1ST ANNUAL MUSHING HISTORY CONFERENCE: ANCHORAGE, ALASKA 2009

“History is not about the out-of-date or irrelevant,” says Tim White, co-organizer of the first Mushing History Conference held in Anchorage and Wasilla in November, 2009. He reminds us that, “It was from their interest in history that Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. came together to eventually create the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.”In addition, as one of the world’s most respected sled builders, the designer of the QCR system to allow quick changes of plastic runners, White gives a nod to those who came before him. “The first ‘modern’ toboggan sled,” he points out, “which I built for the 1974 Iditarod, was partly inspired by sleds used by Scotty Allan and Vilhjalmur Stefansson as described in the Baldy of Nome books by Ester Darling and in Stefansson’s books recounting his Arctic explorations.”White went on to add, “I have a practical more than academic interest in the history of sled dogs since I first got into mushing in 1970. I ran the Iditarod in 1974, the second edition to Nome. I also raced in Yellowknife 1976 my first trip, and The Pas 1975 in the freight race, the World Championship in 1976, events with long traditions in the sport clearly distinct from Alaska, Minnesota and New England, where I went to my first race as a spectator in 1970. In 1976 I reprinted the US Army WWII Dog Transportation Field Manual 25-6, a practical application of history to mushing.”According to White, who Mark Nordman, the Iditarod’s Race Marshall, characterized to me as “the ultimate dog man,” he felt compelled to help capture some of the history of the sport. “Some of those experiences 35 or more years ago seem as clear in my mind as yesterday, but I hear other people talking about them as distant history. Often their accounts,” said White, “whether first or second hand, don’t agree with my own recollections. So partly I felt the need for the same kind of conferences about mushing history as there are for other areas of inquiry or research, science or history, to hear the inevitably conflicting views or interpretations of events.”Carol Beck, from Yellowknife, Canada, was able to share a bit of White’s history as part of her presentation on the history of the Diavik 150, which is one of the longest running sled dog races in the world. White, from Minnesota, would win the race six times, most recently in 1996. Beck shared a DVD called Trapline to Finish Line: The Story of Yellowknife’s Canadian Championship Dog Derby with those in attendance, as well as sharing copies of Fran Hurcomb’s book, similarly titled Trapline to Finish Line, which details the history of the race. Perhaps the high point of the conference for this writer, however, was that as it went on, it became increasing informal, meaning both participants and fans felt at ease to ask questions and comment on what was being said. That was how we learned that the dog talked about by Jeff Dinsdale that was used in the film Nikki: Wild Dog of the North, came from the kennel of Joe Redington Sr. Joee Redington, sitting in the audience at the time, was able to add that the dog in question had been his brother Timmy’s dog. It was little things like this that made the conference special. In fact, Joee told a story on his dad. It seems that the initial offer to purchase the dog was turned down.“$35?” said Redington Sr. when the offer was made. “I wouldn’t sell this dog for that if my kids were out of milk!”“How about $75?”“Sold!” said Redington, and hence Polar went on to become Nikki and star in the Disney financed movie Nikki: Wild Dog of the North.It was stories like this, as well as historical photos, which captured the likes of Dick Tozier, Natalie Norris and Doc Lombard together in Joee Redington’s presentation, which helped point out the circular stories, many of which came back to either Redington or the role of history in the development of the race. Those attending the conference were there for different reasons. Steve Charles, a Serum Run ’25 musher, was there for the history. He has an interest in both Alaskan and mushing history. In some ways he echoed White’s sentiments about trying to get the stories and information recorded before it was too late. “I’ve heard lots of stories,” Charles said, “but have always wondered, ‘What’s true and what isn’t?’ What is the reality?”Even one of the presenters, Jane Haigh, author of Gold Rush Dogs, was looking for answers. “I’m realizing how much I don’t know,” she admitted. While she’s read many sources on Scotty Allan and did in-depth research for her book, she noted that it’s been about ten years since she wrote the book. As a result, while sharing her own expertise on Allan and Esther Birdsall Darling, she was looking to expand her knowledge.Alaskan newcomer Kevin Neher was there for much the same reason, but with a look to expanding his contacts and mushing knowledge in a practical way. He hopes to run the Iditarod in 2013. Although he finds the history of the state and mushing fascinating, his needs hark back to the role of the Iditarod Trail in the “good ol’ days,” using the conference to establish communication links with all who were there. Of course, for many of those who became involved in mushing in “the good ol’ days,” it was practicality that drew them. They needed to get from Point A to Point B, often with great loads of goods across some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable, and the dog team offered the best choice. Not only did these teams move people and freight, they also provided a sort of communication link, too. Dr. Linda Chamberlain, of Homer, Alaska, addressed this aspect of mushing history.Chamberlain is currently working on a book called Mushing the Mail on the Iditarod Trail. It addresses just that, the history of the mail being moved across Alaska by dog team. In the early days, before even the telegraph became feasible in remote areas, mail teams were often the only