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First meeting Joe Redington, Sr., and developing the idea for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race
Distance of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race
Being in charge of the race in Nome and driving one of the dog teams
The hard work of Joe Redington, Sr.
Starting line of the first Iditarod Dog Sled Race
Coming into and leaving the first checkpoint at Knik
Keeping feet warm on the trail
Getting a pair of bunny boots delivered out on the trail
Taking pictures along the trail during the race
Types of sleds and ways of carrying gear
Hardship on the trail
Being lost for five days
Mushers at the back of the pack
Dogs speed up as you get close to home
Events in Nome for the finishing mushers
Spirit of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race
Success of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race
Other dog races modeled after the Iditarod
Financial aspects of starting the Iditarod Dog Sled Race
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One year we used to buy our fish from Unalakleet and I called up the Unalakleet Co-op over there and said I'd like to have some king salmon for the meat market.
Well, the guy that answered the phone was a guy by the name of Joe Redington, Sr. You know, he says, "I've heard about you. You're that crazy guy up there who runs dogs out there with wheels."
Well, he says, "Well, you know, I'm the crazy guy down here in Anchorage, that has a dog team too, and got some ideas." So anyway, I said, "Well, send me a couple thousand pounds of king salmon."
So he sent the king salmon. Well, you know, he says, "You know, we're thinking of an Iditarod race." This was in 1972. I says, "What's Iditarod?"
He says, "That's the name of a place up in the middle of nowhere. It's kind of in the middle of the state, there. It's a little old ghost town." And he says, "In 1966, we ran a race and called it the Iditarod. It was a 200 mile race."
And I was aware of that. I'd read about it in the papers. So I knew about that. I says, "So, what about this race? What've you got in mind? Tell me about it." He says, you know, he says, "What we want to do is run it from Anchorage to Iditarod. And then back to Anchorage."
He says, "That would be a 1000 miles." I says, "Well, why would you want to do that?" I says, "You run from a big city to a ghost town and turn around and go back to a good city." I says, "By the time you get back there, it will be summer."
Well, we hashed this back and forth and back and forth for months and months and months. And he says, "By the way, I'll send you a letter to kind of confirm this." Now, I 've got this letter framed and on my wall. And it says something to this effect, when it got close enough to the actually putting on the Iditarod--
We'd finally worked it out that running the Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome would make more sense than running it to Iditarod and back. So you folks don't know how close we came to not having an Iditarod Race.
And you know, a lot of things happen in Alaska because people make them happen. They don't happen by themselves. They didn't call Joe Redington in the early days-- He was the guy that attacked windmills.
And that's how he was-- Even in the dog mushing fraternity, in the sprint fraternity, talked about Joe Redington as he was just absolutely crazy.
Well, you know, I've been a student of dog mushing ever since I've been in Alaska. I've researched it. I've looked into old manuscripts and studied it, you know, and it's an old, old spirit.
The thing that goes way, way back into time. And thousand mile treks weren't anything at all. They were slow, but they weren't anything at all. Well, anyway, when Joe and I decided that we'll take it to Nome, well you know, I said, "Well, Joe, I'll tell ya. I'll guarantee certain things if you'll bring that race here."
I couldn't guarantee these things at all. But anyway he believed and I believed and that was a committee of two. So anyway, I said I'll-- He sent me the confirming letter and it said, "Dear Howard. We are going to run the race and we are going to call it the Iditarod International Sled Dog Race, Anchorage to Nome, thousand and forty-nine miles."
We worked out the thousand and forty-nine one night over the phone. Well, he says, "A thousand miles because it's a nice round figure. And forty-nine to commemorate the 49th state."
To this day, the press argues yearly about what the mileage is. One press person will say the mileage is 1138 miles. And another one will say 1176 miles.
And if they ask me, it's 1049. You can cut it anyway you want because Joe said in one of his most famous addresses, "When you get out there, a thousand miles more or less don't really make any difference."
And really when you get out there it seems more like 10,000 miles than a measly 1000 miles.
Well, anyway, as time grew for the race to begin-- And he said, "By the way--" In this letter. Getting back to the letter.
