Photographing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the 1970s and ‘80s was a far different adventure assignment than that of today. While the Alaskan terrain between Anchorage and Nome may not have changed drastically, the types of dogs, mushing equipment, clothing, and stoves, as well as items mushers mandatorily must have aboard their sleds, along with the race rules, decidedly differ. 

The object of covering the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was not just for the adventure or to capture the winning team, but to make images that tell the race’s story showing the beauty of Alaska, its rugged terrain, checkpoint activities, and the grueling extremes encountered by the dogs and the Iditarod mushers. 

To meet the race demands, I switched camera brands, selecting my equipment for the cold conditions and myriad types of travel. In the early days, the logistics to cover this race were basic and limited. I used snowmachines, aircraft, and snowshoes to follow the 1,049-mile trail to Nome—all forms of transportation prone to vibration, freezing temps, and small storage allotments.

My first flight out on the trail was in an early model Cessna 180 on wheel skis. It was beat up, dripping oil from the cowling, with 100 m.p.h. silver tape (duct tape) on the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer, and including interior door handles that had been replaced by small vice-grip pliers. These traits epitomized the classic Alaskan bush plane at the time. 

The bearded pilot was “Vice Grips Thompson,” and he was the lead pilot flying supplies for the race. “Jump in,” he said. “No seats on this bird. We’re full of dog food, so you’ll have to sit on that gunny sack. You better put your coat on. The bag is full of frozen food. Put your gear and camera bag on the floor between your legs—there’s no room in back. Buckle-up, we’re burning daylight.” Off we flew over the Alaska Range, destination…Farewell Airstrip, Lower Kuskokwim, Alaska.

When I started photographing the Iditarod, I had switched to Nikon F and F2 metal body cameras. In the 1970s era, professional photographers depended on film. Manual focus and exposures using Kodak Tri-X and T-Max 35mm films rating at various ISO (then ASA) per roll were the norm of the profession. ISO ratings were based on development types and times, ranging from 400 to 2,000 ISO. Lenses used on the race were 20mm, 35mm, 105mm, 180mm, and 400mm NIKKOR glass, most of which I scrounged up, used or refurbished.

Without today’s technology or the Internet, the images you see here were produced on film with cassettes and scribbled captions tucked into cartridges to be flown back to Anchorage for processing. In those days, Iditarod race news was always days late.


Rob Stapleton’s photographic work in Alaska spans more than 40 years beginning in 1975 when he became a photojournalist for the Anchorage Daily News. Stapleton’s photos of Alaska and Alaskans have been published in Alaska magazine, Life, Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, GEO, der Stern, Paris Match, Le Figaro, and many other magazines, websites, wire services, and newspapers. Stapleton is also a member of the “Old Iditarod Gang” that published a 424-page coffee table book in early 2015 titled The First Ten Years of Iditarod.

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