September 25, 2018

Thanking Tanana

Tanana Checkpoint Iditarod 2017

Tom Hyslop proudly points to his checkpoint sign

“It’s 36,” a friend tells Tom Hyslop, who just threw a tarp over raked dog straw with the help of another local volunteer.

That means 36 degrees below zero. The morning sun shines brightly on this south-facing village on the Yukon River, nestled about a mile downriver from the confluence of the Tanana River, but its warmth has yet to arrive.

The ruff on the hat Tom’s wife sewed him is frosty from his breath, but it keeps Tom warm. He is able to withstand the below-freezing temperature better than my AAA battery-powered recorder, so we step under the “Welcome to Tanana” sign he asked local friends to make, and move inside the checkpoint to chat. Musher gear hangs from every inch of the drying rack Tom crafted in preparation for a previous Iditarod routed through Tanana.

At this point, I’ve been a guest in the village for over 36 hours and I’ve yet to be in the checkpoint at a time when Tom was not. He’s helped a satellite technician fix a broken extension cord, procured a pallet for the same man to build a base for the dish, raked the dog yard at 40 below, and helped set up the community center for the “Lakefront First to the Yukon Award” banquet. And that’s just what I’ve noticed.

Tanana dog yard Iditarod

Tom and another local volunteer throw a tarp over a large pile of raked dog straw

Tom is shy to boast his own efforts but quickly commends the local women for cooking and delivering food to the checkpoint several times a day. I think back to the king salmon and moose stew I savored two nights before. In a few hours, these volunteers will bring in trays of cooked sausage, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, and more. I recognize this welcoming gesture from my Midwestern roots, but in a community where everything has to be fished, hunted, or flown in, this collective effort feels much larger.

Stan Zuray, known from reality TV’s Yukon Men, is another person for whom Tom expresses deep gratitude. Stan used a loader and a drag behind a cab to smooth out the dog parking area and spent long hours breaking trail in and out of town. “He worked eight hours a day and broke the trail 28 miles on his snow machine and he was out there all day!” he applauds. The volunteer list seems endless, though the village is home to fewer than 300 people.

“There’s quite a few people here that support dog mushing,” he nods.

“You know at one time we had probably the second or third largest sprint race in Alaska,” he explains. “Back in the early ‘70s, it used to be on the radio.” For Tom, a former mid-distance race musher, the race’s success was an extension of that era’s deeply woven relationship between dogs and people. “People used dogs for trapping and going up to spring camp. I’ve been out to spring camp to hunt geese, muskrat, beaver; fish for pike in the spring––and dogs were a part of it.” They were so used to running in open water, ice, glare ice––it was a good experience for me.” The lifestyle produced high caliber dogs as evidenced by racing success. “There’s such a long history of champion dog mushers that came out of Tanana,” he recalls. “So there’s a little bit of it left.”

Iditarod 2017 Tanana, Alaska

Ralph Johannessen takes a break in front of the drying rack Tom built for the Iditarod mushers

Today there are perhaps seven sprint dog teams in Tanana. Two years ago when the Iditarod last routed through Tanana, the village raised five hundred dollars to award to the first team into Tanana. Martin Buser, the recipient, donated it right back to the local mushing club––a gesture that would have made Joe Redington, the father of the Iditarod, proud. As a lifestyle supported by dog teams seemed to be fading into history, Joe Redington created the “last great race” in an effort to secure a place for sled dogs in modern day Alaska. In Tanana, Buser’s gesture appeared as an extension of Redington’s vision in a village that once flourished with dog teams.

This year, the Lakefront Hotel First to the Yukon Award banquet flooded the community center with more people than the little building had ever seen before. The village itself showed support by honoring the recipient, Nicolas Petit, with the chief’s necklace.

For Tom, the race is entertainment that breaks up the monotony of winter and brings people together as a community. Yet, given the village’s history, the value seems to run much deeper.

Tom Hyslop Tanana, Alaska

Tom Hyslop takes a well-deserved break from volunteering

Since 1934, the village has hosted a spring carnival with dog races as its centerpiece. Mushers like George Attla, Marvin Kokrines, Charlie Boulding, and Shannon Erhart, and Joe Redington raced here. “Tanana was a sled dog mecca because of the salmon,” Insider Joe Runyan, a former Tanana resident, later explains. Indeed, Tom’s life is evidence of that. “It’s a funny thing,” Tom says. “I still wish I could race, but that’s all it is: a wish.” 

Tom’s ability to mobilize local volunteers with the help of people like Pat Moore, Jeanette Roberts, and Stan Zuray, indicates the passion for dog mushing is still alive in Tanana. From welcoming a steady stream of mushers and volunteers into their community center as a checkpoint, to opening the Teen Center for the Insider team, to the warmth of individuals who provided housing for out-of-town volunteers, the Iditarod Insider thanks Tanana for its hospitality and wishes success in the upcoming Yukon River Championship Sled Dog Race!

Fish Wheels on the Yukon River in Tanana

Fish Wheels on the Yukon River in Tanana

 

To see the Nicolas Petit and the chief’s necklace at the Lakefront Hotel First to the Yukon Award banquet, follow the link below:

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