The World was Changing…

Original document by Don Bowers, Edited 2012

Even after the advent of the airplane, dog teams continued to be widely used for local transportation and day-to-day work, particularly in Native villages. Mushers and their teams played important but little remembered roles in World War II in Alaska, particularly in helping the famous Eskimo Scouts patrol the vast winter wilderness of western Alaska.

After the war, short and medium distance freight teams were still common in many areas of Alaska even when President Kennedy announced that the United States would put a man on the moon. During the 1960’s, however, it was not space travel but the advent of the “iron dog” (or snowmachine or snowmobile) that resulted in the mass abandonment of dog teams across the state and loss of much mushing lore.

In 1964, the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee was formed to look into historical events in Alaska, specifically the Mananuska-Susitna Valley, over the past century. 1967 marked the 100th anniversary of Alaska being a U.S. Territory after being purchased from Russia.  Dorothy Page, chairman of this committee, conceived the idea of a sled dog race over the historically significant Iditarod Trail.  Joe Redington Sr. was her first real support for such a race.  Joe and his wife Vi had deep historical interests in the Iditarod Trail since the mid-1950’s and felt this centennial race would help in their quest to preserve the historic gold rush and mail route and get it recognized nationally.  The Redingtons and Pages joined forces.  Dorothy poured her heart and soul into research as a historian and Joe Redington worked non-stop to put together a new sprint sled dog race.

With much volunteer labor (the start of a fundamental Iditarod tradition), the first part of the trail was cleared, including nine miles of the Iditarod Trail.  The two heat, 56 mile Centennial race between Knik and Big Lake was held in 1967 and 1969.  Then, interest in the race was lost.  However, Joe Redington never lost interest, instead his vision grew into a never conceived of before long-distance race.  Countless hours of discussions with fellow mushers followed.  Two of these mushers were teachers, Tom Johnson and Gleo Huyck.  These three men spirited this first-ever, long-distance race into reality and in 1973 a new race was born.  The U.S. Army helped clear portions of the trail and with the support of the Nome Kennel Club (Alaska’s earliest, founded in 1907), the race went all the way to Nome for the first time. Even so, the mushers still had to break much of their own trail and take care of their own supplies.  The winner of the first Iditarod was Dick Wilmarth, taking almost three weeks to reach Nome.

Redington had two reasons for organizing the long-distance Iditarod Race:  to save the sled dog culture and Alaskan huskies, which were being phased out of existence due to the introduction of snowmobiles in Alaska; and to preserve the historical Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome.  To promote both goals, Redington asked Dorothy Page to be the editor of an Iditarod  Annual.  Her enthusiasm, drive, and love of history opened the world’s eyes to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race®.  Unlike what you might read or hear, the Iditarod was not started to honor the Serum Run nor is it run each year as a commemoration to the Serum Run.  Iditarod (the race) and the Serum Run have many things in common, of course, especially the fact that the Serum Run followed a section of what today is the ‘northern route’ of the Iditarod.

The race is really a reconstruction of the freight route to Nome and commemorates the part that sled dogs played in the settlement of Alaska. The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint much as the freight mushers did eighty years ago—although some modern dog drivers like Doug Swingley, Martin Buser, Jeff King, Susan Butcher, and Rick Swenson move at a pace that would have been incomprehensible to their old-time counterparts, making the trip to Nome in under ten days.

Since 1973, the race has grown every year despite financial ups and downs. The Iditarod has become so well-known that the best mushers now receive thousands of dollars a year from corporate sponsors. Dog mushing has recovered to become a north-country mania in the winter, and some people now make comfortable livings from their sled-dog kennels.

While the Iditarod has become by far Alaska’s best-known sporting event, there are a dozen other major races around the state every winter, such as the grueling thousand-mile Yukon Quest, the Kobuk 440, the Kusko 300, the Klondike 300, and the Copper Basin 300. In a revival of age-old tradition, some entire villages and towns in rural Alaska become swept away in the frenzy of sled dog racing, and sled dog are now common in many rural areas where they were eclipsed by “iron dogs” only a few decades ago.

Alaska is the world Mecca for sled dog racing, which has developed into a popular winter sport in the Lower 48, Canada, Europe, and even Russia. Mushers from more than a dozen foreign countries have run the Iditarod, and Alaskan mushers routinely travel Outside to races such as the John Beargrease in Minnesota, the Big Sky in Montana, the UP 200 in Michigan, and the Alpirod in Europe. A number of Alaskan mushers have even run races in the Russian Far East. The Winter Olympics are considering adding sled dog racing as an event and several sled dog races were held in Norway in conjunction with the 1994 games.

