ALASKA VILLAGE RACING EXPERIENCE
In the month of April, most mushers are stowing away their sleds, thinking about which dogs to breed, and switching from mukluks to rubber boots for the arrival of mud season. But in northern Alaska a little-known circuit of village sprint races is just getting started.The races are the main event of each village’s spring carnival, which features other events like basketball tournaments and snowmachine races. For the last five years I have managed to put together a mixed team of Iditarod, stage dogs and yearlings to try my luck in the last hurrah of the season. Getting to the villages is sometimes just as challenging as the races themselves. The races are centered around Kotzebue, which is serviced by most of the larger airlines. From there, I charter small Bush planes to get out to the surrounding villages. The flight costs quickly add up but the purses are good, ranging between $20,000 and $30,000 per weekend. Most of the money is raised through bingo and pulltabs, which have become a popular pastime in the villages. The first weekend in April is the Stephen Sampson Memorial Race in Noorvik, one of very few inland Eskimo villages located on the Kobuk River 60 miles east of Kotzebue (which is 200 miles north of Nome, just above the Arctic Circle). They were hosting a 3-day sprint race of 16 miles per day. I enjoyed the races two years ago and was looking forward to another fun weekend. The race is run in honor of Stephen Sampson, his oldest son, Wilbur, and Alfred Wells. In the mid-40s, Sampson was the first Eskimo to run the North American Championships in Fairbanks and he placed second. He brought along Wilbur and Wells, who both later went on to win the North American (Wilbur in ’55, and Alfred in ’58). At that time, the North American was as important to Alaskans as the Iditarod is today. It was still a predominantly Native sport, dominated by the village teams that would use the same dogs they worked and traveled with to run races. Villages would pool the best dogs and pick the best driver to represent the community. The winner of the race was an instant hero whose name was forever tied to their victory. Now the dog races are regarded as a celebration of their past, as the dog teams have long since been replaced by snowmachines. The race was a real hit with the older generation who watched and cheered excitedly from the banks of the river in front of town. The elders had lots of stories of the old mushing legends from their village. The race organizers made a big last-minute fund-raising effort and came up with a $20,000 purse. The race was advertised on www.Sleddogcentral.com and I thought for sure a lot of teams would show up from outside the area. As it turned out, Bill Kornmueller, a top sprinter from Willow, Alaska, and I were the only drivers who flew in. There were only four other teams that showed up; two from Kotzebue who snowmachined in their teams using dog haulers (a large, open-topped, plywood box mounted on skis that 14-18 dogs can ride in), one from Ambler, 100 miles upriver, and one from Noorvik. Getting to the Villages is sometimes just as challenging as the races themselves.I stayed with Bobby Wells, son of the late Alfred Wells. He had lots of great stories about growing up with dogs. Today, village children have more in common with suburban children than their ancestors; they are more interested in basketball, Game Boys, rap music and TV. Their native language has steadily faded but is now in a resurgence, as it is a common elective taken by students. Many of the older generation still speak a mix of English and Inupiat, and I found myself the subject of many jokes that were spoken partly in English with the punch line being said in Inupiat. The punch line would hit and everyone would laugh at me. I’d turn a little red and someone would always explain the joke in English. They are a wonderfully fun and good-natured group of people that enjoy teasing and laughing, and their hospitality was endless. We watched a cool movie called “The Fast Runner.” It’s made up in Igloolik in the far north of Canada. It was a story about the old Eskimos that was really well done with very accurate historical clothing, customs and ways of living featured. I had only seen the movie one other time the last time I was in Noorvik. It was all done in Canadian Inupiat language with subtitles. Several of the Wells’ friends showed up and reminisced while watching the movie about the old ways, comparing the Canadian customs to their own. Bobby’s cousin told a story about an old Shaman when he was a kid that would shoot an arrow across the sky that would come back and hit him, narrowly missing bone and lodging deep into his shoulder. If the feathers of the arrow had lots of caribou blood and hair on it they would take off that direction in hunt of the caribou, otherwise they would head the other way. It was a great place to be a fly on the wall.The race went off pretty well. I did a little better than I had thought I would, placing in second place all three days behind Kornmueller. As a send-off they had a nice banquet and feast. The next weekend was the Arctic Circle Championships in Kotzebue. It’s a 3-day race of 25 miles per day all held out on the sea ice in front of town. I was hoping for a blizzard to slow Kornmueller down as well as some of the other true sprinters who were rumored to show up. I’ve run this race three other times, placing 3rd once and 2nd twice. The trophies are always beautiful here. One year the trophies were carved out of ivory with Scrimshaw etching. Last year’s trophies were little hand-tied miniature dog sleds. This year they were made out of jade from one of the local mines. All outside mushers are put up with host families. I’ve stayed all five years with Paul and Margaret Hanson, who have become good friends