political Activism
• Historic Preservation
DOROTHY (Guzzi) PAGE
This past weekend kicked off the 50th Annual Iditarod Race. Many will follow big names like Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey, or look for familiar race names Pete Kaiser, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Martin Buser, Jeff King and Ryan Redington. But just where would the Iditarod be without women-one woman in particular, Dorothy Page, the “The Mother of the Iditarod.”
A brief history lesson: In the early 1920’s, settlers had come to Alaska following a gold strike. They traveled by boat to the coastal towns of Seward and Knik and from there, by land into the gold fields. The trail they used is today known as The Iditarod Trail. In the winter, their only means of travel was by dog team. The Iditarod Trail soon became the major access route through Alaska. People used the trail to travel, deliver supplies, and mail. Even priests, ministers and judges all used dog teams to travel between villages.
All too soon the gold mining began to wane, mining towns became ghost towns, and people returned to the lower 48. The dawning of the airplane in the late 1920’s bringing with it the mail, supplies, and people signaled the beginning of the end for the dog team as a standard mode of transportation for land travel. By the mid 60’s, with the advent of snow machines, most people in Alaska had largely forgotten the impact of the Iditarod Trail or that dog teams had played a very important part in Alaska’s early settlement.
Meanwhile, Page and her husband moved to Wasilla, Alaska in 1962, where she also saw her first dog sled race, an event that would play a significant role in her many contributions to Alaska. At the time, just about every household or homestead in the rural Alaska Bush and Interior had a team of sled dogs for transportation. When snow machines started to replace the dogs, the need for sled dog teams all but vanished.
Though not a musher herself, it was Page who came up with the idea of having a race over the Iditarod Trail. She saw the importance of sled dogs as working animals and of the Iditarod Trail and the key role it played in Alaska’s unique history. After she was named president of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee, Page’s primary task was to organize an event to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia. She decided that “a spectacular dog race to wake Alaskans up to what mushers and their dogs had done for Alaska” would be just the event to recognize the unique rugged determination that makes up Alaskans.
The Iditarod trail seemed perfect for such an event. After all, it was a famous route used by mushers during the Gold Rush years. Plus, the trail passed through both Knik and Wasilla, which would bring the race closer to home. There was only one problem-no dog driver would back the idea. She reached out to many people, trying to persuade them that this race was a good idea, but had been met with resistance and strange looks that anyone would want to take on a race like this.
Undeterred, Page crossed paths with a dog musher while at the Willow Winter Carnival. Joe Redington Sr, who has come to be known as the “Father of the Iditarod,” used dog teams to perform search and rescue for the U.S. Air Force, and had been lobbying to make the Iditarod Trail a National Historic Trail since the 1950s. Needless to say, he loved Page’s idea and agreed to lend his support to the event, on the condition that a purse of $25,000 be divided among the winners. Thus, the “Last Great Race” was born.
The money was raised, the overgrown trail cleared and in February 1967, a who’s who of 58 dog mushers from all over Alaska and even two contestants from Massachusetts competed in two heats along a 25-mile stretch of the old Iditarod Trail between Wasilla and Knik, and Isaac Okleasik, from Teller, Alaska, won the race with his team of large working dogs.
In 1968 the race was canceled due to lack of snow, and the 1969 race, with a purse of only $1,000 and only 12 mushers, was the last Iditarod until 1973. The route of the race the race to we know today from Willow to Nome was established, and a purse of $51,000 was raised.
Although Dorothy Page is most famous for being the “Mother of the Iditarod”, many people remember her as a tireless advocate for building and preserving communities in Alaska. Page later would help to form both the Iditarod Trail Committee and the Musher’s Hall of Fame. From 1973 to 1989, she wrote, edited, and published the Iditarod’s annual race program, and edited the race’s news magazine, the Iditarod Runner. She also was a longtime member of the Alaska Press Women. Page continued to be an integral part of the Iditarod, serving on the Iditarod Trail Committee’s board of directors since its foundation.
Page also found time to be active in Mat-Su Borough politics, serving four terms on the Wasilla City Council, elected Mayor for two years (1986-1987) and also was on Wasilla’s Republican Committee for many years. Not one to rest, Page actively volunteered and served on Wasilla’s Library Board, was president of the Wasilla-Knik-Willow Creek Historical Society and worked as curator of the Wasilla and Knik Museums. After her death the Wasilla Museum was renamed the Dorothy G. Page Museum in memory of her.
But for all her many contributions, Page is remembered most for her connection to the Iditarod, though she never was a musher. She was named the honorary musher during the 1997 Iditarod.
“…It is really an Alaskan event. I think the fact that it starts in Anchorage and then ends in Nome has opened up a whole new area for people in Alaska. I think they appreciate that. It puts them in touch with the pioneer spirit,” Page was quoted as saying in the October 1979 issue of Iditarod Runner.
Alaska has become a Mecca for sled dog racing, which has grown into a popular winter sport in the Lower 48, Canada, and Europe. Today, “The Last Great Race” is staged each March with mushers from around the world competing in Alaska’s premier sporting event. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has since grown into the premiere sporting event in the state, and the largest dog sled race in the world, all because of the inspiration of Dorothy G. Page.
Written by Katie Stavick, Frontiersman