Beloved Tuluksak musher dies of COVID-19

A dog sled team leads some cars on a snowy road.
Former Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser mushes ahead of the truck carrying Joe Demantle Jr.’s body home to Tuluksak. Jan. 29, 2021 in Bethel, Alaska. (John McDonald)

COVID-19 took one of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta mushing community’s most beloved and helpful members, and a family’s loving father, when Tuluksak musher Joe Demantle Jr. died in January.

The 2021 Bogus Creek 150 dog sled race was dedicated to Demantle Jr. Friends and family said it felt like he was still there. To remember him, Matt Scott carried Joe’s headlamp with him on the trail.

“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 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 traditional to remember mushers who’ve passed, George pinned bib No. 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 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 the 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,” Bill Eisenbart said.

On Jan. 29, the day before the Bogus Creek 150 began, Kaiser, Scott, and Eisenbart gathered at the entrance of 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 Joe off in style as he 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 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 Joe had a hand in everything in Tuluksak. He helped start a grocery store for the Tuluksak Native Corporation, and to fix their 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. Steven said 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 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,” she said. 

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. His condition deteriorated rapidly, and he was medevaced to Anchorage at the beginning of 2021. He was on a ventilator for three weeks, and died on Jan. 24, late in the evening. He was 66. 

Steven said 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 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.

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