line of communication available to keep families and friends connected. Although using documents and sources from the National Archives and Records Administration as well as the US Postal Museum, and the many universities, museums, and historical groups across the State of Alaska that have collected resources, she didn’t forget something emphasized in several other presentations, that it was (and is) about the journey. People perished, as did dogs, to keep open this communication link.Interestingly enough, although it wasn’t the focus of his talk, Canadian presenter Jeff Dinsdale has a connection to mail teams. Dinsdale is both president of and a participant in the British Columbia based Gold Rush Trail Sled Dog Mail Run. It’s a four-day event that draws participants from across North America. Specially designed envelopes are created, stamped, and sold online, then carried from Quesnel to Barkerville to Wells by the teams. They’re then mailed out to designated recipients worldwide. In this way, Dinsdale and others keep alive the spirit of the mail teams that Chamberlain talks about.Moving the mail, or anything, for that matter, from Point A to Point B is much easier if you have a trail to follow. Kevin Keeler, Administrator for the Iditarod National Historic Trail (INHT) association, addressed just that issue. While trails are specially carved out for Dinsdale’s group, early travelers, mail carriers or just plain adventurers weren’t so lucky. True, the trails existed, although some were not much more than animal paths carved out through a desolate area, but maintenance of even the best was spotty and, given the terrain and weather, difficult to keep up with. The goal of the INHT is to both preserve and commemorate some 2,300 miles of trail used across Alaska. All were vital travel and communication links during Alaska’s exploration and development and, in fact, remain in use today, providing routes into the interior that are most often traveled by snow machine and dog teams. The extent to which these trails criss-cross the state is often lost on the casual observer. Many only come to know there is more to the Historic Trail than the Iditarod Dog Sled Race when they encounter a trail marker for “Mile 1” of the Iditarod Trail in Seward. Of course, it’s likely few outside of Alaska would have heard about the Iditarod Trail were it not for Joe Redington Sr.’s dream of creating a sled dog race between Anchorage and Nome. While Redington’s name seemed to be a common one in most presentations, either citing his own contributions to mushing or pointing out how his own interest in the history of the sport had driven his interest, it was Joee Redington’s presentation that fleshed out the man behind the myth. As his slide show progressed, it made clear how practicality, an interest in history and big dreams all came together in the form of his father, Joe Redington Sr. One of those who felt the pull of Joe Redington Sr.’s dream is musher/author/film-maker Rod Perry. Perry felt the pull of the dream first hand and was one of the mushers who lined up to go to Nome in the very first Iditarod. Perry is the author of Trailbreakers, which is his telling of the history of the trail system and how the Iditarod came to be. Volume 1 is out now, the one that focuses more on the history of the Trail itself, with Volume 2 expected soon. Perry is a dynamic speaker whose presentation was both engaging and informative. His Sunday presentation called to mind comparisons with Robert Service, as he sought to share some of the emotion, romance and drama that those who ran the first Iditarod felt. “When the dream is big enough,” Perry explained, “the facts just don’t count.”Chas St. George, the public relations director for the Iditarod Trail Committee was on hand to share information on the Iditarod’s upcoming history of the race DVD and echoed these sentiments. “Joe Redington Sr. put it on the line,” he said. “He put his mortgage on the line. Journalists were following him around calling him a Don Quixote,” he added, but Redington never wavered. “It wasn’t about who won,” said St. George, “but about the journey,” a sentiment shared by everyone there. Perry, who ran the race with his lead dog Fat Albert, definitely agreed. Noting the sketchy information they were receiving, not to mention the general discouragement of the public who couldn’t envision such a race, Perry said that Joe Sr. didn’t let any of this deter him. “It was all so clear to Joe,” he said, perhaps even now with a trace of amazement at how Redington Sr. was able to be so sure of something this big, this unheard of, and make it a reality. As Joee Redington’s presentation unfolded, it became clear that Redington Sr. had never been someone to let obstacles keep him from his goal. What made Redington’s presentation special was that it was told in Redington Sr.’s voice. “We put this together from an audio recording of a presentation my father did at a Fairbanks mushing symposium,” explained Redington. “It’s one of the last things my dad and I did together,” he noted, then paused. “It’s kinda important to me.”As the slides progressed, you began to get a feel for who Joe Redington Sr. was as you listened to his voice. He seemed one part practical, the sort of man who’d use a dog team to help retrieve airplanes from remote areas where they’d crashed or become disabled. The other part was the dreamer who’d organize a 200-dog team for no other reason perhaps than to say he’d done it. It’s both of these personalities that teamed up with historian Dorothy Page to create the Iditarod. Even then, practicality came into play, as pressed to supply the large purse promised to the mushers, Redington hustled to find funding, enlisting the help of then bank president Frank Murkowski to arrange a loan, sell off parts of his own property, and then sit out the race himself before borrowing Dan Seavey’s part of the purse to disperse to others and meet his goal. All these stories and more played out in