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As the Iditarod faces an uncertain future, these teens dream of keeping it alive

As the Iditarod faces an uncertain future, these teens dream of keeping it alive

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

KNIK LAKE, Alaska — Ellen Redington had taught her little brother everything she knew about mushing, and finally she watched him pass her on a frozen lake during the 10th mile of the Junior Iditarod in late February. Isaac Redington and his dogs sliced through fresh powder left by a morning blizzard, gaining speed by the second until all Ellen could see was the fur of Isaac’s marten pelt hat disappear into the woods.

Isaac soon found himself alone and figured he was near the front of the pack of mushers. He looked over his shoulder for Ellen. She was nowhere to be found.

An ice fog had lifted as Isaac pushed forward between tall birch trees on the snow-packed trail, which had been paved by his great grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., the “Father of the Iditarod,” who founded the dog sled race in 1973. Five years later, the Junior Iditarod was born, allowing teenage mushers a chance to compete on a shorter course and prepare to one day run in the big race. The Redingtons’ grandmother ran in the first Junior Iditarod, winning the traditional “Red Lantern” trophy for persevering as the last-place musher, and their parents later met as high-schoolers on the trail, passing each other in a race to the finish.

Now Ellen, 17, and Isaac, 15, were trying to keep that legacy alive, even as their sport faced an uncertain future. Their elders had passed down lessons, and in the wilderness, the siblings had learned to take care of their dogs and one another. So when Isaac pulled up to the first checkpoint, he asked an official if they knew where his sister was. He was told her satellite tracker was not working. She could be anywhere. Isaac was worried as he took off again.

The snow stopped, and with the temperature rising to 25 degrees, he broke into a sweat. Under a pale blue sky, his dogs navigated around overflow water on the surface of a river. He crossed another lake, again looking back toward an icy forest and wondering: Where’s Ellen?

THE RACE JUDGE HELD a satellite tracker in the air. It was the evening of Feb. 23, the night before the race began at Knik Lake, and 21 teenage mushers had gathered at a local school 15 miles away in Wasilla, where Joe Redington Sr. was buried in the basket of his favorite dogsled after he died of cancer in 1999.

“Everyone will have one of these on the front of their sled,” Emily Krol said, gesturing to the tracker. “If something crazy happens and you’re like, ‘I can’t do this,’ stop and take a breath first.”

There would be at least 15 people on snow machines patrolling the 159-mile route, which makes the Junior Iditarod the longest junior race in Alaska for mushers under 18. (Mushers in the Iditarod, by contrast, travel 938 miles.) The youngest musher allowed to compete was 14, and some of the kids had barely spent a night away from their parents. Now each would be navigating the Alaskan backwoods alone with 10 dogs, steering a sled against Arctic gusts that could make trails disappear. They would face sleep deprivation and the possibility of hallucinations; they would need to know how to use survival equipment to stave off hypothermia in conditions expected to drop to minus-15 degrees. The race would take two days, including a mandatory 10-hour layover when mushers are required to camp with their dogs in the bush. This year, maybe much to the chagrin of old-timers in the sport, they were allowed to take cellphones for the first time, to use for emergencies.

“Don’t be calling home. Don’t be on Facebook. Leave the world behind and run your race,” Krol said.

With Ellen and Isaac listening in the front row, another judge spoke. “We’re all in modern times; we’re all on social media. The way we see mushing is through racing. … But the heart of mushing, the origin of mushing, wasn’t competitive racing. It was practical use,” Leddy Leds said. “That was the origin of the Iditarod: the independence and solitude of traveling through Alaska with your dog team. You and your dogs, as a team, are going to tackle whatever is out there.”

It was hard for Ellen and Isaac to not think of their heritage and the Iditarod’s five-decade history. Joe had founded the race to revive interest in long-distance dogsled travel, which had dwindled with the increasing use of snowmobiles, and to preserve the historic Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome. Joe mortgaged his home to help fund the race. At one point, he owned hundreds of dogs, and he would hand-knit a collar for each one. He was a regular at the local thrift store, always looking to snatch up extra baby socks for their feet. Joe ran in his last Iditarod when he was 80, and though he never won, he watched it grow into the world’s most prestigious and competitive mushing race.

After the meeting in Wasilla, Ellen and Isaac returned to their home, which sits on the Iditarod Trail, and began to gather supplies. Among the provisions they each carried: an ax, snowshoes and three pairs of socks. Their great-grandfather carried the same tools. So did their grandfathers and their father, Ray Redington Jr., who ran the Iditarod 17 times.

“You got your dog food? Emergency rations? Tug lines?” Ray asked as they prepped their sleds. The teenagers nodded.

In the 1991 Junior Iditarod, Ray passed his future wife, Julia, who then rallied to pass Ray and finish ahead of him. They bonded over their love of dogs and eventually settled on the lot where Joe had lived for decades, building their house on the spot where the first Iditarod food drop had been placed. The trail ran through their backyard, and they helped look after a mushing museum full of Joe’s and other mushers’ artifacts in a red barn a hundred yards away. A few miles down the road was Redington High School, named after Joe, where Ellen read the morning announcements and Isaac wore the same last name on the front and back of his football jersey.

