Iditarod pioneer in race against time to complete film project

Wednesday, April 5, 2017 - 13:43

Rod Perry needs to come up with nearly a quarter of a million dollars in less than a month.

He’s faced longer odds.

“If not me, who?” asked Perry, one of 22 men who ran the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973.

The Eagle River man is frantically trying to raise money for a unique film project that aims to tell the definitive story of that first race through the words of the dozen surviving members of the mushing world’s most elite fraternity. He’s started a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $235,000 by April 16. As of Monday, he had $3,345 in pledges.

In order to make the most compelling film possible, Perry and his co-collaborator Buzz Rohlfing want to travel to the homes of the remaining mushers. Since many of the men still live in the Bush, filming on location will be a challenge.

“The way we’re going to film this is expensive,” he said during a recent interview at the Star’s Eagle River offices.

If Perry isn’t able to raise the full amount, he said he plans to continue working on the project however he can.

If all goes according to plan, Perry hopes to finish the documentary in two years. He said time is of the essence because the mushers he wants to interview are in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

To emphasize the need for speed, the youthful-looking 74-year-old (who is immortalized as the model for the official Iditarod finshers’ patch) said he planned to go visit one of the mushers in an Anchorage hospital later that day.

“It’s a battle against time.”

But a battle worth fighting, he said. Perry believes the story of the first Iditarod is so important because it was so vastly different from all the races that came after. Whereas today’s mushers have state-of-the art sleds, snowmachine-broken trails and cozy checkpoints, the original racers had to rely on their wits, dogs and survival skills.

“That race stands alone,” he said.

Perry has written two books about Iditarod, but said many of the best tales from the first race have never been told publicly.

“Lots of stories have never come out,” he said.

Perry has spent much of the past decade doing his part to share the story of that first race, which was founded by Joe Redington Sr. as a way to revive dog mushing in Bush Alaska and spur interest in the historic Iditarod Trail linking Seward and Nome. in the summer, Perry can often be found on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage showing off his historic freight hauling sled and telling tourists about the early days of the race and sharing trail history.

At the time of the first race, there was only a handful of Native teams and Bush trappers who still used Alaskan huskies for transportation. Redington wanted to change that, and thought a race utilizing the historic Iditarod Trail was just the ticket. Perry said it was Redington’s sheer force of will that got the first race from Anchorage to Nome off the ground.

“Joe was so dog nuts,” Perry said of Redington, who died in 1999 and is known as the “Father of the Iditarod.”

“When he locked onto something he was stubborn as a mule.”

Perry hopes to bring that same tenaciousness to his film project. He believes interviews with the surviving mushers will show people just how unique and challenging the original race truly was.

“Nobody else can really tell it,” he said. “It’ll be phony.”

The challenges of that innaugual race were monumental, Perry said. The winner, Wilmarth, took more than 20 days to make the run from Anchorage to Nome. Perry took just over 30 days and Red Lantern winner John Schultz crossed the finish line in 32 days.

“We were battling as hard as we could,” he said.

Perry said he’s made contact with 10 of the 11 other surviving mushers and has a good lead on the other one, who he said is “kind of a rolling stone.”

Still alive are 1973 champion Dick Wilmarth, along with Dan Seavey (whose son, Mitch, won his third Iditarod on Tuesday), Dick Mackey, Bill Arpino, Bud Smyth, Ken Chase, Ron Oviok, Robert Ivan, Terry Miller, Howard Farley and Bruce Mitchell.

Perry has experience as a filmmaker. In the 1970s, he filmed “Sourdough,” which starred his father, Gil, as an old-time trapper in the Alaska wilderness. Compared to that production — filmed in the actual wilderness with little more than a 16mm camera and a dog team — Perry said his current project should be a relative breeze.

“I’m so far ahead of where I was when we made ‘Sourdough,’” he said.

Although the Iditarod and sled dog racing have become synonymous with Alaska in the decades since the first race, Perry said the founders of the event never imagined it would become such a global phenomenon.

“There was no way to know how much lighting we had caught in a bottle,” he said.

The other original mushers were a ragtag bunch of trappers, Native dog men (half of the 22 teams to finish the 1973 race were driven by Alaska Natives) and adventurers who were more interested in the challenge of the event than trying to race each other or make history. None had any idea what they were getting into.

“It was a plunge into the unknown,” Perry said.

Kind of like making a documentary. While he knows both time and money are working against him, Perry said he will be undaunted in his quest to document the first “Last Great Race” through the eyes of the men who lived it.

“It’s a formidable task,” he said. “But it’s one we’re up to.”

To contribute to Perry’s film project, visit the film’s website at menof73.com or find Perry’s Kickstarter page at “The First Iditarod: The Amazing Dogs &Their Mushers.”

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