over the years. Paul and his family have a small kennel and run the sprint races, which makes a lot of the logistics for me much easier. I mail dog food up a week in advance, which saves me lots of money in freight when flying the team from Fairbanks into Kotzebue. Paul always picks me up with his dog hauler at the airport and there’s a great spot to tie out 16 dogs right next to his house.I ran the Kobuk 440 in 2002 and was amazed at the village support and hospitality we received. I had never seen so many villagers out to watch a dog race as when we arrived for the 440, not even in the Iditarod. The same weekend as Arctic Circle, the Kotzebue Dog Musher’s Association was hosting the Kobuk 440. The 440 is a grueling mid-distance race that runs up the Kobuk River to the village of Kobuk and back to Kotzebue via Selawik. KDMA is a very active dog club, also funded by the local bingo players. Each year they pay out more than $120,000 in prize money throughout their race season. The spring races are weighted heaviest, with $25,000 set aside for the Arctic Circle and $55,000 for the Kobuk 440. The competition is always stiff in the 440 with top local teams of Ed Iten, John Baker and Louie Nelson racing. Other teams that flew in in 2005 include Jeff King, Lance Mackey, Dave Monson, Ramey Smyth and Jacques Phillip. I ran the 440 in 2002 and was amazed at the village support and hospitality we received. I had never seen so many villagers out to watch a dog race as when we arrived for the 440, not even in the Iditarod. In Selawik, a village most mushers stay only a few hours, it seemed the whole town was packed into the community hall that had a huge buffet of food that was reserved for mushers and elders. Whenever a musher would enter the room to grab a bite to eat, the whole room would erupt in applause. I remember it being a huge mental boost that helped get my sore body back on the runners for the 85-mile push to the finish line. Kotzebue is known for its tumultuous weather. As a musher coming to a sprint race with a team trained for longer distances, I had always welcomed the storms that usually served as an equalizer, giving the longer-trained teams at least a chance to race with the speedsters. But in 2005, the weather was perfect and Kornmueller ran away with it again. The other sprinters rumored to show up never made it and I placed second, just ahead of the local teams. Jeff King put together a great run on one of the best trails the 440 had seen in years. I watched most of the 440 teams finish and was really impressed at how well the dogs looked after running 440 miles on only 20 hours of minimum mandatory rest. The next weekend I chartered a Cessna 206 out to Shishmaref, a tiny barrier island on the Chuckchi Sea. This would be my third time to Shish and I really enjoy it there. The folks are super nice, especially the Nayokpuks whom I stay with. Herbie Nayokpuk is a retired Iditarod racer who was a real Alaskan hero in his time. He came close to winning the race several times in the ‘80s. A big Eskimo with a huge smile and a quick wit, he’s also legendary for his ivory carvings. Shish is probably the coolest village I’ve ever been to. We had an awesome plane ride going over even though we were totally overloaded in the Cessna 206. The gross payload for the 6-seater aircraft is 1,000 pounds. I started doing a little math in my head when we got to the terminal in Kotzebue and suggested to the pilot that we weigh everything to make sure. He reluctantly did so, I think more to satisfy my concern than for his. I was shocked to see that everything weighed in at 1,400 pounds. I was amazed when the pilot shrugged it off and told me “If we can get it in the aircraft, I can fly ‘er”. We removed the back seats and started piling straw, dog food, buckets, chains, harnesses and my sled in the center of the aircraft, leaving about 8 inches of floor space around the outside of this floor-to-ceiling pile of gear for the dogs. Right about dog number 12 of the 16 that were going, the tricycle-gear airplane tipped backwards, landing hard on its tail. The tail had a thin metal brace designed to stop such a fall to protect the tail rudder and body of the craft. The brace looked pretty banged up already and I was surprised to see the pilot hardly take notice and keep piling dogs in. Flying to Noorvik I had taken a 207, which is the 7-seater version of the 206 with a slightly larger cargo area that still had a 1,000-pound payload. I thought we were tight in the 207. After we shoehorned the last dog in and got the door slammed shut, two big mechanics came out and muscled the tail back up so we could quickly climb in. When we got in the pilot yelled back to the mechanics, asking if the plane was going to keep horizontal. They let go and I felt us tip back slightly, perched warily in a nose-up configuration. The mechanics gave the thumbs up and the pilot fired the motor, which slowly brought the nose back down just enough so we could see over the dash. As we taxied out to the tarmac I asked the pilot if the FAA doesn’t have strict standards on weight limits. He didn’t exactly answer my question but rather said “if we adhered to all the rules up here, nothing would get done”. That made me a bit nervous.... “Thank God the Kotzebue airstrip is so long”, I thought. Amazingly, it only took about a fourth of the airstrip for us to lift off. As the pilot got settled in I asked him what the most amount of weight was he’s carried in that aircraft. When he told me “1,650 pounds” I didn’t feel quite so nervous any more.After flying out to Noorvik, the dogs were amazingly well behaved and quiet on our 9-hour flight across Kotzebue Sound and along the shoreline out to Shishmaref. The pilot kept us low, at around 500 feet above the ice. The ice was very jumbled but I couldn’t see any open water. A few times