I would have never expected to meet a man who is a “legend” in the world of dog sled racing right here in Covington. His name is Bob Holder and he lives out near the Hub Junction on the eastside of Newton County. A native of Florida, a letterman in Basketball at the University of Georgia, and winner of the Bronze Star in the U.S. Rangers during the War in Vietnam. Bob moved to Newton County in 1968 to go into the well-drilling business.
Life for him and his wife, Jeanne, took a major turn, when Bob sold his local business and packed up his well-drilling equipment and headed to Alaska in 1983. Jeanne, who was with United Airlines, could transfer her carrier so for them it was a new beginning.
In his first year in Alaska, Bob received five sled dogs as partial payment on a well-drilling job. He began to learn how to train with them. What lay ahead for Bob would be what makes him a “legend” in the dog sled racing world.
One problem he ran into immediately was every sled team has to have a lead dog and there was not one in his five. So Bob bought a lead dog, Yukon Jack. Bob, his new lead dog and team were soon entering some short local races. I say “short,” we are speaking of races that are about 50 or 100 miles long.
The very first race did not go so well. In fact, Bob and his team finished last. One of the traditions of dog sled racing in Alaska is to give the last a red lantern. The idea was taken from the lantern on a caboose. It started as a joke. But has come to mean the stick-to-itiveness of those who finish the race even when others have left them far behind. Bob was so far back that the lantern had already been awarded when he got in but they retrieved it and gave it to him anyway.
Bob took part in the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile International Dog Race several times. While not as well known in the “lower 48” as the Iditarod, it has been called by many as the toughest race in the world. It generally follows the route of the mail delivery and supply route of the 1890’s Yukon God Rush. In harsh winter conditions it crosses four mountain ranges and takes anywhere from 10 to 20 days.
And in the harsh elements, it is the racer known as the musher and his or her six to 14 dogs depend on each other. It is a hard endurance race.
Bob participated in the Iditarod Dog Sled Race four times, 1992 – 1995. In 1993 he was recognized as the most improved Musher. The very names of the Iditarod speaks of the ruggedness that these teams of dogs and their mushers face. It comes from a local word used by area Native Americans that meaning “distant places”,
One lesson Bob said he learned in the world of darkness and harsh weather that the races are run in, is never turn back. He felt his faith journey grew as his world of racing experience grew.
Bob participated in a very similar race in Siberia in 1995, the Russian Friendship Race. He became the only musher to ever participate in the three long races in the same year. It is a distinction that he will always stand alone in since the Siberian Race has been discontinued.
The name for the race in Siberia came in part from what happened at the end of each day. Instead of “musing on” or sleeping on the trail, the local people would take those participating in the race into their homes for the night.
Can you imagine in a three or four month period fighting the bitter winter and early spring elements of the arctic part of the world to race over 3,000 miles. It’s mostly just you and your dogs against the world.
It is an amazing story of where life has led this neighbor of ours to reach such a level in the world of dog sled racing. Some of his friends are encouraging Bob to write a book about those years of racing and what led up to them.
When I sat down to have a cup of coffee with Bob and listened to his adventures, I knew I had met an amazing man.