Ryan Redington knew the snowmachine careening down the multi-use trail he and his team of sled dogs were using on a recent evening was driving fast.
Along the dark trail in northern Wisconsin on Saturday, Redington heard the engine rev up and watched as the snowmachine’s light veered toward his team, which was running along the right side of the wide-set trail.
The snowmachine collided with his team, sending one of the dogs flying through the air.
“I had tipped my sled over because I knew he was gonna hit me otherwise,” Redington said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He came really close because Wildfire was the first set of dogs just a few feet in front of me.”
The collision drastically altered the 2022 Iditarod lineup for Redington, who is from Knik but trains with his dogs in Wisconsin for a portion of the year.
Not far behind on the trail, Redington’s training partner, Sarah Keefer, was mushing a second team.
“I could see the lights before the machine itself was in view,” she said. “... He just came barreling down the trail, full speed down the center, and he just narrowly veered off to his right side of the trail and missed my team.”
When Keefer caught up with Redington a minute or two later, she quickly realized he wasn’t waiting for her team to catch up, as he often did. Something was wrong.
Wildfire, a 3-year-old dog that finished the Iditarod with Redington last year, was seriously injured. Redington guessed that his leg was broken.
He said he called a friend who drove to the area where the dogs were stopped, a portion of the trail that runs along a highway between the towns of Iron River and Brule. Wildfire and another injured dog, Willy, rode back in the car, and Redington said the other dogs finished the remaining 3 miles of their 43-mile trek.
Redington and Keefer took the two injured dogs to an emergency vet Saturday night in nearby Duluth, Minnesota. Willy had cuts on his legs and a badly bruised paw but was expected to heal during the next few weeks, Keefer said.
The prognosis for Wildfire was not as optimistic.
His back left leg was broken in three places, requiring a costly surgery in order to heal. They made arrangements for the dog to undergo surgery Tuesday at an animal hospital outside Minneapolis, Keefer said.
The vets are hopeful that Wildfire will heal well enough to race again by next year, Keefer said, but there are no promises.
“Wildfire is young, he’s 3 years old,” Redington said. “He’s got a long career ahead of him if he heals up good. ... We’re just taking it day by day for now.”
Redington planned to run with both Wildfire and Willy in the upcoming Iditarod. He is only weeks away from driving back to Alaska from the Lower 48 to finish up a month of training before the grueling 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
Willy and Wildfire were two of the strongest dogs on his team, Redington said.
“Willy was my leader last year when we won the Kobuk 440 and Wildfire finished last year’s Iditarod with me in seventh place — he was barking and jumping and screaming to go,” he said.
With both dogs now out for the Iditarod, Redington said he hopes to use two dogs from his dad’s team for the race.
Redington reported the incident to the Bayfield County Sheriff’s Office, and Chief Deputy Andy Runice said Tuesday that authorities are trying to find the snowmachine driver responsible for the injuries. He encouraged anyone with information to reach out to the sheriff’s office.
“We are working on a lead now,” Runice said. “It’s yet to be determined if it’s valuable or not.”
Even days after the collision, Redington said the ordeal feels like a bad dream.
He and Keefer routinely mush the dogs on that trail. The dogs are outfitted with lights and reflective gear because they often run after dusk, Keefer said. They’ve never before had issues with snowmachines, which she said are commonplace on the trail.
“For the most part, they’re delighted to see us out there,” Keefer said. “Sometimes they stop and they take pictures -- I think it’s just really something else for them to see a couple of dog teams mushing. It’s something you don’t see every day.”
Support for Redington and the dogs poured in from across the country after he posted about the incident on Facebook. A GoFundMe page raised more than $34,000 in less than a day to help with Wildfire’s care and support the team. The funds took a huge amount of stress off Redington, Keefer said.
“To remove the leg is half the cost or less than saving the leg,” she said. “But that was not an option in my mind — we’re gonna get this fixed, this dog is going to have four legs. ... Even if it turns out where he can’t end up running competitively, then I want him to be a four-legged house dog. I’m not gonna take that away from him.”
Some of the dogs were shaken after the snowmachine collision, but Redington said they were still eager to run. On Tuesday, he returned to the same trail with the team.
“There’s a lot of different emotions, but it feels good to see my team doing what they love to do and they’re very, very happy,” he said as dogs barked in the background. “If Willy and Wildfire weren’t hurt, they’d be out here, with us.”