I spotted some young ice, a smooth area that was obviously a recently frozen lead. These patches of young ice usually had small cracks where I could see seals laying there sunning themselves in the long daylight hours. A couple of times the pilot circled down and we flew right over them to get a closer look. We also saw a herd of about 40 caribou and another group of 15 muskox. When we flew over the muskox, I could see them all jump up and form a circle, which is the known technique of defending themselves. As we hit Cape Espenberg and flew along the coastline, every once in a while I would spot a single snowmachine track and wonder what it would be like to be out in that stark, desolate country all by yourself on a snowmachine. I feel much safer driving a dog team. Every now and then we’d see tiny plywood shacks here and there that serve as shelter cabins for travelers and hunters. When we landed, several snowmachines had pulled up to greet us and help us get to Herbie’s. When I opened my passenger-side door, about three dogs piled out, dangling by their short drop-chains that I had connected to various spots on my sled. When I opened the side cargo door about five more dogs sprang out as well. None of the locals there had a hauler, so we just strung my line out and hitched the dogs right up to the sled and ran them from the airport to Herbie’s place, only about a mile away. Herbie and his family were all smiles as usual and it felt like I had just left yesterday. I arrived just after they had eaten a meal of Eskimo food, as they call it, which consisted of muktuk (whale fat) and black meat (dried seal) all smothered in seal oil. The first time we came to Shishmaref, my wife Gwen really did me in. She loves Eskimo food, which made her an instant hit in town. She took the lead in the race on the second day (being the first woman ever to lead that race) and that night all of Herbie’s wife’s friends came over and they made a huge bowl of Eskimo ice cream. They made it the old way, with berries, some sugar, seal oil and dried caribou fat, all whipped and stirred by hand…meaning with their fingers. I sunk further and further in the corner as Gwen gulped down bowl after bowl. I’ve never really liked fish anyways and seal oil is like fish times 100. Ever since then they always get a kick out of telling me my wife is tougher than me because I don’t eat Eskimo food. Last year I went out on a limb and tried a little bit, eating some muktuk, caribou tongue soup and rings or walrus intestine. This year I tried to stay as politely far away from the Eskimo food as possible. The one thing I didn’t mind though was muktuk. The outer skin is about a half inch thick with the rubbery consistency of an all-season radial, while the pink inside is pure fat. However, it doesn’t taste fishy at all. Shishmaref is the longest of the races, with three 36-mile heats. Most of the outside sprinters usually call it a season after Kotzebue, but it’s an interesting event when sprinters and distance racers compete together. Usually a few distance teams fly in from Nome. Joe Garnie, a famous Iditarod racer from Teller, often runs his team in the 70 miles from his village a few days before the race and always seems to manage a top showing. I was the only musher from the Arctic Circle Championships to fly in. With Kornmueller out of the picture, we managed to end the season on a high note with a win. Nils Hahn from Nome edged out the local sprinters on the last day with his steady Iditarod team to finish second place. After the dog races, basketball and the nightly bingo games, the highlight of the weekend was watching the Eskimo dancing. In Eskimo culture, the dancing was a traditional way of story telling and passing on legends from generation to generation. It was slowly dying out until about 15 years ago when a group of Chukchi Eskimos from Russia sailed their boats over to Wales, through Shishmaref, and on to Kotzebue for a mid-summer gathering. Along the way they stayed in Shishmaref and shared their dancing with the community. After that, the younger generation has taken more of an interest in reviving the dancing and I was happy to see that most of the dancers there were younger than 35 years old. I watched for hours the graceful movements to the beat of the skin drum and the chanting of the singers. None of it made any sense to me, other than it seemed quite powerful and that everyone really seemed to enjoy themselves. I had a feeling though, especially since I was the only non-local and the winner of the race, that I would be asked to dance. Sure enough, towards the end of the night, one of the dancers made an announcement that the winner of the dog race was present but hadn’t danced yet. The crowd gave a cheer as my face turned apple-red. I obliged, though and put on their traditional pair of gloves and got out in front of everyone to shake my stuff. I kept beat with the drum but didn’t know what exactly to do with my feet. I probably looked like I was trying to stomp out a fire…a little one. Being a relative newcomer to the sport, this circuit offers a glimpse into what dog racing used to be like. It harkened back to the days when the top dog racers were heroes. The outside mushers, especially, were treated like kings in all of the villages. I had won the race in Shishmaref last year and was amazed when many of the locals, whom I had never met, knew my name and even knew some of my dogs’ names. After Shishmaref the dogs and I were ready to get back home to Fairbanks, which was enjoying warm temperatures (the warmest it was on the whole trip was 15 above). But no matter anxious I was to get back home and put an end to a long season, it’s always hard to say good-bye to the region.Ken Anderson and his wife Gwen Holdmann live in Fairbanks, Alaska. They compete in many mid- and long-distance races.