“With more than 20 years of Alaska-specific journalism, Sherwonit is highly qualified to write about the Iditarod . . . His qualifications and a genuine affection for dogsledding are evident throughout IDITAROD’s 130-odd pages. The text is made all the more riveting by the corresponding photography of Jeff Schultz. . . . It is this compelling mixture of story and image that makes Iditarod such an engaging piece of work.”
-- MUSHING magazine
ORIGINS OF THE IDITAROD RACE
The year was 1966. Four decades had passed since airplanes had begun to edge out sled dog teams as the mail carrier of choice. Now even more drastic changes were occurring. Sled dog racing had continued to survive—and even thrive—in some population centers, most notably Fairbanks and Anchorage. But throughout much of Alaska, mushing was on the downslide; the sled dog subculture seemed headed for extinction. The decline was most evident in small rural communities, where sled dogs were rapidly being replaced by snowmobiles.
“Dog teams were disappearing fast in the mid-1960s,” Joe Redington, Sr., recalled years later. “Snowmachines were taking over in the villages. When I visited Interior villages in the fifties, every household had five or six dogs. They were the only transportation. But by the late 1960s, village dogs were almost gone.”
Redington, a longtime Alaskan and devoted musher, didn’t like that disappearing act. But neither did he have a solution—at least not until he met Dorothy Page at the 1966 Willow Winter Carnival. Then and there, the future “Mother and Father of the Iditarod” had a conversation that helped revive and reenergize the sport of mushing in Alaska.
Page, a self-described history buff, had seen her first sled dog race in 1960, shortly after moving to Alaska from California. In 1966, she’d been named president of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee; her primary task was to organize an event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia. She decided to stage “a spectacular dog race to wake Alaskans up to what mushers and their dogs had done for Alaska. We wanted to pay them a tribute.” The Iditarod Trail seemed ideal for such an event. It was, after all, a famous route used by mushers during the gold rush era. And it passed through both Knik and Wasilla, which would bring the race close to home. There was only one problem, but it was a big one: no dog driver would back the idea. Then Page crossed paths with Redington at the Willow carnival. Little did she know it, but Joe Sr. was the perfect man for the job.
Born February 1, 1917, “in a tent on the Chisolm Trail in Oklahoma,” Redington was fathered by a drifting laborer who variously worked as a farmer, rancher, and oil-field worker. His mother was an “Oklahoma outlaw who took off for the hills” shortly after Joe’s birth. Following his mother’s departure, Joe shared a nomadic life with his father, James, and brother, Ray. In 1948, the family’s travels brought them to Alaska. Shortly after crossing the border, the Redingtons stopped for fuel. The owners of the service station presented them with a gift: a puppy. It was, in retrospect, an omen of things to come.
The Redingtons weren’t rich, but Joe used what money he had to buy land in Knik. By chance, that property was adjacent to the Iditarod Trail, which after a quarter-century of disuse had become overgrown. In fall 1948, Redington met Lee Ellexson, an Alaskan sourdough who’d driven mail-carrying dog teams along the Iditarod Trail in the early 1900s. “Lee sold me some sled dogs,” Joe says. “He’d tell me stories of the old days and took me out on the trail. He sold me on mushing.”
By the end of his first winter in Alaska, Redington owned 40 dogs and had started up his Knik Kennels. At first he used the dogs for work rather than recreation. They hauled equipment and the logs Redington used to build his cabins. They also helped in rescue and recovery missions. Redington contracted with the U.S. Air Force to recover the wreckage of aircraft that had crashed and to rescue, or recover the remains of, military personnel. From 1949 to 1957, using teams of 20 to 30 dogs, he hauled millions of dollars’ worth of parts and hundreds of servicemen from remote areas. From 1954 to 1968, he also used dog teams in his work as a hunting guide. But always he kept a special interest in the Iditarod Trail. In the early 1950s, Joe and his wife, Vi, began to clear portions of the trail and lobbied to have it added to the National Historic Trail System. (Congress finally designated the Iditarod a national historic trail in 1978.) Then, in 1966, Dorothy Page proposed her centennial race.
Joe Sr. excitedly responded, “That would be great.” But he agreed to support Page’s idea only if the event offered $25,000 in total prize money, an extraordinary amount for that time. (The prize money, or “purse,” is divided among the top finishers, usually down to tenth or twentieth place; nowadays, 30 mushers split Iditarod winnings). By contrast, Anchorage’s long-established Fur Rendezvous World Championship offered only $7,500 in 1967. “I wanted the biggest dog race in Alaska,” he explained. “And the best way to do that was to offer the biggest purse.”
The proposed event, scheduled for mid-February 1967, initially met with considerable opposition. Some of Alaska’s most notable mushers predicted it would fail miserably. Instead, it was a smashing success that attracted an all-star field of 58 racers. Run in two heats over a 25-mile course, the race was officially named the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race, in honor of mushing legend Leonhard Seppala.
