Elite sled dog returns to racing after devastating crash

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BRULE, WIS. – Wildfire was not having it.

Each time Ryan Redington stopped his sled dog team on the broad, snow-packed trail, the prized Alaskan husky was the first to toss his snout toward the sky and bark, dancing with impatience for the run to resume.

It was a beautiful sight for Redington, 40, an elite third-generation musher whose grandfather founded the famed Alaskan Iditarod. Redington once feared he’d never see Wildfire run again. Just a little over a year ago on the same northwestern Wisconsin trail, a snowmobiler veered directly into his team, striking Wildfire and another dog before speeding off. Wildfire got the worst of it, suffering severe soft tissue wounds and a badly damaged left rear leg that was broken in three places.

“I thought his leg would have to be amputated,” Redington said. “I thought there was no way possible he’d ever race again.”

But three surgeries, some intensive rehabilitation and a stint as a house dog later, the 4-year-old is set to race the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a 300-mile endurance test that begins Jan. 29 in Duluth and ends in Grand Portage, Minn. The largest sled dog race in the U.S. outside of Alaska, the series of events will draw 58 mushers — just 17 for the grueling marathon. The marathoners will vie for a portion of a $21,000 purse.

Earlier this month, on the one-year anniversary of the hit-and-run, Wildfire returned to racing, competing in the historic 100-mile Gunflint Mail Run along the Gunflint Trail. With Wildfire eager as ever, Redington’s team placed second. At the end of each heat, the spirited husky was still barking to go, Redington said, “happy and wagging his tail.”

Snowmobiler never caught

Authorities have not located the snowmobile driver who hit Redington’s team last January.

The crash happened on a routine nighttime training run last January on the Tri-County Corridor, near Redington’s Brule home where he trains 35 dogs. The 12 huskies wore blinking harnesses and Redington a headlamp on the trail that is largely a straightaway with wide visibility.

It was 40 miles into the run when Redington, who began racing sled dogs at age 5, suddenly saw a snowmobile racing directly toward him. Terrified that he was about to be hit, he tipped his sled over and off the trail. Wildfire and Willy, who were in front of Redington, weren’t so lucky. The snowmobile hit both dogs, leaving Willie with cuts and a bruised leg bone and Wildfire with a broken leg.

As Redington scrambled to check his dogs, the snowmobiler sped off without a word. Redington’s kennel partner, Sarah Keefer, came up behind him with her own team. They quickly called for help, Redington in tears. Another musher arrived with a truck to drive the dogs home, and Redington and Keefer headed to a vet in Duluth, who said Wildfire needed advanced surgery elsewhere. They called several other vets in the area, but no one could take him for weeks. One recommended the nonprofit Mission Animal Hospital in Eden Prairie, 200 miles away. The hospital could operate in two days.

‘The stars aligned’

News of Wildfire’s injuries spread far and quickly, and the tight-knit mushing community, together with a fundraising site, raised $40,000 to pay for the expensive surgery and eventual rehab. Between two surgeries totaling eight hours, Dr. Heather Hadley reconstructed and stabilized Wildfire’s femur and tibia by placing three plates and 26 screws.

With fractures and soft-tissue injuries, Hadley wasn’t sure of the outcome.

“Even if he were destined to a life snuggling on the couch, I would be worried,” she said. “But he’s an elite athlete, born to run, with the hopes and questions of ‘will he run again? Will he race again?’

With Redington planning to head to his hometown of Knik, Alaska, to train, Hadley, with Redington’s approval, took Wildfire to her home to recuperate.

The Hadley family had just lost one of its own dogs, and “the stars aligned,” she said.

Redington was at first reluctant to leave him behind, but he knew the boisterous dog — the most active he’s ever had — wouldn’t be able to sit still as his kennel mates prepared for runs. And Wildfire’s best chance to heal meant living a cushy, sedentary life indoors, something he’d never done.

“The expectations for home-care are really intense for this type of recovery,” Hadley said. “And we flipped his whole world upside down.”

The rehab was strict. No running, jumping or play for several weeks. Hadley and her husband first contained him with a large dog kennel, then a leash indoors, even alternating sleeping on the floor next to Wildfire the first few weeks to ensure he wouldn’t hurt himself. Outside, they used a body harness and a hindlimb sling.

Meanwhile Wildfire underwent a host of therapies, including hydrotherapy, (underwater treadmill walking). Eventually, controlled walks indoors moved to outdoor trails on a leash as the dog regained strength in his leg. While living and sleeping inside was new to Wildfire — sled dogs love the cold and traditionally sleep in outside shelters — he adjusted, becoming a couch snuggler with Hadley’s young daughters.

But the instinct to race was strong.

“He learned to anticipate the alarm and would jump paws up on the bed as if to say, ‘what are you waiting for? Let’s get up and go!'” Hadley said.

‘He blew us away’

In the spring, Hadley handed him off to Keefer, who also worked with Wildfire during his rehabilitation.

Keefer flew with him to Knik to rejoin Redington’s team. He spent time getting used to the other dogs and being harnessed again, eventually running in short trips. At one point toward the end of summer his injured leg began to bother him.

Hadley and her family vacationed in Alaska, and she saw Wildfire run. It was decided to remove two plates and associated screws to reduce the potential for cold sensitivity and irritation, a hazard for a sled dog who regularly endures sub-zero temperatures. By November, Wildfire began training a few miles at a time.

“Then it was up to 10, then 15, then 20,” Keefer said. “Each time he blew us away. He’d finish the run and he was the happiest dog, running around in his [kennel area] showing us he was ready to do more miles.”

A return to Beargrease

For Beargrease, Keefer will run a Redington team that includes Wildfire while Redington coaches and handles the dogs.

Redington, a two-time Beargrease champion whose children also mush, raced last year without Wildfire, and scratched early. He’s now prepping for his 16th Iditarod, a 1,000-mile race that travels from Anchorage to Nome. Founder Joe Redington, his grandfather, ran his final Iditarod at age 80. This year, potentially joined by Wildfire, Redington will mush against one of his father’s sled dog teams. Wildfire was one of six dogs that finished the 2021 Iditarod with Redington, who placed seventh.

Training conditions in Brule this winter have been ideal and Redington’s dogs are strong, he said, but it’s been a hard road back for the musher, too.

For several weeks after the incident, Redington had nightmares about snowmobiles crashing into the dogs. The roar of a high-speed machine is a sound he’s keenly aware of now, too.

“My dogs are my family,” Redington said. “I don’t want to relive anything like that again.”

Wildfire and his team, nearly a replica of the one involved in the crash, were all business on a recent 60-mile training day, unaffected by the passing snowmobiles along the trail.

The dogs seemed to relish the bounty from a recent snowfall, and it was easy for Redington to keep an 11-mph pace. Trotting steadily in their neon booties, the dogs gobbled snow on the fly and forged ahead.

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