The Birth of the Iditarod
By: Michael Rogers
By the time you read this, in all likelihood the 47th running of the Iditarod will be well underway from the official restart in Willow. The Iditarod is the preeminent long distance sled dog race in the United States and Canada and, perhaps, the world. Running over 1000 miles through some of the most desolate country on earth, the Iditarod deems itself “The Last Great Race on Earth.”
Mushing has long roots in Alaska, dating back to at least 2000 B.C. and is thought to be a parallel development in both North America and Siberia that spread to the entire circumpolar region as a one of the only means of winter land transportation. By the early 1900s, mushing was well established in the 49th state and regular winter routes for mail and freight crisscrossed the state from ports to gold fields to the high arctic. The airplane soon replaced the mail routes and the collapse of the gold rush soon rendered those many freight routes unnecessary since the bustling gold fields were little more than ghost towns.
The mid 1960s saw Joe Redington Sr. living in Knik, along the now overgrown and unused Iditarod trail. Joe and his wife Violet worked to restore the trail, mush dogs and even lobbied to have the historic trail added to the registry of National Historic Trails rather than fade off into history. In 1966, Joe met Dorothy Page who had an interest in organizing a sled dog race to commemorate the 100th year since Alaska was purchased from Russia. The following year, the race was held on a 25-mile course between Wasilla and Knik and was modeled after the popular All Alaska Sweepstakes from 1908 to 1918 in Nome. It was named the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race after the three time All-Alaska champion, Leonhard Seppala- an Alaska mushing legend who participated in the 1925 serum run to Nome.
The following year, Redington planned to expand the race from a small local event to one of the longest sled dog races conducted anywhere. Redington’s interest in racing was largely driven by his interest in preserving mushing for future generations.
The sled dog was largely replaced in the Bush by the airplane and the snowmachine (snowmobile for Canadians and non-Alaskans) by the 1960s. Redington was quoted as saying "When I visited Interior villages in the 1950s, every household had five or six dogs. They were the only transportation. But by the late 1960s, village dogs were almost gone." Redington thought that interest in sled dog racing might keep the mushing tradition alive.
The first Iditarod was held in 1973 and 34 mushers raced from Wasilla to Nome and interest in dog mushing made the transition from a vanishing utilitarian occupation in northern climes to a recreational sport attracting worldwide interest.
While the sled dogs of yesteryear were considered little more than beasts of burden to haul freight and mail, today’s dogs are specialized athletes who run incredible distances. Redington’s efforts and the success of the Iditarod moved the U.S. Government to name the Iditarod Trail one of the first National Historic Trails in 1978 and the first official marker was placed in front of his house in 1980.
While Joe Redington Sr. is known as “The Father of the Iditarod” and he ran 17 races from 1974 to 1997, he never placed higher than fifth. The Iditarod itself, has done better, and is the largest long distance sled dog race anywhere in the world. Today, two Redingtons will leave the chute bound for the burled arch and his family continues to have an influence on the race he envisioned to save the sled dog.
Further coverage of the 2019 Iditarod, along with other musings about the people and places along the trail can be found here on The Alaska Life in the coming days.
This is my first Iditarod. Watched a documentary on the races and individuals stories of their ups and downs in the races.
Thanks for the article very informing.
thanks for sharing
Thanks! We caught that after publication!
The Redington family spells their name with only one D.
Love all the things l’ve learned about the race and especially stories of all the great dogs and racers thru the years.
Trying to find a way to watch or listen live. 6:05 pm eastern time. 3/3/19. Thanks!
Good to learn a bit more about the roots of the race. Keep em coming Mike