Ryan shares his passion about mushing and his Eskimo heritage with audiences across Alaska and the world. He has presented in schools to all ages of children, aboard cruise ships to curious travelers, and in community centers to fascinated folks on topics including mushing and the history of dog sledding, winning the Iditarod, and his Eskimo heritage.
Ryan at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, Anchorage, Alaska 2023
Thank you for inviting me to speak here at the convention. I’m thrilled to be one of three Alaska Natives that finished in the top 3 of this year’s Iditarod. It’s an honor to be a keynote speaker at this gathering of the Alaska Native Federation. OUR story is about connections. Connections between people, cultures, heritage, traditions, wilderness, and animals- both our domestic companions and the wildlife that support and inspire our ways of life. I come from four generations of mushers on my Mom’s side, and three generations of mushers on my Dad’s side. My mom was born in the village of Unalakleet; my great grandfather Frank Ryan delivered mail by dog team to the surrounding villages. My grandfather on my Dad’s side is Joe Redington Sr, known as the Father of Iditarod. He was a passionate advocate of preserving the dog mushing ways of life of Alaska Natives, and envisioned the 1,000 mile race as a way to save that traditional lifestyle within the remote native villages of interior and coastal Alaska. I am proud to be Eskimo and a member of the Bering Straits Native Cooperation, and I enjoy many of the traditional activities that provide for my family and community: fishing, hunting, trapping, and even berry picking, but above all- dog mushing. I’ve been mushing since I been really little. My mushing heroes have been George Attla, Herbie Nayokpuk, Joe Garnie, Russel Lane, John Baker, Isaac Oleskik, Mike Williams and many others. I’ve been telling people I was going to win Iditarod since I could talk. One time I tried to follow my grandpa to Nome at the age of ten. The Iditarod trail was calling me, and me and my two buddies, we thought it was a good idea to try to take off three hours after my grandpa without telling our parents that we were going mushing on our big adventure to catch up to Grandpa and mush to Nome. He took a group of tourists, they all mushed a team, their own dog team from Knik to Nome. We didn’t have no gear, not much cold weather gear, extra gear, no dog food, no headlamps, and we were three hours behind him when we took off. We borrowed some dogs without asking and we shouldn’t have, and it was a lot of fun. We didn’t catch up to grandpa. Our parents, they got together and called search and rescue and they didn’t come out to look for us so the village of Knik put together a search party and they found us at 3:30 in the morning. And um, we got in big trouble but we learned a lot. And they told us y’know we have to have gear and supplies. And my parents went to grocery shopping the next day and when they came back, in our small house, I had our big dog sled inside and I had it packed to the brim- I don’t think you could even fit a toothbrush in there. And they said ‘Ryan what’s this?’ and I said ‘I’m prepared to go mushing now’. The Iditarod trail was always calling me, and from a very early age. I wanted to be out there and not only see the country but the people along the way that makes it very special. I’ve run the Iditarod 16 times, but it didn’t always go my way. But I’d still tell people “The winner of Iditarod gets a 90lb bronze trophy of my grandpa, and that’s my dream: to one day take home that trophy.” I learned a lot each time, and took advice from my elders and peers. And when I started living that advise more, that’s what helped me to have the result of my dream coming true: After 16 attempts spread out over 22 years, I mushed across the finish line in Nome after 8 days, 21 hours, 12 minutes and 58 seconds on the trail. I finally brought home my grandpa’s trophy. Even though my attempts were not always successful, I still loved mushing in Alaska because I would make connections with people: getting to meet the kids, moms & dads, aunties & uncles, and the elders- the culture bearers- of the native communities were some of my highlights of my races. Many of the families that greet us mushers at the checkpoints have been involved in the sport longer than me- many were volunteers when my grandpa and dad was racing in the 70s. The Runkles, Billy Honea, the Ivanoff family, and volunteers from other races; the Kobuk 440: Lolo and Morgan, Eva and Myrna, Gary from Shaktoolik. And I’d also look forward to seeing Chuck Schaffer, Dempsey Woods, and Harry Alexi, and Mike Williams. Those guys, especially those four guys, have been strong advocates of teaching our next generations our ways of life. And another is a friend of mine John Gourley with Portugal the Man. Him and his band are strong advocates of dog mushing and our ways of life of Alaska Natives. I’ve also been lucky to travel to the Arctic, the Aleutian Islands, and throughout Southeast Alaska all the way down to Metlakatla to visit with everyone from toddlers to the elders, exchanging stories and cultures. I think about how each person I meet is on a journey, like my journey by dog team. And each person’s journey is as unique as they are. Some people are honing their skills at fur-sewing or dancing or playing basketball, others are working at providing meat for their family and community. Some are striving to learn the language of their ancestors, and others are teaching these skills. It is important as ever for our elders to continue to teach our young people our ways of life, and for everyone to nurture the connections that bind us. Another experience I cherish is traveling the trails that connect these communities and getting to see the incredible landscapes and nature that supports the ways of life of Alaska Natives. A healthy environment is the foundation for the elements of nature that supports our ways of