Joe Redington, Sr., known as the “Father of the Iditarod,” was born on February 1, 1917, in a tent on the banks of the Cimarron River, north of Kingfisher, Oklahoma, on the famous Chisholm Trail. It was a fitting start for a man who would later spend his life traveling the trails of a far distant land. Redington came to Alaska in 1948, settling on a homestead near Knik with his family. His first ride on a sled dog team was with his new neighbor, Lee Ellexson, who had been one of the last dog team mail drivers on the Iditarod Trail, and the operator of the Happy River Roadhouse, north of Puntilla Lake in Rainy Pass. Ellexson had traveled thousands of miles with a dog team, and his stirring ‘tales of the trail’ captivated the newcomer. Ellexson sold Joe a few dogs, and in less than a year Redington had created Knik Kennels and was feeding 40 huskies. He also became a proficient enough dog driver to contract rescue and recovery missions for the U.S. Air Force between 1949 and 1957, using his dog teams to reach the sites of aircraft crashes. Harnessing teams of 25 to 30 dogs, Redington hauled hundreds of servicemen and millions of dollars’ worth of salvaged parts from remote areas of Alaska. As he traveled through the outlying villages, Redington began noticing that where there had once been a tough and reliable sled dog team staked behind almost every villager’s home, now there would be a bright yellow snowmachine parked by the door, a development which Redington considered profoundly disappointing.
In 1967, a 50-mile sled dog race was run from Knik to Big Lake, in two 25-mile heats over a two-day period and including several miles of the Iditarod Trail. The brainchild of Wasilla historian Dorothy Page, who thought such an event would be an effective way to commemorate the Alaska Purchase Centennial, the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race was planned for February 11 and 12, 1967. Joe Redington played a large part in making the race happen; besides spearheading the fundraising for the race, Joe and his friend Dick Mackey blazed and reopened nine miles of the long-dormant Iditarod Trail. The race was billed as ‘the biggest event in racing history,’ with an unprecedented purse of $25,000, richer than any purse offered for a sled dog race until then. It attracted mushers from all around Alaska, respected dog drivers such as George Attla, Gareth Wright, Earl Norris, Jerry Riley, Orville Lake, Herbie Nayokpuk, Dick Mackey, and even two champion sprint mushers from Massachusetts: Dr. Roland Lombard and Dr. Charles Belford. Among the 59 teams entered were three Redington teams, driven by Joe and his sons Joee and Raymie. Although many of the mushers who entered were already champions, the race was won by a relative newcomer, Issac Okleasik of Teller, driving a team of big village working huskies.
With the 1967 Centennial race deemed an unqualified success, Joe Redington was already planning for a longer and much grander event, a one-thousand-mile race following the historic Iditarod Trail. In 1969, when a second, less-successful race was once again held from Knik to Big Lake, Joe Redington promised that there would be a long-distance race to Nome by 1973, with the unheard-of purse of $50,000. Several major obstacles stood in his way, such as trail-clearing and fund-raising, but the biggest obstacle was his fellow race enthusiasts. While almost the entire mushing community had rallied behind the idea of the Alaska Purchase Centennial 50-mile race, the founders and supporters of that 1967 race backed away from the considerably longer event Joe was now proposing, labeling it an ‘impossible dream.’
Undaunted by the skeptics, Joe set to work planning his race. The word ‘impossible’ didn’t seem to be part of his vocabulary.
An excerpt from the forthcoming book, The First Iditarod: Mushers’ Tales of the 1973 Race, by Helen Hegener, to be published in March, 2015 by Northern Light Media.