NEWPORT — When Bill Bartlett drove into Newport after crossing the finish line of the Iditarod in 1980, a big sign greeted him on Main Street. It read, “Welcome home, musher Bill.”
“That was the greatest sense of accomplishment,” said Bartlett. “I have no words.”
Bartlett, whose family owns and operates Bartlett Blueberry Farm, has told his story many times over the last 38 years, and he still gets a cold chill when thinking about all the help he received along the way.
Most recently, Bartlett told the story to a captive audience that filled the Richards Free Library ballroom on Tuesday, April 10. The event kicked off a series of talks hosted by the Newport Historical Society.
Often called the last great race on earth, the Iditarod covers more than 1,000 miles of rough Alaskan terrain and features sub-zero temperatures and blizzards.
Bartlett’s part in the iconic race began in March of 1979, when he casually expressed interest in one day running the Iditarod to a friend.
The friend urged him to actually do it, promising Bartlett a Chevrolet truck of his so long as Bartlett put in the work to repair it.
That initial offer set everything else in motion.
Bartlett’s wife, Heidi, was teaching second grade at Richards Elementary School. He convinced her to take a leave of absence and join him.
Bartlett had started mushing just eight years prior, when a friend let him drive his team. Bartlett was hooked. His profession as a bovine podiatrist left his winters free to pursue his hobby.
In addition to the truck, the Bartletts received a lot of support from the local community. Newspapers across the state publicized the effort, and businesses like Woolrich and L.L.Bean donated clothing. A friend from Laconia built him a sled.
Paul Skarin and others formed a Newport-to-Alaska Committee. They sold bright red bumper stickers that declared, “I support musher Bill.”
The majority of the funds went to purchasing 6,000 pounds of high-quality dog food. Bartlett also attached a multi-tier trailer to the truck to transport the dogs, most of which were lent, and their gear.
The couple left Newport in early December. They stopped in New York to pick up the dog food and in Michigan to pick up an additional huskie, reaching Anchorage on Christmas.
The day before, the truck’s radiator broke. Heidi waited with the dogs by a roadside fire while Bartlett hitched a ride into town to find a replacement radiator.
After safely arriving, they began two months of training.
Bartlett, who was 36 at the time, had competed in several other races such as Michigan’s Newberry Sled Dog Race, but he was still an amateur compared to the professional mushers that lived in Alaska.
“Most of us running the race were doing it more for the adventure than to be competitive, and that fit me perfectly,” he explained. “Where I compete is in my daily life against myself.”
For most of the race, Bartlett met his modest goal of being somewhere in the middle of the race.
Meanwhile, Heidi met him at the race’s 26 checkpoints to supply him with food, extra supplies and encouragement.
Near the end of the race, Bartlett reached a portion of the route that was mostly open tundra. It was so cold Bartlett developed frostbite on his face.
He lost time because his dogs were not motivated to run against powerful winds coming in from the Bering Sea. At one point, he took a wrong turn, which cost him another hour.
Nevertheless, when he crossed the finish line in Nome after midnight, the crowd greeted him as if he had won the race.
He finished in 21st place, clocking in at 16 days and 16 hours. He was one place ahead of future four-time race winner Martin Buser.
“If I stuck with it I might have been famous,” he joked, explaining he never ran the race again though he did serve as a judge for the 1990 Iditarod. “But home is home.”
And that’s a sentiment that stood out during his speaking engagement with Bartlett expressing enormous gratitude for the town that helped him go on the adventure of a lifetime.