But the family often wonders what will become of their way of life. In 2008, Ray was part of the largest field in Iditarod history, with 96 mushers. A year ago, the race had a record-low 33. This year’s competition, which is being held this week, has 38.

“It’s hard to do it when you see only 38 mushers in the race. That’s disheartening because it was really thriving. And it should continue to thrive because the support is there,” Ray said.

Some have blamed inflation, the lingering effects of the pandemic and rule changes for the decline; others have cited the major sponsors who pulled out because of pressure from animal rights groups, dealing a major blow to the race’s financing. Many believe climate change has presented an existential threat; numerous dogsled races in the Lower 48 have been canceled this year because of warm weather, and rising temperatures and a lack of snow in Alaska have forced organizers to alter events in recent years.

Ray and Julia are Alaskan to their core; they hunt moose in the fall and fish for salmon during spring and summer, but it all revolves around the dogs in the winter. Both of their fathers ran in the Iditarod, and each of their brothers competed in the Junior Iditarod. They never wanted to pressure Isaac and Ellen to be mushers, but it was difficult for the kids not to be connected to the dogs and the land; they eventually inherited dogs with bloodlines that traced back to Joe’s breeds.

Ray takes care of 40 dogs on the family’s property, and he taught the kids everything he knows. Julia juggled her job as an engineer in Anchorage to help raise nearly $30,000 in scholarship money for the teenagers who competed in this year’s junior race, which boasted one of the largest fields in the event’s history. Many of the kids, including Ellen and Isaac, plan to run in the Iditarod after they turn 18.

“It’s a sport for many, but it’s a lifestyle for us,” Julia said. “The dogs and the huskies are part of who we are and what we do.”

As the kids arrived on Knik Lake for the start of the race, Ray helped them assemble their teams and check their gear as snow dumped onto the broad shoulders of his black snowsuit and wind howled off the ice and stung his face red. In the middle of a nearby bay, Joe’s marooned wooden fishing boat sat anchored in the ice, as it had for decades. Dozens of grizzled Iditarod veterans arrived for the send-off as a show of support for the future of their sport; one helped a competitor sheath the bottom of her sled runners with a pocketknife. Another lent a hand to button up the top of a musher’s parka.

Julia stood at the bottom of her driveway to watch the kids sled by on the first mile. She waved to Ellen as she made the first turn and vanished into the wilderness.

AT DUSK, ISAAC was the third musher to travel nearly 75 miles to the Yentna Station checkpoint. In just under nine hours, he had traversed windswept lakes and rivers, spruce swamps and a treacherous steep slope known as Suicide Hill. He had not run into any wildlife, unlike a year ago on the trail, when a moose came within inches of striking his dogs.

The sky cast a tangerine glow above Mt. Susitna, which locals call “Sleeping Lady,” and the barks of Isaac’s dogs echoed off a sea of birch trees that seemed to stretch to the sun. Wood smoke drifted through the cold air. Isaac parked his team in the woods. He bedded down hay for his dogs in the snow and waited for Ellen.

None of the mushers were allowed to go into Yentna’s roadhouse, a bush lodge that has served the Iditarod and Junior Iditarod volunteers with rooms and home-cooked meals for generations. Inside the cabin, travelers hung hats on moose antlers hooked to the wall. The ceilings were stapled with yellowed posters and bibs from past races, and everyone sat on weathered couches, sipping Miller Lite and chowing on pork chops and mashed potatoes while telling stories of the trail.

Outside, a little girl in a purple parka helped keep watch of the trail along the Yentna River. About an hour after Isaac arrived, she yelled, “I see a dog team!”

It was Ellen. Her dog’s eyes radiated green in the dark. The race judges checked her sled for provisions, then steered her toward the woods.

“Hey, sister!” Isaac said. “You need help?”

“I need some foot ointment,” she said, kneeling down near the paws of one of her lead dogs, Wiley, who had a small cut. She needed medicine to disinfect the laceration.

Isaac ran back through the snow to his camp, using his headlamp to rummage through his sled to find the ointment in the dark. A veterinarian helped Ellen take Wiley back near the lodge. He was one of eight dogs who would need to be dropped from the race because of minor medical issues.

Ellen would have to run the final 75 miles with just nine dogs. She returned to her team and went through her checklist of chores; she took out a metal stove and lit a flame, then melted snow in a tin, mixing the water with dog chow in red bowls.

Over the next few hours, all 21 mushers had made it safely to Yentna. After the layover, they would race the trail back to where they started at Knik Lake. But before their next leg, the kids dug a crater in the knee-deep snow and built a fire, sitting on their coolers and talking.

“I love your senior photos,” Ellen told one musher. Ellen was also a senior, in her fourth and final Junior Iditarod. She told some mushers she planned to go to college in Juneau. Another kid asked Isaac what he would do after high school.