Although the race’s fame causes many people to think of the Iditarod Trail when they think of traveling to Nome, the trail is actually impassable during the spring, summer, and fall. Moreover, its routing is far from a direct course, taking about 1,150 miles to go the 650 or so airline miles from Anchorage to Nome. In addition, the race committee has routed the race to pass through a number of towns and villages missed by the original trail, and has adopted a northern route for even-numbered years to include more villages along the Yukon.

The checkpoints for the first half of the current race are Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip, Willow, Knik, Yentna Station, Skwentna, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass (Puntilla), Rohn Roadhouse, Nikolai, McGrath, Takotna, and Ophir. In odd numbered years the middle part of the race largely follows the original trail, from Ophir through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, and Eagle Island to Kaltag. In even years, it swings north from Ophir to Cripple, Ruby (heart of another old mining district), Galena, Nulato, and on to Kaltag.

From Kaltag, the home stretch is the same every year: Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, Safety Roadhouse, and Nome. True to their predecessors, the mushers still run down Front Street past the still notorious saloons into the heart of the Last Frontier’s last frontier town to the burled arch. Every musher’s arrival is heralded by the city’s fire siren and every musher is greeted by a crowd lining the “chute”, no matter the time of day or night, or if he or she is first or fifty-first across the line.

The Beginning of The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race®

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race first ran to Nome in 1973.  

In the mid 1950’s, Jo and Vi Redington were writing letters to bring rememberance to the old Iditarod Trail and it’s important historical significance to Alaska’s history.

There were two short races using nine miles of the Iditarod Trail in 1967 and 1969.  (Sprint races)

Dorothy PageThe idea of having a race over a portion of the Iditarod Trail was conceived by the late Dorothy G. Page.  In 1964, Page was chairman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee and was working on projects to celebrate Alaska’s Centennial Year in 1967. 

Page was intrigued that dog teams could travel over land that was not accessible by automobile. In the late 1890’s and early 1900′s, settlers had come to Alaska following a gold strike. They traveled by boat to the coastal towns of Seward and Knik and from there, by land into the gold fields. The trail they used is today known as The Iditarod Trail, first surveyed by  the Alaska Road Commission in 1908 and now one of the National Historic Trails as so designated by the Congress of the United States. In the winter, their only means of travel was by dog team.

The Iditarod Trail soon became the major “thoroughfare” through Alaska. Mail was carried across this trail, people used the trail to get from place to place and supplies were transported via the Iditarod Trail. Priests, ministers and judges traveled between villages via dog team.

All too soon the gold mining began to slack off. People began to go back to where they had come from and suddenly there was less travel on the Iditarod Trail. The use of the airplane in the late 1920’s signaled the beginning of the end for the dog team as a standard mode of transportation, and of course with the airplane carrying the mail, there was less need for land travel. The final blow to the use of the dog team came with the appearance of snowmobiles in Alaska.

By the mid 60′s, most people in Alaska didn’t even know there was an Iditarod Trail or that dog teams had played a very important part in Alaska’s early settlement. Dorothy G. Page, a resident of Wasilla and self-made historian, recognized the importance of an awareness of the use of sled dogs as working animals and of the Iditarod Trail and the important part it played in Alaska’s colorful history.

Page presented the possibility of a race over part of the Iditarod Trail in celebration of Alaska’s Centennial celebration in 1967 to an enthusiastic Joe Redington, Sr., a musher from the Knik area. Soon the Pages and the Redingtons began promoting the idea of the Iditarod Race to the extent that Joe and Vi Redington moved to the Knik area from their homestead at Flat Horn Lake and they have never moved back. (Flat Horn Lake is approximately 30 miles out of Knik.)

The Aurora Dog Mushers Club, along with men from the Adult Camp in Sutton helped clear years of over-growth from a nine mile section of the Iditarod Trail.  The sprint race from Knik to Big Lake and back again was a two day event covering 56 miles.  Their hard work was finished in time for Alaska’s 1967 Centennial celebrations and the first race along part of the Iditarod Trail. A $25,000 purse was offered in that race, with Joe and Vi Redington donating one acre of their land at Flat Horn Lake adjacent to the Iditarod Trail to help raise the funds. (The land was subdivided into one square foot lots and sold with a deed and special certificate of ownership, raising $10,000 toward the purse.) Contestants from all over Alaska and even two contestants from Massachusetts entered that first race on the Iditarod Trail , but a newcomer, Isaac Okleasik, from Teller, Alaska, won the race with his team of large working dogs. The sprint race was put on only one more time in 1969.