life: strong caribou herds, clean lakes, rivers and seas teeming with fish, coastlines and forests and tundra… protecting these places is essential not just for the wildlife and plants and dog trails found there, but because we need this wilderness for our physical, emotional, Spiritual, and mental health. Protecting the wilds equals protecting people. I find often that when I need to de-stress, to find peace, to focus my mind, I hook up a team, and head out on a trail. On that trail, life is simplified. With the help of my dogs, and the serenity of nature, I disconnect from bad stuff, and connect to the good stuff in my life. After winning Iditarod, I reflected on a couple things I learned in the process: NUMBER ONE: The trophy actually weighs 101 pounds not 90 pounds, and NUMBER TWO: I’ve learned that it’s okay to struggle, to scratch, to learn from your mistakes, to regroup, and then to keep moving forward. We ALL face adversity. What matters is how you respond. Do you give up? Or do you get stronger? Do you hunker down… or do you keep moving forward? Obstacles I’ve had to overcome on the trail range from an angry moose, to fallen trees, to severe storms. And each time I’ve had to figure out the best way to move forward. But off the trail, the challenges and limitations you perceive in life are frequently in your own mind. Believe in yourself, and connect yourself with others that encourage and believe in you as well, and keep moving forward. In the words of one of my mushing heroes, George Attla: “Anybody that can get on top of their problems and drive their thoughts in the right direction is a winner. Every champion thinks ‘WIN’. No matter what you’re doing, winning is all in your head.” To everyone in this room, and everyone listening at home, our stories are connected. Although only one musher can stand on the runners, I did not get here alone. I had YOUR support all those years and over all those miles, and especially this year. I had the support of my family, my mom Barbara Ryan, and my dad Raymie Redington. I had the support of my brothers, friends, fans, and my partner Sarah, without whom I wouldn’t be here today. I look forward to the future where we once again celebrate our collective wins, and our connections to nature, traditions, and each other. Quayana and thank you!
While on a voyage with Silver Sea Expeditions, Ryan and Sarah have a radio interview with KUCB radio in Unalaska
CARLOS TAYAG: So, Ryan Redington, the 2023 Iditarod champion. And you had three previous top 10 finishes before that? RYAN REDINGTON: Yes. TAYAG: And you’re a third generation musher? REDINGTON: Third generation on my dad's side and four generations on my mom's. TAYAG: That's amazing. And you've had how many family members compete in the Iditarod? REDINGTON: I've had six members of my family compete in the Iditarod over 70 times in the 51 years of the race and I am the first one of the family to win it. My brothers, my dad, my Uncle Joey and my grandpa have all competed in the Iditarod. TAYAG: Yeah, congratulations. And your grandpa was a founder? REDINGTON: My Grandpa Joe is known as the father of the Iditarod and the race honors [him] by having the first-place trophy be a trophy of my grandpa. It weighs 101 pounds. And that was a really big honor to take home that trophy. It was my grandpa's dream to save the sport of mushing and the Alaskan Husky. When the snowmobiles came out, he saw that the sport of mushing and the Alaskan Husky was starting to fade away in the villages. So he wanted to start a race to help keep everybody excited. And that's what inspired him to start the Iditarod. TAYAG: Yeah, and he did. I'd say that that goal was accomplished, if not just by you winning the race and carrying that legacy on. And let's zoom out to the big picture because it's not just you who's winning the race. It's your dogs. It's Sarah. It's everybody who's on the team. You are an athlete and the dogs are also athletes. REDINGTON: I call them the true athletes. I'm just hanging on to the sled, I run up the hills. But most of the time, they're doing all the work. They're incredible, incredible dogs. And it's just an honor to be on the trail with them and on the journey to Nome. TAYAG: So how did that feel crossing the finish line and winning? REDINGTON: Yeah, it’s been a childhood dream of mine. Since I was five years old, I've been telling community members that I was going to win the Iditarod one day. Not all of it's been easy, I’ve had to scratch from some of my Iditarods. And so that's one thing that I say in the schools: I tell the kids never to give up on your dreams because it's been a dream of mine since I was five years old and I'm 40 years old now and I finally fulfilled my dream. You're right, it's been a big effort of a lot of people that helped me get to the Iditarod. Sarah is a huge part of that and helping me train and raise our dogs. It’s been a big effort of hers too so we say we won the Iditarod together. TAYAG: I read that when you were training, there's a race called the Beargrease and typically you would have run that race, but Sarah ran it for training and she slowed the dogs down a bit. You had a strategy to kind of take your time and in go at a little bit of slower pace to save energy. SARAH KEEFER: Yep. So the previous year, Ryan took the A team and I took the B team, and I ended up beating him in that race. After each race, what I do is a lot of analysis: what went well, and what could we improve on? And I said, “Next year, I'm taking the A team.” And Ryan was on board from minute one. He's very competitive and that helps him win the races, and he's won the Beargrease a couple of times and had some really solid finishes. But I didn't want to win the Beargrease. I did want to slow down the team, like you said, and have a strong team where we had a lot of good dogs in top shape for Iditarod. That was the goal, to win the Iditarod. So with a focus on that, I took the A team. And Ryan was my handler, and he was the best handler