Joe Redington, Son Of Iditarod

Not Lance Mackey or one of the second or third generation Seavey clan. I mean Joe Redington Sr, I mean the father of the Iditarod in the same sense that Sigmund Freud meant “the child is father to the man.”

I met Joe in 1974 before the start of the second Iditarod Trail race to Nome, and I am sure already in the early years of the event his character and persona had changed and grown, changes fathered by the race he fathered. Even more in the following years.

He did not lose his imagination and optimism. If he had been a completely practical person he would never have risked as much as he did to create, support and promote this world changing race which took over his life.

Since the death of Joe Redington Sr, his contribution to the sport is commemorated on a regular schedule at each meeting of the Iditarod Trail Committee directors. As a lifetime member and one of the founders of the ITC his name is called with the roll of current directors. There is no answer. After a short silence someone in the room calls out, “Joe’s on the Trail, his absence is excused.”

When I first heard this at one of the meetings I attended around 2000, I began to think about the many other times I had been on the trail myself with Joe. We were there during the first years of the Alpirod in Europe, a race he encouraged and participated in from the beginning. (Though meat-and-potatoes Joe truly disliked the fancy European dinners most of the rest of us enjoyed as part of the social reunions each evening).

He had a positive influence there. Too often copycat races forget about the dogs and mushers. The race organizers have vast ambition but only half-vast experience and knowledge of the sport, distrusting any suggestions or advice, and unable to properly weigh the conflicting interests among mushers, sponsors,  the media, and the public. They take disagreement as license to do whatever is convenient. Only a major disaster proves the need or forces them to adapt. (As happened with ITC when Rick Swenson’s dog Ariele died and RS was peremptorily disqualified ignoring all normal due-process.) When Joe came across the finish line in one Alpirod stage, broken and bloody from crashes on the trail, it was a wake-up call.

The race management finally began to suspect that the ski-jorer trail boss and the has-been or wannabe dog mushers engaged as race marshal and judges could say the trail was safe but that did not make it so. What was safe for a slow team of Siberian Huskies might not be safe for a fired up competitive team of Alaskan racing dogs (a level far beyond the officials’ understanding), it was not just a question of having well trained leaders. They began to suspect; they were never fully convinced. As said about the Olympics, the only professionals were the competitors on the field supposed to be amateurs, not the organizers. Note also the common European use of the word professional can be more related to proficiency than to wage earning.

Before that I remember the Beargrease, another race he traveled to join in and support during its infancy beginning in 1985. We were trying to reestablish distance mushing here in Minnesota, an area with as much proud history of sled dogs as Alaska. And of course, I recall my first encounters with Joe (and Joee, Orville Lake, Dick Tozier, Dave Olson, Dick Mackey, Dorothy Page, and many other Iditarod and mushing pioneers) in Alaska, and on the Iditarod Trail in 1974. None of us knew then what distance racing was or would become. Larry Brayton, I am going to write about you one day too.

On and off the trail with Joe, Sr.

We were approaching Ptarmigan Pass on a bright afternoon that did not hide the ache of cold grasping at your bones. We passed George Attla, Rudi Demoski, Ken Chase and Carl Huntington (the eventual winner that year) who were taking a tea break around a fire. A little later Joe stopped to tell me we should continue on to make it through the Pass to more hospitable camping places, even if it meant running late into the night. I said I was with him for now but would go at my own pace later if it was better for my team.

Half an hour later as my team followed his, I could see him bent over the handle bars rummaging in his sled bag. The wind was picking up. A candy wrapper blew away in a gust of wind. Then his mitts blew off, landing beside the trail. Joe continued on. I stopped to pick them up. We ran for another half hour before he stopped. I put in my snow hook. (So I write by habit. It seems a natural thing to do now, but in fact I did not put in my snow hook because in that era my sled did not have a snow hook or a brake!) Joe thanked me for his mitts. I said, “You’re going to need them.”

I stopped later, after dark in a small creek bed out of the wind. Joe continued on. I thought I might not see him again before Nome, 800 miles ahead, if his break-away strategy could work so early in this game. Ten-o-clock the next morning as I headed on my way I was surprised to see a team coming on toward the trail at an angle through the low willow scrub brush.

“Where have you been, Joe?”

“All up and down the side of this mountain. I didn’t know where I was but it was so cold I was afraid to stop. The thermometer on my sled read -50 or worse, it was down to the bottom. That is the coldest I’ve been in my life!”

Later it was calculated and published in the newspapers that the wind chill in the open in Ptarmigan Pass that night was -100 or colder.

We made it! We made it to Nome. We made it to many other goals and finish lines, each in our own way, in many races and over many trails. He was buried in his dog sled but Joe is on the trail now; I can sense his spirit nearby with every mushing project I take up. Cutting brush, building bridges, training teams, raising puppies, investigating every new idea to benefit the dogs and promote our sport.

”A new scientific truth is not usually presented in a way to convince its opponents. Rather, they die off, and a rising generation is familiarized with the truth from the start.” Max Planck

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