Like this letter was important. He said, "By the way, are you going to be in it?." And I said, "Well, I suppose so." And he said, "Would you talk some guys in that you know up there, to getting in the race, too?"
And then in the last paragraph, he says, "By the way, would you be in charge up there, too?" I said, "Yeah, sure, I guess. I guess so." And anyway, he says, "We're going to start the first week in March. It'll be on a Saturday."
So I went around-- At that time I was in the tourist business with Wiley Scott, so first thing I did was go to my boss. I said, "Wiley." I says, "Can Alaska Airlines sponser me?" He said, "Ok." So Alaska Airlines agreed to haul me down to the race.
Now, they didn't have igloos in those days. This was the days before they had igloos. And what we did was we took the dogs and run a chain around a palette and chained them all to this palette and they put it in the airplane.
And in those days before the highjack thing got started, every time a dog would make out a wimper, I'd go back and pet him, see.
So as we flew down to Anchorage, I kept thinking, "Geez, am I really going to do this? Is there anyway I can get out of this thing?"
Because before I could go we were putting in trails. We were trying to put in trails. We were trying to organize people. And bless her heart, the one I really left in charge when I went on the first Iditarod, is I left Julie my wife in charge.
And to this day, it was the best move I ever made. She just took it and ran with it. Well, anyway, when I got to Anchorage, Joe says, "Why don't you just come out and stay with me?"
Well, Joe Redington is one of those persons, to this day, who thrives on three hours of sleep. So I went down there two weeks before the Iditarod Race started and I have never worked so hard in my life. It was meetings, it was media events.
Meeting with this sponser. Going to this bank. And I followed him around for two weeks and almost killed myself. And then what happened is, the Iditarod Race started and he wasn't even in it.
Yeah, he was going to send Farley out there, you know, he'll run the race. And he just ran out of time. He didn't have time to train his dogs. He had to be there.
Well, anyway, we all line up there at Tudor Track. We didn't start in downtown Anchorage. We started at Tudor Track. You all have been to Anchorage, you know where Tudor Track is.
That's where they hold the women's races. There was 35 starters. I started in 34th and there was one person behind me. I started the race with a thirteen foot dogsled.
And when I got there I looked around and they all had these litle bitty sleds. And I says, "Why didn't you tell me?" Joe says, "You didn't ask."
So there I am with a sled that's almost longer than the average dog team. One guy looks over and he says, "Naw, you'll never make it with that." I says, "We'll see, we'll see."
So we started out from Anchorage and it was a balmy day. About 40 degrees. No snow. And we went sailing out along the shores of Cook Inlet.
Because we had to go around to get to Knik. If the tide had ever come in on that bunch of rookies that year, it would've killed us all.
Because we happened to be there at the time that the tide was out, so it was pretty nice going. The ground was a little frozen in spots.
And I'll never forget. The first musher in was Issac Okaleesik. He was the first one in there. I think he got into Knik -- where the race really started -- in about seven hours.
That's seven hours for 75 miles. Pretty good time. I got in there a little bit later. And I'd seen a light. It was dark when I got in. I'd seen a light. It was a street light right in front of the Knik Bar. I said, "Well, that's got to be it." I says, "I don't see any other lights within miles."
So I went up and crossed the road, pulled onto Knik Lake in front of the Knik Bar. And sure enough that was Knik. And Joe says, "Why don't you go up to the house. And stay for the night and go in the morning."
I mean, that's the way they did things in those days. Nobody got out in the dark. They stopped at night. So, I stopped at Joe's. I was a little tired because you're trying to keep up with Joe Redington who is fifteen years older than I am, and trying to keep up with him I was literally out of gas.
So I slept in a little bit. I got up the next morning and there was nobody but me there. I was the last one. So I was standing there, saying "Gosh, I better get going." I was wringing my hands and trying to get the sled loaded.
And of course Joe was gone. He was flying up the trail in his little airplane. And Vi she fixed me a big stack of pancakes, and says, "You better get going." "Geez, what did I do now." So anyways, I got out there, was loading up the sled and this guy from Teller I knew walked up, and he said, "Can I help you?" "Yeah. Yeah." We loaded the sled all up, and I said, "Where do I go from here?"
