The (Emmitt) Peters Principal
By Mike Koskovich
It goes back quite a few years, but is still a very memorable experience for me. It was March of 1978, and I was employed by Sea Airmotive of Anchorage. They were at that time arguably the premier air taxi operator in the state. I was stationed in Bethel, where we had a fleet of Cessna, Beechcraft and DeHavilland airplanes serving the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta with scheduled and charter service. I'd had some exposure to Iditarod related activities prior to this time, so I was quite thrilled when the chief pilot asked me if I would be interested in transporting the Bethel KYUK TV crew to document the last few days of the race.
I loaded three passengers plus gear in a Cessna 185 on Hydraulic wheel skis and since the front runners were rapidly approaching the coast, We headed for Unalakleet. I think we spent a day and a night in Unalakleet, until the front-runners passed through. We then headed up the coast on a cold clear blue-sky day to find the lead mushers. The innermost portion of Norton Sound, or Norton Bay, was frozen over tight that year.
We departed Shaktoolik, and headed for Koyuk. In those days the villagers would mark the trail with small spruce trees as it went across the ice towards Koyuk. We followed the trail and soon spotted the mushers. They were six teams in a row one right after the next. The Bethel TV guys were very excited and immediately wanted to know could I land along the trail. I made a low pass, determined it was safe to land, and put down some 500 yards or so ahead of the lead musher and maybe 50 yards off the trail. The TV crew hastily pulled video cameras and tripods out of the airplane and prepared to record the passage of the mushers.
The lead musher turned out to be Emmitt Peters, of Ruby. Just as Emmitt's team came abeam the parked airplane, his team made a 90-degree turn to the right and made a beeline for the airplane. The other five teams continued straight down the trail. The other five teams were as near as I can recall: Dick Mackey, Rick Swenson, Joe Redington Sr., possibly Terry Adkins and maybe Herbie Nayokpuk. Not sure about the last two. As Emmitt Peters team headed for the 185, he lit into me with a tirade worthy of a drunken sailor. What the $%^& was I thinking parking that@#$%^&* airplane out there and disrupting the whole *&^%$# race etc. etc.
I immediately felt horrible and gathered the TV guys up so we could make a hasty getaway. Emmitt Peters, meanwhile had stopped short of the airplane and appeared to be fussing with his team untangling harnesses and so on. We took off and headed for Koyuk.
I parked on the ice in front of the village, and we waited for the mushers. Some time later, the mushers arrived at Koyuk, and the crew got more video footage. Things settled down after a while and the mushers were all tending to their teams. I located Dick Mackey who was in the process of cooking up some food for his team. I had known Dick for several years by then having been involved with teaching he and his wife to fly. I approached him and said something to the effect that I guess Emmitt Peters was really upset with me for landing out there along the trail and causing his team to detour towards the airplane.
Dick Mackey looked at me with his serious as a heart attack Wildman look and said, "Are you kidding? You were the first excuse he's had to get out of breaking trail for three days! He may have been cussing you out for show, but under his breath he was telling his dogs to go to that airplane!" I was at once astounded that these guys were playing that kind of games, and hugely relieved that in reality I had done Peters a favor. That was a startling revelation to me about some of the things that go on behind the scenes.... We continued up the trail, and several days later had the distinct privilege of standing on Front St. in Nome to witness the most amazing Iditarod finish of all time to date. Dick Mackey and Rick Swenson in an unbelievable footrace leading their teams to the finish line where Mackey won the 1978 Iditarod by one second! I became severely hooked on this annual spectacle after that episode; see you on Front Street next March!