Sport: Mush! Haw!...And Shake, Don't Stir!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1994

Sport: Mush! Haw!...And Shake, Don't Stir!

A comfier variation on Alaska's Last Great Race
By Hampton Sides

Three days after the last Iditarod team skitters from the starting chute in Anchorage, Alaska, early this month, another convoy of mushers will start down the same icy trail. But unlike the official racers, who will blaze 1,100 miles in less than two weeks while hallucinating from sleep deprivation, this second contingent will just be moseying. They'll sleep every night, often in beds. They'll be accompanied by a cook, a photographer, and snowmobiles front and rear. They'll even grab a hot shower every few hundred miles. And if the weather turns really nasty, they'll just hole up in a cabin and play cards. "Hell, what's the hurry?" they might say. "Pass the schnapps! We're paying customers!"

Climb aboard the Iditarod Challenge, an exclusive rent-a-sled tour that made its quiet debut last year. For $15,000 each, well-to-do novice mushers can ride in the tracks of the champions. "It's the way to go," says Martha Straw of Bottineau, North Dakota, one of seven relative greenhorns--cheechakos, in the local parlance--who will embark on the three- to four-week trek to Nome on March 7. "It's the Cadillac trip of the Iditarod."

The trail boss of this virtual race is none other than Joe Redington, the 76-year-old Father of the Iditarod. A quivery gnome of five-foot-six, Redington is generally credited with inventing the so-called Last Great Race on Earth in 1967, and for 18 years he also competed in it, placing as high as fifth. But with age, his finishing times grew consistently pokier. Rather than hang up his sled, a year ago Redington decided to hang a shingle advertising his services as an arctic safari guide. (He's also been a commercial fisherman, a bush pilot, and a musher for an army search and rescue unit, pulling plane wrecks and corpses from the mountains. Once, for kicks, he drove a dog team to the summit of Mount McKinley.) Guiding was a natural next step for Redington, who already owned the largest sled-dog operation in Alaska, housing as many as 450 dogs at a time at his homestead near the town of Knik, just off the Iditarod trail. "I've always had more dogs than the average person," he says.

Redington admits his asking price isn't cheap, but quickly defends it by noting that fielding an official Iditarod team ordinarily costs a minimum of $30,000. "Half the money, all the adventure, none of the stress," he says. "Plus, we eat real good."

As for their times? Last year, the caravan of six mushers (from as far away as Malibu, California, and Manchester, England) reached Nome without serious incident in 26 days--a mere 16 days longer than first-place Iditarod finisher Jeff King. "A wild trip," raved Harry Turner, a 68-year-old retired stockbroker from Santa Barbara, California, who took the inaugural Challenge. "I'm just now getting over my shoulder separation."

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