Over the years, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s origins have been closely linked with the “great mercy race” to Nome. Most people believe the Iditarod was established to honor the drivers and dogs who carried the diphtheria serum, a notion the media have perpetuated. In reality, “Seppala was picked to represent all mushers,” Page stressed. “He died in 1967 and we thought it was appropriate to name the race in his honor. But it could just as easily have been named after Scotty Allan. The race was patterned after the Sweepstakes races, not the serum run.”
The centennial race was won by Isaac Okleasik, a resident of Teller on the Seward Peninsula. His portion of the purse was $7,000, by far the biggest mushing payday of that era. But the Iditarod soon appeared to be a one-time big deal. The race was canceled in 1968 for lack of snow and interest. It was reinstated in 1969, but only $1,000 in prize money could be raised. Not surprisingly, the field also shrank, from 58 to 12 mushers.
Enthusiasm for an Iditarod Trail race all but died that year. Only one person kept the dream alive: Joe Sr. Rather than see it fade away, he wanted to expand the event, make it longer, better, more lucrative. Initially, Redington planned a race from Knik to the gold-boom ghost town of Iditarod. “Everybody asked, ’Where the hell is Iditarod?’ Nobody knew anything about Iditarod then,” Joe said. “So I changed it to Nome. Everybody knew where Nome is. That was our first smart move.”
It may have been smart, but it wasn’t well received. Skeptics labeled the proposed thousand-mile sled dog race an “impossible dream.” And some folks began calling Redington the “Don Quixote of Alaska.” Paying no attention to the cynics, Redington promised in 1969 that there would be a long-distance race to Nome by 1973, with an outrageous purse of $50,000. Despite some major obstacles, trail-clearing and fund-raising among them, Redington pulled off his impossible dream. Thirty-four drivers signed up for the first-ever sled dog race across Alaska and $51,000 was raised.
Joe Sr. billed the Iditarod as a 1,049-mile race (still the official distance). There was no question the course was at least 1,000 miles long; and the 49 was intended to symbolize Alaska, the forty-ninth state. In reality, the distance traveled by Iditarod teams is over 1,100 miles.
Twenty-two of the 34 teams reached Nome in March 1973. The winner was Dick Wilmarth, a little-known entrant from the tiny community of Red Devil, who finished in 20 days. A mysterious footnote to the race involves Wilmarth’s lead dog, “Hot Foot,” which somehow got loose at the end of the trail in Nome and was not seen again until two weeks later, after it had found its way back home to Red Devil, more than 500 miles away. His return is especially amazing because there are two major rivers, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, between Nome and Red Devil.
The race had exceeded everyone’s expectations, even Redington’s. But another serious and unforeseen problem had arisen: a large number of dogs died along the trail (depending on which published account you read, the toll was 16 to 30 animals), causing an uproar and protests, especially among animal rights groups.
“We got lots of letters and telegrams telling us to stop this cruel race,” Redington said. “Even Governor Bill Egan wrote to us. There was a lot of pressure to stop. The SPCA took out half-page ads. It’s true a lot of dogs died, mostly from pneumonia and dehydration. It wasn’t good. But we were trying to take good care of the dogs. The first two years were tough on the dogs, but gradually we learned how to properly care for them.”
The next year, the Iditarod continued to have financial problems—the purse dropped to $34,000. Yet 44 mushers signed up. Carl Huntington, an Athabascan racer from the Interior village of Galena, took first place in 20 days, 15 hours. Afterward, Redington took a poll of the mushers. “I asked them, ‘Do you want to see another race?’ They all said yes. I think it was established after 1974. The mushers said they’d go even if the purse wasn’t big.”
The 1975 Iditarod was a landmark race for two reasons: a major corporate sponsor pledged $50,000, and several rules were added to ensure proper care and health of the dogs. The dog death rate dropped dramatically that year, with two reported losses. But in 1976, the race’s sponsor withdrew its financial backing in response to continued negative publicity about dog care. The Iditarod Trail Committee’s Board of Directors wanted to postpone the event two years while building its finances, but Redington refused, believing that such a postponement “would have killed the race.”
With help from Dorothy Page and her husband, Von, Joe Sr. again kept the show going. The race has grown steadily—with a few rough episodes along the way—ever since. For well over a decade now, the Iditarod has earned national and international credibility and fame as “The Last Great Race.”
The race purse has increased to $700,000, with more than $65,000 -- greater than the entire purse in 1973 -- awarded to the champion, as the Iditarod has evolved into Alaska’s sporting version of “March Madness.” Dozens of journalists from throughout the United States and overseas have reported from the trail. Television networks have covered the race and produced post-race specials. And entrants have represented 16 foreign countries: .Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and Switzerland.
By almost any measure, the Iditarod is a success. The dream is real, thanks to the spirit, foresight, and determination of an adventurer named Joe Redington, Sr.
Buy Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome at Amazon.com