He says, "There's a sign right over there on the corner of Knik Lake. " He says, "You go up right there." Well, that was the beginning of a great adventure, I'll tell you.
And I started off and they had a place that all the mushers were talking about at the musher's meeting in Anchorage. They were talking about Seven Mile Hill.
Well, I must've went through Seven Mile Hill, because I don't remember it. Anyway, it wasn't as bad as every body had made it out to be. Well, anyway, I got out to a place called Little Susitna.
That's where the Susitna River-- The trail crosses the Little Susitna River. And it was about dark. And I says, "This is another good spot to stop." I went in there, and about ten minutes later, here comes Dr. Barko. I don't know how many people remember Dr. Barko, but Dr. Barko ran the very first race.
And Dr. Barko pulled into that tent there. And there were a couple of other fellows from that first race there, and we were sitting around there and the doctor kept saying, "You know, my feet are cold."
He had a pair of these military mukluks on. I go, "Pull those things off. Let me take a look at those, Doc." I knew Doc intimately because he'd delivered about half of my children up here at the Maynard-McDougal Hospital. And he pulled his boots off.
And he had a layer of felt insoles about this thick. And every time he'd get a little wet, instead of taking them out and drying them, he'd just add another layer. So he was walking along on a piece of frozen insoles about this thick.
I says, "Doc, it's a wonder you didn't lose your feet." So anyway, I said, "You're going to need a pair of bunny boots." Bunny boots is the savior of all people in Alaska. "You're gonna need bunny boots." But, I says, "I don't know how to get them."
Well, anyway, a guy showed up there by the name of Olson. He was from Knik. And he had pneumonia and Doc had his little black bag with him.
And he says, "Come here for a minute." And he says, "Sit down." He says, "I don't think you're feeling good." And he was real red in the face and real flushed, and he listened to his heart, and took his pulse and everything.
You know, and he says, "You got pneumonia." My messenger. He says, "You better quit right now. Go back and get to a hospital right away." Doc wasn't about to leave the race and neither was I, but that was our way to get Doc his boots.
So anyway, this was Dave Olson, by the way. I don't know how many of you know Dave Olson. Anyway, old Dave, old Dave says, "Ok, ok, when I get to Knik I'll call Joe and tell him to get a pair of bunny boots up to Doc Barko."
Ok, so the next day we took off out of there, me and Doc. I'd dried up his umpteen layers of footware.
So anyway, we get up further into the Iditarod Race and I hear this airplane. And it's foggy. I mean it's snowing. It's snowing and it's foggy and it's about oh probably 30 degrees, just barely cold enough to freeze.
And I hear this airplane. And all of a sudden this airplane's on the ground and this little metal right in front of us. And oh my gosh, it was Joe.
In that little PA-12 there he drove. He says, "Here's Doc's boots." Threw the boots over to Doc, and I says, "Joe, can I help you get out of here. Is there anything I can do?" "No," he says. "Don't worry about it." And he reached up on the wing there and took out his snowshoes and tramped out a little trail up there.
It didn't look like it was more than a 100 feet long. Pretty soon, "Rrrr." Up she went. He was gone, doing something else along the trail. Delivering dog food and picking up this and that, and--
It was kind of ironic, because he had just-- Before he came to us, he had dropped off a very good friend of mine. A guy from the Seattle Times. Stanton Patty.
And Stanton Patty related to me a little later that that ordeal of flying around with Joe in that little PA-12. He says, "That was an adventure in itself." He says, "I don't even have to go on the Iditarod." He says, "That's a thing I'll remember the rest of my life."
Well, anyway, I had had a contract with the Seattle Times and Stanton Patty to film the Iditarod, as I'd seen it as I went along. I had a brand new 35mm and I was really, really into this Iditarod thing, taking pictures.
Well, the camera was new and I didn't really know which way to put the film in. So, I ended up out of 100 rolls, I ended up with probably 30 that turned out to be pictures.
The rest of them had big white cracks in them where I'd wound the film the wrong way. And I got them back and there were no pictures at all.
Well, anyway, as the doc and I progressed up the trail, I says, "Well, Doc." I says, "I think it's time for you and I to part.
