Update, 11:50 a.m. Tuesday: NOME — With Ryan Redington still a few miles out from being the first musher to reach the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finish line, a crowd amassed around the race chute Tuesday morning awaiting his arrival. Spectators lined the fencing around the finish chute, a couple with camp chairs or pop-up stools for better viewing, others staked out in wooden blocks or hunks of ice to gain a little more vantage.
Earlier in the day, his mother, Barb Redington, was walking up and down Front Street, trying to get some nerves out with her son approaching the finish line.
He’d taken a widening lead, and she’d watched with delight from afar as he mushed through the Unalakleet checkpoint, the race’s first stop on the Norton Sound coast. Barb Redington was born in Unalakleet, where her father used sled dogs to deliver mail and on a trapline.
“I was watching the live feed and looking at all the people that came out to see him. It was really heartwarming. I was looking at the parkas and saying, ‘Is that my cousin?’”
It was special to see not only her son in the lead, but also that the top three contenders were all Alaska Native men, she said.
What was the first thing she planned to say to her son under the burled arch?
“I love you,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”
By 11:30 a.m., one of Iditarod spectators — a 10-year-old musher from Willow named Madelyn Dettwiller — had been in place for two hours already, waiting to watch Ryan Redington close in on the 7 or so miles between him and the finish line.
Dettwiller is training herself, with hopes to run the Junior Iditarod in a few years. She was a Redington fan, and had met the family through their involvement in youth mushing. But she said she was really pulling for her favorite musher, Mille Porsild, who was holding on to the top 10 in the race’s standings.
Friends Cheryl Johnson and Nicole Borromeo stopped for a picture near the burled arch, resplendent in parkas trimmed with beaver, wolverine and Arctic fox.
The two friends, who are both Alaska Native, woke up in Anchorage on Tuesday morning, checked the race standings and decided they couldn’t miss being in Nome.
“We woke up this morning and saw that Alaska Native mushers were in spots one, two and three and we had to be here for the historic finish,” said Borromeo.
They caught the next flight.
NOME — The burled arch is up, straddling Nome’s Front Street, a church on one side of the gnarled wooden portal and a liquor store on the other. A thin ribbon of snow is piled into the finish chute, where soon crowds of locals, visitors and wilderness dog-sport fanatics will assemble to greet the first musher to finish racing a thousand miles across Alaska.
The town of just under 4,000 souls is ready to greet this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race winner, who at this point could very likely be a first-time champion from a storied mushing dynasty.
Ryan Redington, the 40-year-old grandson of Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr., at 4:12 p.m. Monday was the first musher to make it to the White Mountain checkpoint, where racers are required to take an eight-hour break before setting out on the 77-mile run to Nome.
The anticipation in Nome was palpable Monday afternoon. The one-room terminal at the airport was jammed up with new arrivals. Families posed for selfies on Front Street, and the handful of downtown restaurants and gift shops were swarmed with visitors. A fisherman sold live crabs out of a cooler hooked up to his snowmachine at the busy intersection in front of Old St. Joe’s church.
Despite plenty of Redingtons competing in the Iditarod’s 51 runnings, and several coming close, none have ever won.
Now Ryan Redington has a clear shot, with the next closest musher, 2019 champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel, trailing him by more than four hours by the time he reached White Mountain.
Redington left White Mountain at 12:15 a.m. Tuesday with six dogs in harness, one more than the minimum five required at the finish line, and by 9:30 a.m. was less than 20 miles from Nome.
His kennel, Redington Mushing, posted on Facebook late Monday night saying that winning the Iditarod is “something he has dreamed about his entire mushing life.”
Nothing is certain in the Iditarod, and definitely not along the precarious coast running on the hills and ice edge of Norton Sound. A storm could descend, sending gales shooting out of the notorious “blow-holes” around Topkok Head. Teams that were pushed too hard have been known to finish their eight-hour rests and refuse to resume racing, something that happened to last year’s champion Brent Sass in 2016, costing him his third-place position that year.
Redington has had to scratch from seven of the 15 previous Iditarods he’s run. But that hasn’t happened in a while. The last three years, he’s finished in the top 10, placing as high as seventh in 2021. He pulled into White Mountain on Monday with eight dogs.
Both other teams at the front are in the same boat. Kaiser left the Elim checkpoint with eight dogs, too, and running right beside him, Richie Diehl of Aniak has seven dogs on his line, half the number he set out from Willow with on March 5.
Kaiser spent most of the last several days within striking distance of Redington, but on Monday he stopped for a lengthy 5 hour, 20 minute rest in Elim, during which time the gap between him and the front-runner widened. Kaiser left that checkpoint four minutes after Diehl, which set up a race to the finish between the pair, who are longtime friends from nearby communities on the Kuskokwim River. On Monday night, they were mushing within a mile of each other on their approach to White Mountain.
Redington was raised in Knik but now splits his time between Alaska, where he runs summer sled-dog tours, and Brule, Wisconsin, where he trains his dogs for much of the year. In January 2022, while Redington was on a training run, a snowmachiner plowed into his team, severely injuring one of his leaders. An online fundraising campaign brought in tens of thousands of dollars to cover the battery of surgeries and veterinary care required.
Rich Ogdon, a fan from the Seattle area, has been casually following Redington as a musher for years. He was in the Nome Visitor Center on Monday afternoon, happy to hear about Redington’s lead widening.
There’s something poetic about a son of a storied Iditarod family finally finding himself in striking distance of claiming the title, Ogdon said.
Ogdon also wondered if the brutal snowmachine crash that severely injured Redington’s lead dog had steeled the musher’s resolve to win this year.
He said he’d heard Redington was running with a memento of the dog, Wildfire, who underwent extensive rehabilitation after the crash. Redington was mushing with plates removed from Wildfire’s leg hanging from his sled handlebars, according to an Iditarod blog post.
”A piece of his dog ... that helped him, is going with him in spirit,” Ogdon said.
At his current pace, Redington is running at a schedule similar to John Baker’s winning 2011 run along the southern route of the Iditarod Trail. That year, Baker arrived at White Mountain just after 4 p.m. Monday. Once his eight-hour rest was over, he departed around midnight, and crossed the finish line at 9:46 a.m. Tuesday.
If that timeline holds, and calamity does not strike, Redington could be on Front Street right as the sun is rising over the sea ice.