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Champion of Alaskan Huskies

December 11, 2011

When an intrepid musher and his fast-moving team wins the premier sled dog race in the world — the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska — the trophy presented to honor their achievement is a 95-pound bronze sculpture depicting race founder Joe Redington, Sr. The artist was Bill Devine, a close friend of Redington’s who created many of the symbols associated with the great race, and he designed the trophy with Joe’s arm around his favorite lead dog, Feets, and with the burled arch — which signifies the end of the great race — standing behind him. It’s a fitting tribute to a visionary Alaskan legend, a homesteader, pilot, big-game guide, fisherman and miner; but first and foremost, a musher, whose love for Alaskan sled dogs led him to rescue them from the very brink of extinction.

Champion of Alaskan Huskies, by Katie Mangelsdorf, is the story of Joe Redington, Sr., founder and father of the Iditarod. She describes him as “an ordinary man with extraordinary dreams–and buckets of determination!” In her preface to the book, Mangelsdorf notes that when she asked Joe about writing an adventure/biography about his life, “…there was a long pause. I thought he probably didn’t like the idea. Then he said in typical Joe fashion, ‘When do we start?’ He was quick to add, ‘But I don’t want any book written just about me. Vi must be a part of it, because without her, I couldn’t have done what I did.’”

Katie Mangelsdorf traces Joe and his wife Violet’s adventures from his beginnings in Oklahoma — he was born in a tent on the Old Chisholm Trail on the banks of the Cimarron River — to his final days with his beloved family and, of course, his sled dogs. When Joe died in June, 1999, he was buried in his Tim White dogsled in the Wasilla cemetery, and The New York Times ran an obituary which stated, in part:

In 1948 he decided to head for Alaska with his family, where he discovered sled dogs and competitive racing.

By 1973, Mr. Redington … was lamenting that the sleds and dogs he had come to love were threatened by snowmobiles. Six years earlier, he and Dorothy Page, a local historian, organized a 50-mile sled race, and for some time after that, Mr. Redington kept talking about a big sled race from Anchorage to the ghost town of Iditarod and back, a distance of about 1,000 miles.

The talk led newspapers and neighbors to call him the Don Quixote of Alaska. Then he announced the race and a $50,000 prize, which he did not have. All but two of his race committee members walked away.

Skepticism then spread throughout Alaska as to whether Mr. Redington could come up with the money and whether enough mushers would race through below-zero days and nights for prize money that might prove only theoretical.

A short, thin man long on spunk, Mr. Redington countered with optimism. As he used to say, ‘if you don’t have a plan, that’s one less thing that can go wrong.’

Of course everyone knows the race was a success, although it was a long, hard fight to make it so. That struggle is detailed in the book, highlighted with Redington family photos, adventures, anecdotes, and stories such as the gem of a tale about Joe and Susan Butcher, who was traveling with a pet fox she’d been given, flying from Nome to Anchorage after a successful fishing season. The engine quit unexpectedly and the pilot flipped the plane in trying to land it:

They had a few cuts and scratches and bruises, but other than that they were just fine. Joe’s only injury was a bloody hand where the fox bit him. However, they did have one big problem. They had parked their fish-loaded plane smack dab in the middle of a grizzly bear fruit stand. Big, ripe juicy blueberries and grizzly bears were everywhere.

You can order Champion of Alaskan Huskies from bookstores everywhere, or from Publication Consultants.

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About Northern Light Media

Northern Light Media, founded in 2007, is an Alaskan company which publishes nonfiction books about Alaskan topics. Titles currently in print include The Matanuska Colony Barns (2013), Along Alaskan Trails (2012), Yukon Quest Album (2010), and The All Alaska Sweepstakes (2009). Northern Light Media has also produced a documentary DVD, Appetite & Attitude: A Conversation with Lance Mackey, about the four-time Iditarod & Yukon Quest Champion. Northern Light Media has produced two popular and well-attended Mushing History Conferences; and is an active supporter of the Northern Lights 300 Sled Dog Race, run in January, on the Iditarod Trail, from Big Lake to Finger Lake and return. You can contact us at helenhegener@gmail.com

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