1985 Iditarod champion Libby Riddles with Ester. (Jillian Rogers)

1985 Iditarod champion Libby Riddles with Ester. (Jillian Rogers)

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is nearing the end of the first week, with the winner still anybody’s guess. Racers are coming off their mandatory 24-hour rests and strategies are emerging as they near the halfway point.  The first woman to win to the race, Libby Riddles, celebrated 31 years since her historic victory. She came through Haines a while back and talked to Jillian Rogers about dogs … and cats.

Chilkat pretty much rules the roost at Riddles’ home east of Homer. He’s a cat in a dog’s world that Riddles adopted from the Haines Animal Rescue Kennel a year ago. Riddles saw Chilkat on the web and …

“I thought he had a confident looking tail.”

For the last 15 years, Riddles has been working for Princess Cruises in Juneau. She boards the ships each day throughout the summer and gives a rousing presentation on all things Iditarod and mushing. She usually brings one of her huskies onboard that she hauls from Homer to Juneau each summer. She also brings Chilkat and together, three dogs and a  cat ride in the old Dodge truck that she collected for winning the race back in ’85.

“I figured out I’ve done almost 1,800 talks in the last 15 years and I’m still having fun, so … it’s almost scary.”

Each season is different, she says. And this most recent summer was a good one for her. At her shows she sells dog mushing DVDs and her books – she’s written one about that fateful race that catapulted her to fame, as well as two children’s books. One of the children’s book is about a sassy old cat named Danger. As to whether Chilkat will get his own manuscript, well, that remains to be seen.

“He’s this big, Norwegian forest cat that was abandoned in apartment when somebody moved out of here in Haines. It was nice to be able to rescue him.”

Riddles still has around 25 sled dogs and runs them all winter, though she hasn’t raced in years. But she still makes it to Anchorage and Willow for the race start and to Nome to greet mushers as they finish their 1,000-mile journey. She works with the TV stations in Anchorage doing commentary during the race, and, after three decades, Riddles still gets frequent requests for keynote speeches, or motivational talks from people and organizations across the country.

“It’s pretty neat staying involved. I love seeing the new racers come out every year and how much faster they go every year and crazier it gets. It’s neat to be part of that.”

If you don’t already know the story of Riddles’ harrowing ’85 run, the gist is she braved a storm when no one else would and secured a place in dog-driving history.

During that race, Riddles was leapfrogging with the frontrunners until she made it to Shaktoolik, a village on the Bering Sea Coast. A nasty storm was pummeling the shoreline, but Riddles decided that was her shot, so she took off, out onto the sea ice in the raging blizzard. She ended up having to hunker down in her sled for 12 hours during the night, but no one caught up to her and she continued on all the way to Nome, nabbing a victory.

She won the race in 18 days, 20 minutes and 17 seconds and was also presented with the humanitarian award for excellence in dog care.

“Up in Nome, after I won the race, one of those tabloid magazines called and they’re like ‘we need a picture of you wearing a dress in your dog yard’ and me and my friends cracked up so bad at that one.”

JR: “Did you do it?”

LR: “Oh, heck no!”

Now Riddles is back at home. She opted to skip the trip to Nome this year and is getting ready to fly to Hawaii for a stint of relaxation before her summer season. After that, she says, she’ll pack up and get  ready to come back Southeast way, with dogs, Dodge and Chilkat, of course.