Because you're awful slow and you've got a bad sled there." I had this big sled and it was neat I just had everything right in it all tied down. And when I'd come to a little tree on the trail, I just bulldozed it down, just like a tractor, you know.
Doc, he had this little rinky-dink sled. Every time he'd hit a tree, it would just fall to pieces. Everything would slide out of the sled and he was constantly picking things up.
What he did, he took everything on the sled and wrapped it in one of these big plastic tarps. And then he tried to lash it down. And everything was slippery.
So, I watched that for a couple of hours and I said, "Doc, I've got to leave." So, I took off.
And I basically, I traveled with a couple of guys and they'd always get ahead of me and ahead of me, so finally, I pulled into Ruby.
I'd been alone for five and a half days on the trail. Absolutely alone. No food, no dog food.
I would pull into a place and I would let the dogs eat like chickens. Because we all had this dry dog food and there'd be little bits of it laying around. So, I'd pull into a checkpoint. There's nobody at the checkpoint. That's dissolved days ago.
I would pull in and the dogs would feed, see, picking up these little, itty-bitty pieces of things, you know. And I was living on candy bars and coffee, basically. I lost about 30 pounds while I was on the race.
Anyway, I pulled into Ruby and I'll never forget, we had a communicator there, from the military, nice little guy. He pulled out and threw a great big arm around me and he says, "Boy," he says. "Are we glad to see you.
You've been lost for five and a half days." He says, "Your wife is ready to, ready to kill." Well, guys would fly over me. They'd fly down, and they'd fly around and wiggle their wings at me. I'd say, "Well, they're going to go back and tell somebody where I was."
No, they flew home and told their wives. Nobody knew where I was. So, anyway, when I got to Ruby, I called Julie. And she says, "You know, we've been missing you a little bit, hon."
Mmm. She said, "Why don't you just quit right now and come on home." And I says, "Well," I says. "I've come 480 miles." And I says, "Let me think about it."
Well, anyway, I went down to Esmailka, he had that little store down there, little AC store in Ruby. Went down there and we were sitting there.
There's thirteen of us sitting there. The last thirteen guys sitting there listening to the radio. And all of a sudden we hear this noise coming in over the radio, "Dick Wilmarth is now coming down Front Street.
The Iditarod Race is over." We're listening to this, you know, and we're six hundred miles from the finish line and they say the race is all over. Well, you know, you talk about things happening in Alaska that lead to this, that lead to this, that lead to this.
I just kind of turned around, and to this day we probably don't remember it, but I just kind of turned around to the other guys and I said, "You know, I'm going towards Nome. There's no point in me quitting.
I don't know about you guys, because you guys are going to be, if you go on, you're going to be a thousand miles from Nome." And I says, "I'm going home. So, if it takes-- Whatever it takes, I'm gonna go on."
So, these guys, they all say, "Well, we'll take off." So we all took off within hours of each other. Thirteen. Well, those thirteen mushers finished the race. All thirteen of them.
And as we got towards Nome-- When I got to Unalakleet, my dogs just seemed to say, "Oh boy, we're out of these trees. Things are natural." And the speed just picked up, because hey, by then we had been over five hundred miles on the race, our dogs were trained.
See, we had been slow enough. The first five hundred miles it took twenty days. So, you see we were taking it real easy. They couldn't go any faster, because they were having muscle pulls.
The one veterinarian we had there, I'd never seen Terry. The first time I seen Terry Atkins was the next year when he was in the race. Yeah, the first time. I says, "Well, gee, I'm kind of glad to meet you here. I never seen you out there."
And, ok, as we progressed into Nome, we knew that we-- And one of the things that I had guaranteed Joe-- Let me tell you about the things that I had guaranteed Joe.
Well, the first-- When any musher that arrives in Nome, the siren will be rung. I forgot to ask permission to ring the siren. And I said, "Now anybody that shows up in Nome, is going to get a banquet."
We didn't exactly put it together how, or who's going to pay for it, but we did. So anyway, my dear wife Julie, as mushers appeared in Nome, she'd say to Frank Hootch, my boss, she'd say, "Uh, we going to have a banquet now?"