Joe never gave up on looking for a way to preserve the history of the Iditarod Trail and began talking to friends about a long distance race.  The goal was to have the race go to the goldrush ghost town of Iditarod in 1973.  However, in 1972, the decision was made to take the race the 1,000 miles all the way to Nome. Howard Farley and the residents in Nome were instrumental in getting the northern portion of the race organized.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Army reopened the southern portion of the trail between Fairwell Lake and Knik as part of a winter exercise.  Two teachers ,Tom Johnson and Gleo Hyuck believed in Redington’s vision of a long-distance race and worked with Joe to incorporate the Iditarod Race and plan it.  Then others volunteered.  The “Last Great Race on Earth” was a reality – all amidst comments that it couldn’t be done.  Joe’s determination and vision along with many volunteers led to what we know today as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  

There were many who believed it was crazy to send a bunch of mushers out into the vast uninhabited Alaskan wilderness. But the race went! Twenty-two mushers finished that year and to date, there have been over 400 finishers. Mushers have come from Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Japan, Austria, Australia, Sweden and the Soviet Union as well as from about 20 different states in this country.

For Joe Redington, the Father of the Iditarod, there were two most important reasons for the Iditarod Sled Dog race.  He is quoted in Nan Elliot’s book, I’d Swap my Old Skidoo for You, “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.”  He was determined to bring back the sled dog to Alaska and to get the Iditarod Trail declared as a National Historic Trail.

Dorothy G. Page, the “Mother of the Iditarod” is quoted in the October 1979 issue of the Iditarod Runner on her intent for the Iditarod: “To keep the spirit of the Iditarod the same. I don’t ever want to see high pressure people getting in and changing the spirit of the race. We brought the sled dog back and increased the number of mushers. It is really an Alaskan event. I think the fact that it starts in Anchorage and then ends in Nome has opened up a whole new area for people in Alaska. I think they appreciate that. It puts them in touch with the pioneer spirit.” At this time, Dorothy was fairly ‘new’ to Alaska, and the conversations that she and Joe had blended  with Joe’s knowledge and goals to create a common recognition of the importance of the Iditarod Trail.

Edited 2/2012


Joe Redington, Sr. (Father of Iditarod)

Reprinted from 1974 Iditarod Annual, by Dorthory G. Page. Revised July 2000, Edited 2/2012

Joe Redington, Sr. arrived in Knik, Alaska, on June 2, 1948, with $18 in his pocket and high hopes in his heart. He’d left his home in Pennsylvania in May and had driven over the still primitive Alcan Highway seeking a new home in the far north.

Fate stepped in just after he’d crossed the Alaskan border, too. Someone gave Joe a sled dog pup. Perhaps it was a sign that he would launch a new career in Alaska dealing with raising sled dogs, racing, and promoting racing. A ‘career’ that would make him famous throughout Alaska, the rest of the United States, and other parts of the world.

Redington headed for Knik to check on homestead land. Soon after he arrived in the scenic spot overlooking Knik Arm of Cook Inlet, he chose his land and filed on a homestead. The filing fee was $13.  All Joe had left now was $5 and his new sled dog friend.

On his second day, Joe shot a black bear for meat. Also, three old-timers, Heinie Snider, Fred Hurd, and Jay Lavan, brought him 100 pounds of potatoes and a sack of canned goods. It was their idea of a welcome and extending a helping hand to a new Alaskan. Joe never forgot their kindness. In turn, he’s helped others.

Along with his “gift” groceries, Joe charged other groceries at Teeland’s Country Store in Wasilla until he could get his feet on the ground. But he was well on his way to being an Alaskan.

Soon, Joe had his homestead cabin built and had acquired more sled dogs. He started “Knik Kennels” in 1948 and was going strong until he passed away June 24, 1999.  By his second year in Alaska, he had over 40 dogs. It appeared even then that dogs would be big in his future. Perhaps because of his early upbringing, Joe took naturally to raising sled dogs.

Redington had been born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma at the end of World War I. He lived in Oklahoma with his father and brother until he was six years old. His father was a farmer, rancher, and an oil field worker, among other things.

At the age of 10, Joe, his Dad and brother joined a group of Irish gypsies traveling throughout the central part of the United States. They remained with them for two years and Joe says, “It was the best education a young boy could have, it taught me a lot about people.”

In 1930, the Redingtons moved to Jersey City, N.J., for a year or so, but didn’t like the city life. They later moved to Kintersville, Pennsylvania, where they settled on a farm. It was in Kintersville that Joe first met Violet — who was to become his wife many years later.

In 1940, Joe enlisted in the U.S. Army. He joined the 6th Field Artillery — the horse artillery — at Fort Hoyle, Maryland.

During World War II, Joe was transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and joined the Infantry and Field Artillery Jump School. After he completed his training, he was assigned to the Pacific Theater and was part of General McArthur’s Special Assault Troops.

Joe returned to Okinawa on December 6, 1945, and was discharged at Fort Dix, N.J., after almost six years in service. He went back to Kintersville, Pennsylvania., and began preparing for a trip to Alaska. He sold Jeeps and farm machinery to help raise money for the trip.

