Special to ICT
Inupiaq musher Ryan Redington — grandson of the co-founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — won the 998-mile event on Tuesday, March 14, becoming the sixth Alaska Native musher and second Inupiaq to win the storied race.
Redington and his team fended off 25 mph headwinds and a last push by Peter Kaiser to overtake him in the final leg of the race to cross the finish line in Nome, Alaska, just 8 days, 21 hours, 13 minutes and 58 seconds after the race’s start in Willow.
At the finish line, Redington talked about what it meant to him to bring the trophy home.
“It took a lot of work and a lot of patience,” he said, crediting his family’s support. “We had a lot of help and a lot of support. It’s something we all worked for every day.”
The race is significant on cultural, personal and historic levels. For the first time since 1974, the first-, second- and third-place finishers will be Alaska Natives: Kaiser, Yup’ik, and Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, were expected to finish second and third, respectively. Past top 10 finisher Mike Williams Jr., Yup’ik, was still in the race in 21st place as of Tuesday afternoon, Alaska time.
Redington's grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., co-founded the Iditarod in 1973 to celebrate the heritage of the Alaska sled dog and keep interest in mushing alive. Seven Redingtons are Iditarod veterans. Of those, four are multiple top 10 finishers and three are in the Mushers Hall of Fame.
Ryan Redington became the first in his family, however, to win the championship. He’s also the 25th individual to win the Iditarod, with several mushers having won the race more than once in its 51 starts.
The one-two-three finish for Alaska Natives puts an Indigenous cultural stamp on the Iditarod, considered to be the premier sled dog race in the Americas. And that’s important, because interest in mushing has waned since the snowmachine was introduced to rural Alaska in the mid-20th century.
“We are in an era where there isn't the interest in dog mushing compared to the early years of the Iditarod, where I would say 75 percent of Native kennels still existed,” Charlie Schaeffer, an Alaska Native Iditarod veteran from Kotzebue told ICT.
“You would be surprised at the number of kennels in Northwest Alaska today," he said. "That number will fit on a part of one hand, as far as fingers go.”
Schaeffer said he hopes the Indigenous trifecta will bolster interest in mushing. So do others.
In his storied career, four-time Iditarod winner Jeff King mushed with such Alaska Native legends as Herbie “The Shishmaref Cannonball” Nayokpuk and Emmitt “The Yukon Fox” Peters. King, who hails from North Fork, California, but has lived in Alaska since 1975, said Alaska Natives have been underrepresented in the Iditarod.
“Alaska’s Indigenous mushers have been missed,” King told ICT as Redington and team drew closer to Nome. “A Redington winning and Pete and Richie’s performances bring the race home to a regional event, where it belongs.”
Mike Williams Sr., an Iditarod veteran and chief of the Akiak Native Community, sees mushing as part of Indigenous Alaska culture.
“We’ve been mushing for 10,000 years for transportation and subsistence hunting, and living with dogs and depending on them,” Williams said. “Our family has always had dogs and we’re not going to let them go.”
But Indigenous mushers who live in rural Alaska, off the road network, find it difficult to take time off from work to seek out sponsorship money to help cover the costs of training, managing a kennel, and competing.
“I think overall we need sponsorships to help support the Indigenous mushers who have the desire to run a race like the Iditarod,” Williams said.
He said his son, Mike Jr., works at a local school and couldn’t afford to take time off from work. He didn’t start training until November.
“That’s a little late,” Mike Sr. said.
The Iditarod race committee had not, by midday Tuesday, disclosed the amount of the winner’s purse this year, but the champion received $51,798 in 2022, $40,809 in 2021, $51,607 in 2020, and $51,299 in 2019.
Holding onto the lead
Redington’s victory is as much about patience and endurance as it is training and strategy. He finished seven of the 12 Iditarods he entered between 2001 and 2019, with a career-best finish of 14th, before he found his groove at home and abroad.
He won the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in northeast Minnesota in 2018 and again in 2020; the Kobuk 440 in Kotzebue in 2019 and again in 2021; and finished in the top 10 in three consecutive Iditarods, taking eighth in 2020, seventh in 2021, and ninth in 2022.
Redington was in the top five for much of the race. He fed and rested his dogs for a few hours at just about every other checkpoint, in addition to the eight-hour and 24-hour layovers required of all mushers and teams.
Redington took the lead in Kaltag (mile 652), changed to a lighter sled in Unalakleet (mile 737), and picked up the pace to build some distance between his team and Kaiser’s.
