As the lead teams pass through McGrath, Iditarod race history becomes an important topic. Recent race followers may have a hard time imagining the early years of the race when McGrath was the focal point of the first half of the race, with hundreds of race fans crowding in, and racers spending long hours stopped in the community. The focus of those early years at McGrath was the famous local business known as McGuires Tavern.
There was an early Iditarod special on TV, narrated by some British dude who traveled the trail by helicopter and reported on what he saw. He described McGuires as “one of the world’s greatest pubs” and it probably seemed that way after a few days on the trail without a drink. In fact, McGuires was a meeting spot for rural Alaska, and during the Iditarod crowds packed the place, for a chance to buy a beer, or two, for the mushers who stopped for a little break. It is a commonly known fact that at least two Yukon River racers probably lost the Iditarod by staying too long at Mcgrath, and most of that time was spent at McGuires. By too long I mean a day or so.
I actually spent a little time at McGuires, but it was only to gather material for this blog. I feel the need to report on those events. One time I spent an evening at McGuires with a race veterinarian, who was not supposed to drink because of an ultimatum from his wife. He convinced me at about 2 am to call her from the bar pay phone to tell her he was on duty, working hard late at night. It didn’t work. The bar noise was obvious. He was divorced soon after.
Another time I was called at 4 am for legal help. The caller said he had been assaulted during the race at McGuires and wanted to know if he could sue the assailant. I was a little groggy and decided to ask a few questions. “Where are you calling from” I asked. “I’m on the floor under the phone at McGuires”. He explained that is where he landed after the assault, and he had had his friend dial me up immediately. By morning he forgot he had called.
Then there was Freight Train, a local legend. Freight Train was a cat skinner in the local gold mines, who liked to drink at McGuires. One time during a race he copied the old TV stunt of smashing a beer can into his face, except he used a glass. It broke, so did he, and he left with a huge gash in his face. He apparently went to the local health aide for stitches and returned in an hour to order another drink. He died a few years later as a fairly young man, and his obituary stated he died of too much fun, and most of it was at McGuires.
One other famous story involved a western Alaska pilot who stopped for a few beers at McGuires on his way to Anchorage. The bar is located right on the airport parking ramp. He left the bar drunk, and flew west instead of east. When the troopers found him a few days later on the bank of the Innoko River, his first words were “What took you so long” It didn’t take very long at all to revoke his flying permit.
McGrath held its own race called the Mail Trail 202 for many years and McGuires was the race headquarters. It was quite the spot. All that is in the past. Tonight, there is likely a small group there, but most nights visiting McGuires is like going to a haunted house. You sense the presence of the old timers, but they aren’t there. Few mushers stop for more than five minutes in McGrath, and for that reason the race fans that do venture along the trail tend to congregate in Takotna where more many mushers take 24 hours.
I had a beer at McGuires when I raced in 1979, and one more in Takotna when that bar was still open. That was a different Iditarod. It is likely no racer will visit McGuires this year, and it might not even be allowed. But a little flavor of the race has been lost by the calculated way in which it is run today. The good old days weren’t always that good, but when it comes to the Iditarod, they really were.
Myron Angstman, lawyer, pilot, and dog musher, lives in Bethel, Alaska. Read more about dogs, law suits and rural Alaska gossip by checking http://www.myronangstman.com/