Joe’s army background helped him get his first “big” job in Alaska. He obtained a special job with the U.S. Air Force, 5039th Maintenance and Supply Group — commonly known as Rescue and Reclamation — whose main concern was the recovery of wrecked aircraft and the rescue of service personnel; or the bringing out of their remains.

From 1949 to 1957, Joe and his dog teams brought out millions of dollars of aircraft and hundreds of U.S. servicemen from the mountains. The only part that Joe didn’t like was the recovery of dead fliers.

One bad crash Joe recalled happened in the spring of 1955 when a Navy Neptune bomber crashed into Mt. Susitna across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, killing all of its 11 man crew. Three separate attempts were made to bring out the remains, but the first two were foiled by bad weather. Finally, in May, after 42 days of rigorous work locating the scattered bodies, some covered in 12 foot of snow, the job was completed.

Unable to destroy the Neptune because of the deep snow, the reclamation crew returned that summer and finished the job.

During rescue work, Joe used teams of as many as 20 or 30 big huskies. Most of the dogs weighed between 75 and 100 pounds and could go all day at a steady trot pulling sled and freight.

Redington also mushed his dog teams to remote sites along the Dew Line in the Arctic. The use of high powered helicopters for rescue and reclamation eventually put an end to the need for dog teams and Joe’s work with the army ended.

On February 18, 1953, Joe and Vi were married in Wasilla by the U.S. Commissioner, May Carter, who served as postmaster in Wasilla for many years.

The Redingtons moved to Flat Horn Lake along the old Iditarod Trail, and established a new homestead and guiding service. For a few years, they lived in a tent until their frame home was built. The house  ended up being 70 feet long.

By this time, Joe had his big game guiding license and his pilot’s license and was busy building up a new business. But he still used the dog teams. His kennel now housed 270 dogs. Everything Joe needed for building and all supplies had been hauled into Flat Horn by dog team.

Only after he accepted the job of promoting a $25,000 centennial year spectacular sled dog race, did Joe and Vi Redington return to Knik as it was easier to work from there. Promoting the race became a full time job.

The 1967 Centennial Race, (a sprint  race) was named in honor of Leonhard Seppala and was called the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race. This was a 56 mile race between Knik and Big Lake and back along nine miles of the Iditarod Trail. 

To raise funds for the race, Joe and Vi donated an acre of their land at Flat Horn Lake to the cause. The land was subdivided into lots one foot square. Along with the deed to the lot, the buyer also got a “Certificate of Ownership” — or as Redington once remarked — “about two dollars worth of paper!” because it didn’t cost a lot to subdivide the acre.  The Iditarod Trail Committee was hard at work putting in the trail, raising money, and promoting the race.

In 1968, there was no race due to lack of interest and lack of snow.  But for Joe Redington, that was not the case .

Joe’s vision of the race on the Iditarod Trail grew by hundreds of miles over the next several years.  His vision was to bring the sled dogs back to the villages and to have the Iditarod Trail recognized as a National Historic Trail.  The first Iditarod race to Nome was in 1973.  Joe did not get to race, but his team driven by his son, Raymie Redington, did star n this first race.  Joe had to stay behind and raise money for the purse.  His vision has now become a world class sporting event, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race®.  It is truly “The Last Great Race on Earth®”.

In 1997, Joe Redington, Sr. took part in the 25 Anniversary Iditarod Race after celebrating his 80th birthday. The race was dedicated to this great sled dog racing pioneer. He is the only musher to have been given the first position to leave the chute without drawing, as well as to wear the #1 bib.1

Joe never did win the race he loved so much, but that wasn’t as important to him as just being on the trail with his beloved sled dogs.  He raced in 19 races and came in 5th place four times.

Joe Redington, Sr. died in June of 1999 of cancer. He was buried in Wasilla in his favorite dogsled in a specially made vault.

Joe’s name is called during roll call at every Iditarod Trail Board meeting.  The Board President always excuses Redington’s absence because “Joe is on the trail.”  This routine procedure at Iditarod Board meetings reminds us of the Iditarod spirit that Joe Rerdintong Sr. exemplified and  lives on in the lives of all the mushers, volunteers, and fans of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Joe Redington Memorial

At 1 PM on February 1, 2003 at the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla, Vi Redington unveiled the life-size bronze statue to commemorate her late husband and Father of the Iditarod, Joe Redington Sr. The Friends of Joe Redington Sr. raised $35,000 in  over nine months to make this statue a reality. Everyone in attendance agreed that the artist, Joan Bugbee Jackson of Cordova, did and outstanding job of capturing Joe’s likeness. The detail she put into the work, especially the Iditarod patches on his parka are “just exquisite,” said Iditarod Trail Committee director, Stan Hooley.  The base for this statue was made by Dave Olson.  Dave was and to this day, still is a backbone of the Iditarod.