Dashing through the snow

Born and raised in the deep South, Bob Holder spent many years racing sled dogs across frozen tundra

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Bob and Jeanne Holder. Special photo

Dog sled racing is more than just a sport in Alaska; it is a long-standing tradition that celebrates and remembers the state’s history. And when H.G. “Bob” Holder (BSEd ’59) was racing, he found a way to remember his history as well. He had the words “Junk Yard Dawgs” embroidered on both sleeves of his bright red racing parka.

Growing up in Havana, Fla., just south of Georgia, Holder never imagined that he would someday race across the Yukon behind a team of dogs. But after a 1982 trip to Alaska, when he was president of the National Water Well Association, he and his wife, Jeanne, decided to move from Covington to Fairbanks.

He opened a well drilling business and was soon looking for a hobby. So he assembled a team of five dogs and started racing.

“That got us started and then the competitiveness of my attitude prevailed and I said, ‘Well, let’s race.’ And I didn’t know anything about racing or training to race,” he says.

In his first race, Holder finished so far behind the others that the Red Lantern, a “prize” for last place, had already been awarded. It did not deter him.

“I started mushing when I was 50,” says Holder, now 74. “People have retired long before that because it’s such a physical, demanding sport. But I wanted to do it because my persistence led me to do that and I just kept on and kept on.”

In 1995, at age 59, he finished the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest race in Fairbanks on a Saturday, flew to Anchorage that Monday to prepare for the 1,150-mile Iditarod, and then, after finishing that race, flew to northeast Russia for the now-defunct 1,200-mile Hope Race, a friendship race between Americans and Russians. Each race can take from nine to 12 days, depending on weather conditions and the health of the dog team. Holder believes he is the only person ever to complete all three in the same year.

While he never planned to be a dog sled racer, Holder attributes his interest in the sport to the respect for physical labor he developed while growing up on a farm.

“[I] have a deep admiration for… that ruggedness,” he says. “And that’s what the Alaskan gold rush was all about. You know, it was some rugged people that went up there.”

Holder last raced in 2000, and he and Jeanne moved back to Covington in 2001. He continues to work at his well drilling business and has two huskies, Reba and Sophie, as pets. The couple participates in mission trips to Alaska and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of racing again.

“The more you run, the more you want to run the next year,” he says.

And like most athletes, Holder, who helped coach basketball at Western Maryland University in the late ’60s, says, “I’d like to have one more game.”