Kaiser chipped away at Redington’s lead, leaving one checkpoint while Redington napped and outpacing him to Shaktoolik and Koyuk. But Redington’s dog team was energized. They stopped at the Elim checkpoint for five minutes, while Kaiser and his team stopped for five hours, presumably to make up for rests that were abbreviated to keep Redington from gaining an insurmountable lead.
Kaiser and his team slowly closed the gap. He averaged 7.82 mph to Shaktoolik (mile 777) to Redington’s 7.67 mph; and 8.62 mph to Koyuk (mile 827) to Redington’s 8.38 mph. But it wasn’t enough to erase Redington’s lead.
‘Race into history’
The race was followed closely by Alaska Natives and other Indigenous people across the state and in the lower 48.
“Go Ryan Go!” one reader posted on ICT’s Facebook page.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola of Alaska, who is Yup’ik, tweeted out a link to a video message about the Iditarod and the importance of dog teams in Alaska’s history, particularly the 1925 delivery of diphtheria antitoxin by dog teams.
“The Iditarod is special to Alaskans for many reasons,” Peltola tweeted on Monday, March 13. “It’s a time to honor Leonhard Seppala for his epic journey, the dog teams and mushers, and our shared Alaska culture of helping one another despite their fierce competitive spirit.”
Patricia Paul, Inupiaq, a lawyer living on the Swinomish Reservation 55 miles north of Seattle, Washington, called the 2023 Iditarod a “race into history.”
“A Top 3 finish of Alaska Natives strengthens the teachings and history passed down through generations,” she told ICT. “It’s about our love of the outdoors, to travel and gather our traditional foods, and our social networks. It was our way of life to travel between villages.”
Paul shared family mushing stories dating back five generations. “My great-grandfather, John Hensley, Sr. of Point Hope, Alaska, owned a dog sled and approximately seven sled dogs,” she said. “A family story shared with me is that my great-grandmother, Priscilla (Garfield) Hensley, was born on a dog sled on the way to Kivalina, Alaska.”
Redington earned other awards along the route to his championship finish:
- Northrim Bank Achieve More Award, presented to the first musher to reach the White Mountain checkpoint: $2,500.
- Ryan Air Gold Coast Award, presented to the first musher to reach the Unalakleet checkpoint, one ounce of gold nuggets and an ivory carving of a dog sled team. Redington told the crowd of well-wishers here that the award was particularly important to him because his mother, Barbara Ryan, is from Unalakleet.
- Bristol Bay Native Corporation Fish First Award, presented to the first musher to arrive at the Kaltag checkpoint: 25 pounds of Bristol Bay salmon filets, $2,000, and an art piece by Alaska Native artist Apay’uq Moore.
- Alaska Air Transit Spirit of Iditarod Award, presented to the first musher to reach the Unalakleet checkpoint: A pair of musher’s mitts with beaver and beaded leather by Loretta Maillelle and a beaver hat handmade by Rosalie Egrass; both are Alaska Native artists of McGrath, Alaska.
Four Indigenous mushers competed in the 2023 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, pulling off an Indigenous sweep of the top three places for just the second time in 50 years. The Indigenous competitors are:
— RYAN REDINGTON, 1st place
Career highlights: Iditarod champion in 2023; four consecutive top 10 Iditarod finishes (2023, 2022, 2021, 2020); two-time winner of the Kobuk 440 in Kotzebue (2021, 2019); two-time winner of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in northeast Minnesota (2020, 2018).
— PETER KAISER, 2nd place
Career highlights: Iditarod champion in 2019; top 10 finishes in eight Iditarods (2023, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016. 2012, 2011); seven-time winner of the Kuskokwim 300 (2023, 2022, 2020, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015); winner of the Norton Sound 450 in 2013, 2012; winner of the 2011 Kobuk 440 in Kotzebue.
— RICHIE DIEHL, 3rd place
Career highlights: Top 10 finishes in four Iditarods (2023, 2022, 2021, 2018); winner of the 2021 Kuskokwim 300; winner of the 2021 Bogus Creek 150.
— MICHAEL WILLIAMS JR.
Career highlights: Veteran of eight Iditarods; finished eighth in 2012 Iditarod; recipient of 2014 Iditarod Sportsmanship Award; Western Alaska Sprint Race champion, 2021; Campout Race champion, 2022.
Lead Photo: Ryan Redington, Inupiaq, takes a rest stop in Kaltag, Alaska, on March 11, 2023, during the 2023 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He went on to win the race March 14, 2023. (Screenshot courtesy of Iditarod Insider)