“When I went out to the villages (in the 1950′s) where there were beautiful dogs once, a snow machine was sitting in front of a house and no dogs. It wasn’t good. I didn’t like that. I’ve seen snow machines break down and fellows freeze to death out there in the wilderness. But dogs will always keep you warm and they’ll always get you there.” ~Joe Redington, Sr., in “I’d Swap My Old Skidoo for You,” by Nan Elliot (Brimm & Heald, 1989)
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.
Joe Redington came to Alaska in 1948, settling on a homestead near Knik, south of Wasilla, with his family. He learned about sled dogs and how to handle a dog team from his new neighbors, mail and freight team driver Sharon Fleckenstein and Lee Ellexson, one of the last dog team mail drivers on the Iditarod Trail. He and his wife Grace had at one time been the operators of the Happy River Roadhouse 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 his own 40 huskies. He 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.
A boat-building project took Joe to the village of Unalakleet, where he observed hundreds of huskies sitting idly around while snowmachines roared everywhere, the obvious transportation mode of choice. This alarmed Joe, and set him to thinking seriously about a one-thousand-mile race following the historic Iditarod Trail. 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.
Undaunted by the skeptics, Redington continued making plans for his race. He wrote up incorporation papers for the Iditarod Trail Committee, or ITC, forerunner of today’s race-governing body of the same name, and his wife Vi and two schoolteacher friends, Tom Johnson and Gleo Huyck – became the first officers of the new organization.
As Joe and his new Iditarod Trail Committee set to work, the base of opponents and naysayers grew, and chief among them were some of the mushing world’s most prominent racers. There were claims that no dog could run 1,000 miles, and that no musher could cover that distance either. The old-timers on the trail had traveled at a slower pace, and traded dogs and entire teams when necessary, and there was a network of close-set cabins and roadhouses to support them which no longer existed. Attempting to travel the entire distance with one team of dogs was considered foolhardy by many, ill-advised and reckless at best.
And then, quietly at first, a few advocates emerged and said it wasn’t such a far-fetched notion, and as evidence they pointed to mushers like Hudson Stuck, the Yukon River missionary whose classic book, Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled, related seemingly non-stop travels to the farthest reaches of Alaska. Others had utilized dog teams on long distance trips, explorers like Ernest de Koven Leffingwell, who mapped the Arctic coastline, and Olaus Murie, the federal wildlife biologist who ran dog teams throughout Alaska for more than 30 years. Dr. Joseph Romig was known as “the dog-team doctor” for his extensive remote travels, and Father Bernard Hubbard, “the Glacier Priest,” who led an expedition 1,600 miles down the frozen Yukon River, visiting missions along the way.
The Alaska Native elders chimed in with their stories and experiences; they were recognized experts on raising and training sled dogs and they knew the dogs could travel that distance. Well-known and respected mushers like George Attla of Huslia, Ken Chase of Anvik, and Dick Mackey of Wasilla signed on for the challenge, and other mushers began declaring their interest. Attla’s joining the race was significant, because at the time he was a reigning champion in the mushing world, enjoying something akin to rock star status in the sport.
Joe Redington Sr.’s dream race became a reality which continues to enchant mushers and fans alike every March. The year after founding the race, in 1974, Joe Redington would enter and run the race along with his sons Raymie and Joee. Raymie would place seventh, followed by his brother Joee in ninth place and Joe Sr. arriving in eleventh place. That would be a banner moment for the 57-year-old founder of the race.
Edited from the forthcoming book, The First Iditarod, Mushers’ Tales from the 1973 Race, a revision of the 2015 book by Helen Hegener, published by Northern Light Media. 190 pages. Format 6″ x 9,″ with over 60 illustrations and photos. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping and handling to U.S. addresses only. Additional postage required for foreign orders. Mailing first copies December 15th. Click here to order yours now.