I've ever had. Every checkpoint that I would come in to, he would evaluate the dogs and help to feed them and take off booties and do everything that I would normally be doing if I was handling. Halfway through the race he said, “You can start letting the dogs go a little faster now.” And I said, “I'm just going to let the dogs run however fast they want to go.” We just had a really fun time, it was a really smooth race, the dogs performed very well, and I finished with 10 out of 12 dogs in really strong form. The other two got a little bit of extra rest and then they were ready to go again. All the dogs that I finished with after 300 miles were ready to do another 300 miles, we could tell by looking at them. And that's what we want to see for Iditarod are dogs that are ready to go for another 300. TAYAG: That was your A team, so were those the dogs that you ran the Iditarod with? REDINGTON: Yes. TAYAG: And that strategy paid off. Almost halfway through the Iditarod and you still had 12 of your dogs and you started with 14. Is that right? KEEFER: More than halfway through the race, it was in Unalakleet, and we still had 12 dogs. Yeah, 700 miles in. TAYAG: And the race is 1000 miles. So you've got 300 miles left, and you have almost your complete dog team, you've got a ton of energy in the reserve. And then you kind of blast it through to the end. Can you tell me about that? REDINGTON: Yeah, when I got to Unalakleet, it's the first checkpoint on Norton Sound on the Bering Sea coast there. That was really special because that's where my mom was born, in Unalakleet. We had a lot of strong support from all of the villages that we traveled through, but it was getting more exciting the closer we were getting to Nome in first place. Everybody was getting more excited and cheering us on and we fed off of that energy. Sleep deprivation is a big challenge in the race, and I think that helped a lot because before that I was averaging about 25 minutes of sleep twice a day in the race. I used their support to help me keep excited and keep going strong. I was so proud of my dogs. They were doing such an amazing job and feeling good. We raced Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl, our two strongest competitors that finished second and third. In this year's race, the top three mushers were all Alaska Native mushers — so that was really special. We were able to continue our lead, but it was a close battle between me and Pete and it was it was an epic, epic last couple hundred miles for us. TAYAG: When did you know that your team was going to win? REDINGTON: When we got to White Mountain, we increased our lead from about 35 minutes to a four-hour and 17 minute lead and so I had a good feeling that it was going to happen. But we still had 77 miles to go and when we left White Mountain, there was a big windstorm and it was really tough trying to keep on the trail. The dogs wanted to run with the wind and it was taking us off trail, so there were times when I'd have to set my snow hooks and go search for the trail and leave my team and come back when I found the trail. That took some time away, but with that four-hour 17 minute cushion I was able to keep my calmness and stay level headed and just make it down the trail, marker to marker there for a while. TAYAG: And the entire experience of mushing, of making it a thousand miles with your team, going all the way to Nome, that's a lot. But the mental fortitude you must have to stay on the sled and map out the trail and kind of work on your feet: you never know when you're going to get hit by a storm or what conditions you'll be faced with. I'm just amazed. KEEFER: It does take a lot of fortitude. Like you said, it was a solid dog team that I worked with all season. I had a nice solid win, a third place finish in the Beargrease, with a team that was fantastic. And the 14 that we put together for Iditarod ended up being a winning team. In the end, it takes a great musher and a great dog team to pull off a win. REDINGTON: We've been working to get to this team for many years, many generations of dogs. It's a unique lifestyle that that we love and we are addicted to the dogs and spending as much time with them as possible. It's a really, really exciting year coming up for us, where we want to defend our championship in the Iditarod and give it another go. It's been my dream of mine since I've been a small child to win the Iditarod and now it’s my dream to win it again. TAYAG: I appreciate you being here, on short notice, and just coming into the radio studio and talking to me and talking to the listeners. I think it's a really special thing that we get to experience having you in this community. And it's also really special for you to go to the school and talk to the kids. What’s the message that you give to the kids? What's the inspiration that you want to leave them with? REDINGTON: Like I was saying earlier, I tell every class that we talk to, “Never give up on your dreams.” You know, like I said, I've had some Iditarods where it didn't go our way. It took me 16 years of racing in the Iditarod to finally win it. And so I say never give up on your dreams and also to live a healthy lifestyle. I quit drinking soda and that was a really big part that helped in the Iditarod. I drank more water and I brush my teeth a lot more and all those things helped me to be healthier to race the Iditarod at a strong level which is what it takes to win. KEEFER: And keep learning. He says respect and learn from your elders. We're always learning every year. TAYAG: Absolutely. Well, thank you both for being here. I appreciate your time. I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay, have a safe journey home. That was my interview with the 2023 Iditarod trail sled dog race champion Ryan Redington and Sarah Keefer of Redington Mushing. For more information on how to support them, check out their website and follow them on Facebook. I'm Carlos Tayag, thanks for listening and have a great day.