June 24, 1999, was a somber date in Alaska history. That’s when the “Father of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race” passed away. My wife and I were fortunate to meet Joe Redington Sr. in the late 1970s. Our neighbor of 35 years, well known artist Bill Devine, was good friends with Joe and his wife Vi. The legendary Alaskan musher would drive from Knik and spend the night in Bill’s downstairs apartment. Oftentimes he’d bring puppies for Bill to raise. Our neighbor looked after the precious pups until they were ready for training. Children throughout the neighborhood scurried over to pet the furry creatures.
As years rolled by we saw less and less of the Redingtons. Bill mentioned Joe’s health was rapidly declining. The aging gentleman had cancer of the esophagus. Bill came over one afternoon and told us his friend had limited time. I informed him I was planning a summer pilgrimage to the ghost town of Iditarod. A couple of pals were coming along to fish and explore the area. I asked Bill if he could get Joe to autograph something. I wanted to leave a signed trail marker inside the Iditarod checkpoint cabin as a memorial of sorts. Bill thought it over several minutes and then he replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”
A couple of days rolled by before Bill rang our doorbell late one evening. In his hand he clutched an unblemished Maxwell House poster. A large picture on the advertisement showed Joe Redington wearing a checkered shirt. He’s smiling as usual. BIG FLAVOR – BIG BLUE is boldly printed next to a 1 pound Maxwell House can. Bill told me Joe had a hard time signing it. That was obvious by his sketchy handwriting. Bill went on to say, “That’s the last item Joe will ever sign!”
On June 23rd Jeff Thimsen, Doug Harvey, and I boarded a flight from Anchorage to McGrath. I had the prized poster tucked safely in my duffle. It was rolled up in a thick plastic waterproof tube. We spent Wednesday night in the Takusko House Lodge preparing for our expedition. Preparing consisted of consuming large platters of fresh halibut and mashed potatoes for dinner, and mounds of eggs and sausage the next morning. After several rounds of coffee, we hopped in a chartered Cessna 180 owned by veteran bush pilot, Jim Ellis. Our yellow and white bird was bound for Flat, Alaska. The seldom visited mining town is known for adventurer Wiley Post crashing there without injury. The well reported incident took place July 20, 1933. Area residents quickly came together helping repair his Lockheed Vega. Tragically Wiley Post and Will Rogers were killed 2 years later in a plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. Thankfully the tough and reliable Cessna we were in touched down without incident.
Before hoofing it to Iditarod, water bottles needed filling along with rechecking our gear. Doug made sure the small toy rafts purchased at Toys “R” Us were still in one piece. We couldn’t afford for them to be punctured. Jim Ellis probably thought we were mindless city slickers. Besides toy boats, we’d brought along a baby stroller like the kind sidewalk joggers use. I could see Jim’s mind at work when he unloaded it. The buggy had big wheels, much like a bicycle. Doug pushed it at the start of our trip, with his .338 Winchester Magnum perched safely on top. Knowing there were bears in the area made weapon carrying essential!
The 8-mile hike from Flat to Iditarod took us 6 hours. Many seasoned hikers would scoff at our pace. We carried 50 pound backpacks and sloshed through swamp and water up to our knees while pushing a fully loaded baby carriage. With mosquitoes covering our bodies head to toe, head nets were a necessity. Gloves were secured onto long sleeve shirts with duct tape. Pant legs were taped to socks, keeping the pesky insects from eating us alive.
Entering Iditarod for the first time, we cautiously surveyed the ghostly surroundings. There was an aura of ‘too quiet’ unlike anything I’d ever experienced. A few roofless buildings remained standing, including an old safe solidly perched on a concrete foundation. There was no structure left of the bank building. Amazingly, the safe’s dial would still spin after spending almost 100 years in extreme elements. Other than a cow moose grazing in shallow water and some curious beaver, we were it as far as the town’s population went. At one time, Iditarod boomed with over 10,000 residents.
Our major goal was to get across a narrow lake, formed when the Iditarod River changed direction many years back. The Iditarod checkpoint cabin would be our home for several days. It sat a good 100 yards away on the opposite bank. After taking turns blowing up our Explorer brand rafts, Doug paddled the first one across glassy smooth waters trailing a length of thin nylon rope behind. The rope was secured at start and finish points. That allowed us to pull ourselves between mainland and cabin without using paddles. Our vessels were barely large enough for 1 child, let alone a grown man with extra gear. Flotation jackets were zipped up tight just in case something went wrong!
After all supplies, including human cargo, were safely on the other side, we hauled our life sustaining goods into the rustic shelter. First thing I did was tack the Joe Redington poster on a weathered wall. Little did I know Joe Redington had passed away. When we got back to Flat, residents Mark and Shari Kepler filled us in saying, “Found out he died right after you guys headed down the trail.”
Hearing this news took enthusiasm out of the remainder of our trip.
Six months after our expedition ended, I discovered I’d erred. ‘The Last Great Race’ was not going through Iditarod in March. On even years it takes the northern route and on odd it goes southern. With millennium year 2000 being even it wouldn’t go through Iditarod until 2001.
I wrote Mark Kepler asking if he’d snow machine to the cabin, after sufficient snowfall, and remove Joe’s poster. Weeks later he wrote back saying the task was done. Mark wanted to know if we’d left behind some oatmeal and cereal packets. Evidently squirrels discovered it, making a mess inside the old dwelling. There was no denying we were the responsible ones.
Mark went on to say he’d forwarded the poster to Joe Delia in Skwentna as I had asked. When I talked to Joe he confirmed receiving it. Our plan was to get as many mushers coming through the Skwentna checkpoint to sign it as possible. Unfortunately most were in a hurry at that stage of the race and very few names were added. Joe Delia did manage to get a few.
Delia told me in May that he’d mailed the poster inside its plastic tube to Iditarod Trail Headquarters. Bill Devine confirmed it arrived safely, as did Dale Myers, who was on the Iditarod Trail Committee. Unfortunately several months later the poster mysteriously disappeared. It hasn’t been seen in over 15 years!
I believe the lost poster is hanging innocently on someone’s wall, perhaps an individual who doesn’t realize it belongs to the Iditarod Trail Committee. It could even be languishing in a drawer or cabinet. Bill Devine wanted the memento up front and center at the completion of each race. Before my friend and neighbor passed away, January 16, 2007, he relayed the following, “What better face to see after crossing Nome’s finish line than smilin’ Joe’s!”
Hopefully someone discovers the symbolic poster someday, bringing climax to this little known Iditarod mystery!
Michael and his wife, Joleen, can be found in Lake Havasu City, Arizona when not traveling in their RV. Michael does freelance writing when not exploring the desert. Alaska will always be their true home!