his son’s presentation.It was certainly a different lifestyle that the Redington Family lived from what most Americans at the time would have known. They lived in a tent on Flat Horn Lake, Vi Redington sweeping up with a rake and shovel. Looking at the slides, you realized how dogs permeated every aspect of their lives. Dogs in a boat, dogs playing with children, dogs pulling a huge chunk of an airplane cabin across a snowy terrain. Yet, even then, the practical Joe Sr. could turn a simple request from mountaineer Ray Genet for a boat ride to Anchorage into an assault on Mt. McKinley, better known in Alaska as Denali. Photos of this adventure, most supplied by photographer Rob Stapleton, reveal the sheer audacity of Redington’s dream to climb Denali but, yet, at the end, there they were, he and a young Susan Butcher, not to mention their dog teams, atop the mountain. Redington’s dreams were a huge part of the presentation made by Chas St. George, too. As a set of photos from the Iditarod’s past cycled before our eyes in an endless loop, St. George and others in the audience shared their appreciation of Redington Sr.’s ability to pull others into his dreams. Redington appreciated the history of mushing and lived the lifestyle, yet celebrated its adventure, too. Those gathered for the conference weren’t about just sharing ol’ stories about mushing; they were sharing it in a manner that put it in the words of those who’d lived the journey. St. George acknowledged this, so to speak, noting that the Iditarod’s effort to capture its own history “isn’t about us telling the story ourselves, but an attempt to tell it through the words of those who’ve experienced this race.” As Joee Redington’s presentation showed, using a theme echoed by St. George, Perry, Dinsdale, White and the rest, for most involved in mushing, it was an attempt to reclaim “elements of a way of life” seemingly long gone. Those of us in the audience can chuckle at the ingenuity of those involved, even in failed attempts like Bud Smyth’s attempts to carry a working stove on his sled, a story recounted by Perry, but mushing, whether for practical reasons, like getting from Point A to Point B or running a trap line or delivering the mail, or seeing whose dog team is the fastest, is about the journey. It’s about the things that have happened to you and how you deal with them on the trail, all of which are retained as memories.Memories can be funny things. By the time St. George finished his informal talk, the audience and presenters were largely grouped around him in a semi-circle. An informal give-and-take had become common as memories were shared and questions answered. Even those of us who haven’t been on this journey ourselves had questions. One of mine involved a visual landmark. On my way out to Knik for the restart at what was my first Iditarod in person, I’d glimpsed the image of a sled atop a barn with a team of cut-out dogs in front of it. As it turned out, the barn belonged to Joe and Vi Redington. Just as the restart has moved on, the sled and dogs had disappeared from Knik, too, with the passing of Redington. Yet, as a photo of that scene, the sled and cut-out dog team silhouetted against the sky appeared in Joee Redington’s presentation, I’d written a note to myself, “I wonder what ever happened to that sled?”As it turned out, I was able to ask Joee. Although he wasn’t sure about the dog cut-outs, he knew where the sled was. “It went to Jeff Schultz,” he said.As most know, Jeff Schultz is the Iditarod’s official photographer. Tracking him down to ask about the sled wasn’t difficult. In fact, as with the others, Schultz seemed delighted to share this bit of mushing lore with me.“If it’s a photo of the small barn I think it is,” he said in response to my memory prompt about the sled, “the one that housed a TON of books actually, the sled on top of the barn was NOT a cut out, but an actual sled. And, yes, I have it. I helped take it down from on top of the roof and paid Joe for it. It was painted yellow, like the barn and we stripped off that paint back down to the natural wood. Joe Sr. ran the sled in some of the early Iditarod races from what I understand.” In other words, there seems to be a world of mushing history out there waiting to be captured. We just need to go after it.That was partly the reasoning behind Helen Hegener’s willingness to become involved with the Mushing History Conference. Just as with co-organizer Tim White, Hegener has a history with the sport, too. “When Tim emailed me asking if I’d be interested in doing a conference on the history of mushing he tapped a nerve that had been preconditioned to say yes. My past is littered with stuff like being there on Fourth Avenue when Joee Redington won the 1966 World Championship, running into Joe Sr. at the old Teeland’s store and listening to him talk about his ideas for a race to Nome, and sitting in on a few organizational meetings of the Iditarod. There’s always been this feeling that I’ve been there as some of the mushing history was being written, and however small a part I actually played, it resonated and stayed with me over the years. I started a blog on mushing history a couple of years ago, and that’s how Tim found me.”“In my travels from Dawson City to Nome over the last few years, working on our books and videos, I’ve come to the realization that there are many others who have a passion for the colorful and endlessly fascinating history of mushing, and when Tim wrote it seemed reasonable and right to create a way for these folks to get together and share their stories, their adventures, their research findings, their passions and their joys in the history of mushing,” she said. “Travel with dogs is an intrinsic part of our heritage in the North Country, and if I can contribute to preserving and enriching that heritage in some small way I’m honored to do so. I’m already planning the next Mushing History Conference.”

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