"No, let's wait until a couple more show up." So, we had banquets, banquets, banquets, one right after another. And every time they'd think it was over. The rest of these guys will quit.
Well, you know, if the guys in the back had quit, we'd only have had fifteen finishers and the race would have been-- the race would probably not have gone on.
Because at that time, us thirteen in the back established one important thing. That anybody that finishes the Iditarod is a hero. Rather you finish first, last or where.
Or how long it takes you. And the true spirit of the Iditarod is that everybody is a hero. Because if you go back and go through the history of the Iditarod, year after year after year, we all know the Susan Butchers. We all know Rick Swenson.
But back in those ranks are some heros. The four guys that saved that fellow that got salmonella. The guys that saved him. And the people along the way that allowed this race to progress and become what it is today.
Lynn Tackit in Shaktoolik who saved Al Crane's life, when Al Crane had salmonella. Him and his wife took Al in and nursed him back to health and he was able to finish the race, and finish fifteenth.
And there's all kinds of heros in there. This is when people can find out they can do spectacular things. And Alaska is full of people like that. The Iditarod Race is here to stay. I can finally say that. It is here to stay.
There was no doubt in my mind. And there was no doubt in Joe's mind. In fact, Joe and I have these long conferences when he comes up on his tour every year.
He stays at my house when he gets in. And Joe and I sat down this last year, and we come to one agreement. He says, "You know, we were in the right place at the right time."
Joe got his start driving dogs working for the military. He drove dog teams all over Alaska bringing out old wrecked military airplanes. This is what he did.
Under contract to the Air Force. And as he was going around Alaska, he would find these trails, cut right through the trees or indentations in the tundra. And you know, that's why he felt that a race from Anchorage to Nome could be done.
Because remember in the old days, the mail did literallly come from Fairbanks and it did literally come from Anchorage over the trail. Overland. He knew it was possible.
And you know, reading back into history, I knew it was possible. But boy when we started this, there were very few other people that believed this was possible. And they didn't believe we could run a second one. Or a third one.
And you want to remember, this race coming up this year will be the 24th annual Iditarod Race. And the 25th race is coming up next year.
Joe says he's going to run it. He's going to be 85 years old. 80 years old. He's going to run the race. And he's trying to con the rest of us into it. And I says, "Joe, uh uh, I'm not buying it this time.
This time you gotta go in the big race and we're going to sit around and watch you come in."
And folks, I would like to say this is the end of the story, but this is not the end of the story. This is just the beginning of the story, because the Iditarod has spawned other things.
One thing leads to another in Alaska. A few disgruntled fellas figured the Iditarod is too expensive, so they formed the Yukon Quest. People down in Bethel said, "Gee, it would be nice --" Bethel used to have a race, only it was a one day race. And Bethel said, "You know, we ought to have a race down here, too."
Now they've got the Kuskokwim 300. And there's a race in everybody's backyard. And two years ago, the wife and I were invited to go to another child of the Iditarod, the Alpirod in Europe.
And that spawned another race. This race in Wyoming this year. The staged race run similar to the Alpirod. So, it goes on and on and on.
And dog racing as a sport -- and in fact as an industry -- is well in Alaska. And it all began because people believed that it could be done.
And we started with nothing, folks. That first year, when Joe started the race, there was not a nickel in the bank to pay the prize.
In fact, he put his homestead up as collatoral for a loan from Murkowski's bank. And it took ten years to pay that loan off, and in fact six people out of the race gave their money back and took a check which was worthless, and eventually settled to get their money.
So, there were times, when it was very difficult running this race, but hey, Nome believed. Nome always believed because Nome had a stake in this thing, you see.
It comes and ends in Nome. And there was always talk in the early days, well, why don't we run the race from Nome to Anchorage. I says, "Go right ahead. You have my complete -- You may just do it today."
Now how many people in Anchorage would wait for the 55th musher to come in. In April.
No, Anchorage's got too many other things on their minds. Well, I'll leave the story there folks. And maybe next year we'll come back and talk some more about it. Because you see, it never ends. Communities of Memory Home | Stories | Photo Gallery | Video Retrospective | Project Background | Testimony Software Copyright Information | Help | Project Jukebox Home