COVID-19 took one of the Y-K Delta mushing community’s most beloved and helpful members, and a family’s loving father. The space left by Joe Demantle Jr. will be difficult to fill, but at times during the 2021 Bogus Creek 150 weekend, people said that it felt like he was still there.
The 2021 Bogus Creek 150 was dedicated to Tuluksak musher Joe Demantle Jr., who passed away from COVID-19 earlier in January. To remember him, Matt Scott was carrying Joe’s headlamp with him on the trail.
“I definitely felt like Joe was out there on the trail with us that evening. Every single person out there was feeling that Joe was with him on that race, I’m sure,” Scott said.
Jim George from Akiachak was the first musher to reach Akiak on Saturday, Jan. 30. As he went down the trail, he said that in his mind he was telling Joe he flew to Akiak like Joe would have wanted to.
“Cause he loved going fast,” George said.
As is the tradition to remember mushers who have passed, George pinned bib number 1 to his sled to honor Joe.
Demantle Jr. was known in the mushing community primarily for two traits, the first being his height. Longtime Kwethluk musher Max Olick said that it made it easier to spot Joe on the trail.
“I got poor eyesight, but I can recognize Joe from a mile away. He's the tallest of the mushers,” Olick said with a chuckle.
But mushers said that the one attribute that really defined Joe was his heart.
“He was just a really kind hearted, down-to-earth guy,” said Pete Kaiser.
“Joe was just always having a great time. I wanted to be like that, and I still want to be like that,” said Scott.
“He's just the kind of man that you like. You want to be around him,” said Bill Eisenbart.
On Jan. 29, the day before the Bogus Creek 150 began, Kaiser, Scott, and Eisenbart gathered at the entrance to the small boat harbor in Bethel. With them were hundreds of people whose lives Joe had touched in some way. They lined up along the ice road waiting to say goodbye to him.
A caravan of trucks arrived carrying Joe’s body. Kaiser, a former Iditarod champion, led his dog team in front of the caravan to send him off in style as Joe made his final journey up the Kuskokwim River.
At the mouth of the Tuluksak River, Joe's body was greeted by members of his community and his sons, Misha Demantle and Joseph Demantle III. They transferred Joe’s body onto a dog sled, and then the men and dogs he had raised pulled him the rest of the way home.
In Tuluksak, Joe had been much more than a musher.
“We’ll greatly miss him, but not forgot him for his improvements for Tuluksak,” said Willie Phillips, a former Tuluksak council member who worked closely with Joe.
Phillips said that Joe had a hand in everything in Tuluksak. He helped start a grocery store for the Tuluksak Native Corporation and rebuilt the corporation’s building. He helped secure a grant to build a new airport, and was the one who kept it plowed after it was built. When people needed to be medevaced, Joe was the one who would drive people to the plane at any hour of the night.
Joe’s daughter, Melissa Steven, said that’s just how her dad was.
“No act of kindness was too big or too small for him if it meant he was helping someone who needed it,” Steven said. “He was kind of like a father figure for everyone, was how I thought of it.”
Joe was as good to his family as he was to his community. Melissa said that he never raised his voice at his children. He taught her and her brothers to never repay meanness, and to be respectful to other people and to nature.
“In Yupik we say, Qanruyuteput: the things we’re supposed to live by. That’s what he taught me and my siblings,” Steven said.
She said that she misses her father’s gentle voice, his constant smile, and his laugh.
“It's that laugh that came from your stomach, like straight from your gut. You just start laughing along with him,” Steven described.
Steven was supposed to start mushing in some races this year under her father’s tutelage, but Joe tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of December 2020. His condition deteriorated rapidly, and he was medevaced to Anchorage at the start of January 2021. He was on a ventilator for three weeks, and he died on Jan. 24, late in the evening; he was 66 years old.
Steven said that the last words they said to each other were “I love you,” but they didn’t say goodbye.
“One of the things he always said to me, ‘It's not the end and we'll see each other again.’ That kinda keeps me going,” Steven said.
Steven said that even though it will be bittersweet, she still plans to mush in some races some time in the future. And she’ll be thinking of her dad the whole way.