“I’m only a freshman. I want to run in the Iditarod if I can qualify,” he said before an older musher, James Shawcroft, approached the group. The fire crackled. “Do you all want to hear a story?” he asked.

“Apparently I can’t eat whale,” James continued, and everyone giggled when he told them he had tried it recently despite being allergic to fish. A full moon had set in, and by midnight some of the kids tried to rest. Ellen didn’t want to rile her sleeping dogs, so she grabbed her sleeping bag and nestled near the sled of a friend. Nearby, a couple of dogs climbed on top of another musher to keep her warm as she slept.

Isaac laid down by his leaders, Andy and Stanley — his dogs are named after the characters of his favorite show, “The Office” — for a few minutes, then eventually settled into his sleeping bag next to his sled. He felt part of the pack. He set two alarms on his phone, and just a few hours before he was set to take off again, tried to fall sleep under the stars.

ISAAC WAS SHIVERING when he decided to get up a half-hour later. It was minus-8 degrees. He changed out of his sweaty wool socks into a dry pair. He walked back over to the fire to warm up and then began to prepare for his release at 4:58 a.m. He listened as most of the 200 dogs in the camp woke and howled together.

Isaac was nearly an hour behind the leader and two-time defending champion, 16-year-old Emily Robinson, who a few weeks earlier had stunned the mushing community by beating a field mostly twice her age in the Knik 200.

As Robinson readied to leave the Yentna checkpoint, she was again setting the pace. But as she dropped down a slope onto the river, she was thrown off her sled, and her team took off without her in the wrong direction. One of the race volunteers sprinted back to the front of the lodge and leaped onto his snowmobile, flooring it through camp and two miles down the river to catch up with the dogs.

Robinson eventually corrected her course, but Isaac was still eager to make a push. His dogs were antsy to run, and once he was released, he made his way out of the forest and onto the river without a hiccup. At 5:36 a.m., Ellen followed out of seventh position.

“Gee!” she yelled, signaling her team to turn right. Her dogs burst forward through darkened trees. The sled hit a cottonwood, and Ellen flew off onto her back. Her body surged with adrenaline. She rolled over, climbed to her feet and ran after the dogs, whom the race officials had stopped 20 yards down the trail. She frantically jumped on the sled to make up time but left behind one of her snow hooks and a glove. When she made it onto the river, she could feel the sting of the wind and the pain in her left shoulder. But her satellite tracker was working, and she could make do without the hook or glove. On about 30 minutes of sleep, she barreled forward.

ELLEN WAS KNOWN to help others on the trail; during her first race three years earlier, she had lost her way after a snow drift wiped out the trail. James had come up behind her in his snowshoes, and they helped each other ladder their teams, one by one, through the storm until they found the trail again.

Now, in her final Junior Iditarod, Ellen ran into a musher who had gone down the wrong fork in a trail and become tangled while trying to turn the sled around. Ellen offered to help, and together they untangled the dogs before Ellen led her to the nearest checkpoint.

It hardly mattered to Ellen that her time would be affected. She made her last push with about 20 miles to go. Isaac, running on nearly 28 hours without sleep, didn’t see any other musher on his run as he finished third, behind Robinson and Wisconsin musher Morgan Martens, who was running with the dogs of Ray’s brother, Ryan Redington, the Iditarod’s defending champion.

Ellen moved from seventh position to fifth in the final stretch, but she missed Wiley, whom she wrote and illustrated a children’s book about last year, often reading it in elementary classrooms to kids she hoped would be interested in mushing. She grew emotional as she approached the house, near the end of the trail she had been running since she was a little girl. She trudged past the museum that held much of her family’s history, made sure the dogs didn’t turn up the driveway, and finally, less than a mile away, could see the finish line in the middle of Knik Lake.

“Dog team! It’s Ellen!” shouted her grandmother, Barbara Redington, who had run in the inaugural race in 1978 and was now helping keep it together as a volunteer. Ellen drove her lone hook into the ice as she crossed the finish line. Frost had crusted the wolverine fur of her parka, and her brown hair was corded in icicles. Julia wrapped her arms around her daughter. Ellen’s grandfather, Iditarod veteran Steve Flodin, gave her a hug. “Welcome back,” he said softly.

A bush plane buzzed overhead, and one family nearby tailgated while blasting Queen’s “We Are the Champions” over their truck speakers. Ray hung back by the dog trailer, his hands soaked with the blood of red meat he had given the dogs as a treat. “How was it?” he asked Ellen, then watched as generations of mushers approached her to offer congratulations.

In just a few months, Ellen will have to say goodbye to Isaac and her home. She will graduate from high school and head off for a summer job giving dog sled tours before enrolling at a university in Juneau. She still dreams of running in the Iditarod, but she wants to be a college kid first.

On the lake, Julia wanted a photo of both of her children that could one day hang alongside the musher portraits of all those who came before them. As they were asked to pose together, Ellen and Isaac lightly groaned, as teenagers do.

“Hey,” Julia told them with a smile. “This is the easy part.”

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