As the Kuskokwim 300 prepares for its 2021 race, the recent passing of Joe Demantle, Jr. is a sobering reminder of the impact this pandemic has had on life in the Kuskokwim Delta.
Joe was a strong supporter of the K300 right from the race’s first year in 1980. His family opened their home in Tuluksak as a checkpoint in the early years of the race, and Joe was there the first time the race showed up on a bitterly cold night. For him, the race was like the circus that came to his front yard. Despite temperatures about -45 that night, Joe went from team to team with high excitement as some of the big names of racing showed up. It was clear he intended to become a racer after that night, and he did, taking part in the race in 1985 when he became Rookie of the Year. He later went on to compete in numerous shorter races, including in 2020 until the race season was shut down by Covid-19. He planned to race this year, but was not able to because of quarantine. His final text to the race committee from a few weeks ago ought to bring tears to anyone who knew Joe. He wrote to say he was sad to miss the first race of the season:
“Really wished I could have but my quarantine will be over the 8th. But my mind will be with all of you, hope you guys have a great start…keep up your good works with this greatest of sports.”
Joe’s loss to Covid makes it clear that the disease can kill even the strongest members of our community. He was a vigorous and healthy person, actively involved in outdoor activities. He was well known for his ability to deal with the harsh conditions along the Kuskokwim River. He would often show up for races dressed for a trip to the grocery store. He would wear a jacket and hat, with no parka, even in the coldest of temperatures, and often he would remove the hat after a few miles of racing. He sometimes raced in tennis shoes. He was always happy while racing, and was very competitive, winning many races over the years.
One episode from that first race illustrates his ability to deal with the weather. On the first night of the 1980 race, the wind picked up and drove the windchill to unheard of levels, and a rookie racer named Dee Jonrowe headed out from Tuluksak for her first encounter with such conditions. It didn’t go well, and she ended up stalled on the river at the back of the pack. A blizzard hit and the snow stacked up around her sled, where she was tucked into her sleeping bag to wait out the storm. She was reported missing on the trail, and when I raced into Aniak, I was contacted from Bethel as race chairman to determine what to do. Someone suggested she was maybe camping on the trail. I had just come through the storm and knew no sane person would camp voluntarily in that mess. It was mid-afternoon, and Dee had been gone from Tuluksak for many hours. I urged sending a crew from Tuluksak to find her. Joe was in the crew that headed out. They searched the trail with no sign of Dee. Then totally by accident one of the snow machines bumped into her sled completely covered with snow just before darkness. Dee was rescued in the nick of time, after 16 hours in her sleeping bag, and taken to Tuluksak.
The following year another storm hit during the race, and when the teams arrived back in Kalskag on their return to Bethel, the trail was covered with a foot of new soft snow. No one wanted to break trail, so the teams stacked up in Kalskag. An enduring memory of that wait is the image of George Attla and Susan Butcher sleeping on the pool table at the community hall, side-by-side. The wait ended when Joe showed up at about 5 am with his basketball team, arriving for a tourney that night. They heard there was no trail so they started their trip in the middle of the night to make a trail for the racers. I recall him entering the checkpoint and announcing “There’s a trail out there guys.”
I can’t relate the number of times Joe has aided the race, but whenever there was an issue in the Tuluksak area I called Joe. He used to buy dogs from me, and I never charged market value for those animals because he was such a good guy. I have never encountered anyone that would claim otherwise. In addition to his mushing skills, Joe was an excellent basketball player and a community leader. Joe leaves a hole in the Kuskokwim 300 family and in the Kuskokwim River community.
Many times when Joe was introduced at race functions he would thank the Kuskokwim 300 race committee and would sometimes personally thank me for my involvement. I don’t know if I ever personally thanked Joe when it was my turn at the microphone other than a blanket thanks to all of our race volunteers. But now, from the K300 and me, thank you Joe, and Happy Trails!
- Myron Angstman, K300 Race Committee Chairman
Photo credit: Joe Joe Prince