Joe Redington, the founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the first person to lead a successful dog sled ascent of Mt. McKinley, died Thursday at his home in Knik, Alaska. He was 82 and succumbed to throat cancer, which he had been fighting since 1997.
Redington--a wiry, sometimes frail-looking man who stood 5 foot 6 and weighed perhaps 145 pounds--was once called "The Toughest Man in Alaska" in a newspaper headline.
He worked as an airplane pilot, a miner, a freight hauler and a commercial fisherman. His first love was dogs and mushing. A dog sled basket served as his coffin at his burial on Saturday. Flags around the state flew at half-staff to mark his passing.
While Redington's exploits were legendary, he will always be remembered for the Iditarod, the 1,049-mile sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome, which can be an unforgiving test of stamina for both humans and dogs over some of the most barren land on Earth.
Redington's notion for the Iditarod race surfaced in 1967 when, with the help of local historian Dorothy Page, he organized a 56-mile race following an abandoned dog-team mail route linking Knik to Nome. The inspiration for the race was the desperate mission by dog mushers in 1925 to rush a cargo of serum to Nome to combat an outbreak of diphtheria.
Six years later, Redington organized the first Iditarod, but it was not an easy effort. Thirty-four mushers and their dogs competed in that race for a $50,000 purse. Redington worked to raise the money up until the last minute, knocking on the doors of every business in Anchorage. He sent the mushers off to Nome with a promise that the money would be at the end of the trail. Two weeks later, the mushers found that Redington was as good as his word.
Today, the Iditarod is a $4-million-a-year industry with more than 10 full-time paid workers and as many as 75 competitors from around the world.
It is quite a legacy for a man with simple beginnings. Redington was born in a tent in Kingfisher, Okla. When he was 10, he and his father and brother joined a band of gypsies selling phony fresh-churned butter throughout the Midwest. When that scam ran its course, the Redington men took to riding the rails. They rode to New Jersey and circled back to Mexico. By the time he enlisted in the Army in 1940, Joe Redington had seen each of the 48 states of the union except Florida. He first tried to get to the Alaskan Territory during the Great Depression, but couldn't raise the $34 needed to book passage out of Seattle.
So, as other men did during the Depression, Redington joined the Army in 1940 to make a living. He served in the Pacific during World War II and later joined his family in Pennsylvania, where he worked as a welder and an automobile repairman. But Alaska continued to call him, and in 1948, he loaded up his family and headed north. While the travelers were camping near the border one night, someone gave them a husky pup. The puppy would change Redington's life. He arrived with $18 in his pocket and spent $12 of it for a homestead.
That homestead, a collection of trailers near Knik, grew to 101 acres. His interest in dogs grew as well. He became a breeder of huskies and kept as many as 150 sled dogs at his home.
To make ends meet, he worked as a commercial fisherman during the summer, and during the winter he hauled construction supplies by dog sled to remote radar stations. He was hired by the Air Force to do rescue work in the mountains, bringing out airplane crash survivors, and the dead, by dog team. When aircraft took over the work in 1957, Redington took up flying but crashed several times, always in desolate locations and always, luckily, without serious injury.
Redington once said that his biggest regret was never winning the race he founded, although he led several Iditarods and finished as high as fifth on four occasions--the last time in 1988, when he was 71.
"You have to be tough to go without sleep," he said of the Iditarod. "And you have to have good dogs. Dogs are possibly 75% of it."
Redington has also had his share of problems on the trail. In 1976, he and his dog team dropped through a river's thin ice. It took him eight hours to dry off his dogs and himself and he suffered from minor frostbite. He had to quit 131 miles from the finish line.
Another time, he slipped off the ice trail and his leg was punctured by a piece of wood. The leg swelled to twice its normal size, but Redington went on for 800 more miles to finish the race.
He missed the first race because he was too busy organizing it, but he ran every one from 1974 to 1992, when age finally took its toll.
"I was 57 when I raced my first Iditarod in 1974," he said. "I'd like to have had a shot at this darn thing when I was 30."
In fact, the oldest musher to win the Iditarod was Doug Swingley, who won the race in March at 45.
As for the 1979 assault on Mt. McKinley, that was an idea that had been in Redington's head for 10 years, he once told a Times reporter.