Never say no, Joe
By Natalie Phillips
He's a little old elf from Knik, disheveled and disorganized. His ideas can seem goofy, outlandish, even impossible. But his enthusiasm isinfectious, and he's not one to waste time discussing obstacles. They once called him the ''Don Quixote of Alaska.''
Now they call him Joe Redington, Father of the Iditarod.
At age 80, he is still a spry man, topped with a shock of grey hair hinting at red. His hearing is shot. He doesn't sleep much.
''He's likely to take a nap in the evening, then run dogs during the night, then sleep for a couple hours around 4 a.m.,'' said his wife, Vi, whorepeats for Redington what he doesn't hear.
''I don't think he has slowed down. He says he has, but he is still more active than most of the guys around here that are half his age.''
A few of the dogs he ran in early Iditarod races are still staked out on his 160-acre homestead, a place littered with dead refrigerators, wrinkled carsand bent bikes. The dogs are too old for Nome these days, but not Redington.
He's back to run the race he started 25 years ago.
''I was the one responsible for starting the thing,'' he said with a wink, ''I thought I ought to be a part of it.''
The impossible dream of 25 years ago has grown from a no-budget, unlikely trudge across Alaska wilderness to an internationally recognized, $3.8million-a-year business. The Iditarod has paid out more than $4 million in prize money; hundreds of mushers and thousands of dogs have madethe trip.
Redington worked hauling construction supplies by dog sled to remote Dew Line radar stations and scratched out a living as a commercialfisherman and miner.
His dog lot continued to grow, but his interest in racing wasn't piqued until his sons started competing in the 1960s.
In the late '60s, the Redingtons and some of their neighbors started talking about commemorating the 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska.Dorothy Page wanted to preserve the historic Iditarod Trail. Redington wanted to stimulate the dying sport of mushing. Their discussions gave birthin 1967 to the Centennial Iditarod Sled Dog Race, a two-day, 50-mile race around Big Lake. It was billed as the ''world's richest race,'' with anunprecedented $25,000 purse.
It was a one-time event. Race organizers were unable to raise enough money to pay off their debt, let alone to stage a second race.
But the talk didn't die. Redington kept pushing.
In 1973, another race was announced. But when Redington promised a $50,000 purse, all but two of his fellow organizers, Tom Johnson andGleo Huyck, bailed out.
''Nobody had ever heard of that big of a purse,'' Redington said.
It was an absurd proposition.
He continued to buy, sell, trade and lease dogs and dog teams. He sold baseball-style musher cards. In 1993, he started taking would-be musherson a month-long excursion up the Iditarod trail for $15,000 a person.
Redington said he hopes to be a top-20 finisher this year, but he fears his dogs can't keep up with the sleek sprinting dogs so common now.It doesn't matter, he said. After he finishes, he'll fly home so that, on March 20, he can start back to Nome with three clients.
''That's how much I love the trail,'' he said.
© Copyright 1997 Anchorage Daily News -- All Rights Reserved -- This article appeared originally in Iditarod 25: Tales from the Last Great Race, published as a special section to the Anchorage Daily News on February 23, 1997.
|Copyright © 1996-1998 -- Anchorage Daily News -- All Rights Reserved|
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