September 26, 2018

Eye on the Trail: Honoring Joee Redington

Pam Redington Accepts Bib #1 for Honorary Musher, Joee Redington

True to the Redington name, Joee Redington, JR. knew sled dogs. He was a generous man, sharing his knowledge of the Alaskan Husky and racing as well as his time and talents with other mushers and his community. In August of 2017, at the age of 74, Joee passed away in Fairbanks.

Joee, born in Oklahoma, moved with his father, Iditarod founder, Joe Redington, SR. to Knik Road south of Wasilla, Alaska in 1948. He and his brothers, Raymie and Tim, commercially fished Cook Inlet during the summer and ran dogs in the winter. It was a life that was rigorous, requiring good survival skills and the ability to problem solve. The reward of being out doors and the close connection with nature and sled dogs offset those challenges and dilemmas.

Redington’s first experience with sled dogs on 4th Avenue in Anchorage, where the Iditarod starts, was as a musher in the Junior Fur Rendezvous of 1956. He came in last well after all the other young mushers had completed the race. Folks say the only person still waiting at the finish line was Joee’s mother. By the time 1961 rolled around and Joee was in his last year of junior racing, he was standing on the podium as the winner of not only the Junior Fur Rendezvous but also the Junior Open North American Race.

While serving in the U.S. Army, Joee’s skills as a dog driver were put to use in the biathlon unit. In 1966 while driving the Fort Richardson dog team, Joee won the World Championship Fur Rendezvous. With the victory, Joee gained celebrity status and was invited to come to New York and appear on the CBS syndicated TV show, “To Tell the Truth.” That must have been quite the experience for the young Redington who had grown up in rural Alaska! Imagine how he described elevators and revolving doors to the folks back home.

Joee’s racing career spanned more than half a century. While he loved all types of racing, he focused on sprints. He ran 22 Fur Rendezvous Races and 20 Open North American Championships, consistently claiming top five finishes – 15 in the Fur Rondy and 13 in the North American. Redington was a legend, a respected competitor and a constant contender.  Joee has won the Fort Nelson Canadian Championship. He’s participated in numerous village races and after winning the Willow Race for the third time during the ‘60s, the trophy was retired.

What was it about sprint racing that captured his attention? Pam Redington, Joee’s wife, explained that when Joee was a young boy growing up in Knik, they listened to sprint race broadcasts on the radio. Those sprint racers were the heroes of the day for a lot of young kids, including the Redington boys. Joee became a successful sprint racer long before the inaugural Iditarod. After running two Iditarod races he realized that sprint racing and long distance racing required different training, different strategies if not different dogs. Joee decided he needed to commit to either one or the other style of racing. There was only one Iditarod each year but there were sprint races every weekend all winter long. By choosing sprint he could do a lot more of what he loved – race with his dogs.

Redington JR. completed his rookie Iditarod in 1974 covering the trail to Nome in 23 days, 3 hours and 25 minutes claiming 9th place. On his second run to Nome in 1975, Joee improved his time by 9 days covering the distance in 14 days, 16 hours and 7 minutes for a top three finish. It was the performance of the fourteen day finishers in ‘75 – Emmitt Peters, Jerry Riley, Joee Redington and Herbie Nayokpuk that changed Iditarod forever. The race was on!

Pam shared her thoughts on the factors that made it possible for Joee and other top finishing mushers of the ‘75 Iditarod to smash the previous race record. In ‘74 the race went over Ptarmigan Pass. The weather was horrific with snow, brutal cold and blizzard conditions. There were a handful of teams that traveled together. It was tough going and they’d change out who was in the lead or who broke trail by snowshoe. At times they’d stop and point out a tree or other physical feature and say, “I think that’s the way.” Eventually they found their way to the interior but it took a long time. The next year when the race went the same route, they remembered the trail and knew where they were going and the weather was much better. They also changed their training and developed strategies specific to long distance racing.   Each played a role in subtracting six days from the previous race record of 20 days and 49 minutes.

Redington is one of only 37 mushers to have finished Iditarod when it went from Anchorage to Nome. In the very early races, the clock started when the teams took off from the start line in Anchorage. Later, the Anchorage start became the ceremonial start and then mushers trucked their dogs to Wasilla, Willow or Fairbanks for the restart of the race. The official clock for the trip to Nome now begins at the restart.

When weather and or snowfall sent the Iditarod Restart north to Fairbanks, Joee and Pam Redington along with other community residents, mobilized to plan and prepare the Manley Hot Springs Checkpoint. The community hosted Iditarod and the mushers in 2003, 2015 and 2017. With fewer than 90 residents, the village of Manley Hot Springs knows the definition of teamwork. In 2003 when the race moved north, they had a sprint race on the weekend and only a day later, Iditarod mushers began arriving. Sprint racers stayed around to help and also witness the Iditarod. Joee and other checkpoint organizers learned much that year. Twelve years later in 2015, then again in 2017, they had a layout that was much more efficient and convenient for the large number of teams that came through in the short time period typical of Iditarod’s early checkpoints. When the temperatures measured well below zero during the race, the climate of the Manley Hot Springs checkpoint was always warm and welcoming.

The Manley Hot Springs checkpoint won Iditarod’s Golden Clipboard Award in 2017. The award is presented to the checkpoint that goes above and beyond during the race. From an Iditarod statement, “Joee played a big role in Manley Hot Springs receiving that award.” It’s a big job for a small village to host a checkpoint. For Joee Redington it was a labor of love, an attitude he fostered throughout the community.

Veterinarian and Champion Sprint Musher, Arleigh Reynolds, spoke to Beth Bragg of Alaska        Dispatch News about Joee saying, “He was one of the greatest if not the greatest dog man ever seen in Alaska.” Redington wasn’t the kind of guy to keep his vast knowledge of dogs and mushing to himself. Reynolds said, “Fortunately he passed a lot of that on. He wanted to help the young guys and girls. I know my ability to become a champion can be attributed to time I spent with Joee.”

Joee like his father was a visionary. Joe Sr. had a vision of what it would take to maintain the sled dog in Alaska and acted on that vision in founding the Iditarod. Joee acted on his own vision of keeping the sport of mushing alive by sharing his breeding, training and racing expertise with aspiring and seasoned mushers alike. His role as a mentor for the younger generations of mushers cannot be over stated. In learning from Joee, one also learned from his friends and fellow competitors – George Attla, Doc Lombard and other distinguished mushers.

Wearing Bib #1, Pam Redington, Joee’s wife, will ride with the newly crowned JR Iditarod Champion Bailey Schaeffer for the eleven-mile Ceremonial run. Joee Redington, Jr. is a legend and mushing icon. May he rest in peace.