As part of his vision for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Joe Redington, Sr. wanted to celebrate the indigenous people of Alaska who had dog teams as a way of life. On the race route, Nikolai is the first native Alaskan village.
An Athabascan community, Nikolai is rich in history and long in family lines. When Joar Leifseth Ulsom arrived early Tuesday, Darryl Petruska, the first chief of the Nikolai Edzeno’ Tribal Council presented some gifts from the community. One was a blanket donated by Alaska Air Transit, an Iditarod sponsor, and the other a stunning pair of beaver mitts, hand crafted by Oline Petruska, the grandmother of Darryl. Another pair of mitts will be given to the last musher through Nikolai. While these aren’t official Iditarod awards, they testify to the commitment and connection Nikolai has to the race.
I had the honor of spending some time with Sammy John. Sammy takes great pride in his position as an elder. He grew up around Crooked Creek having 40 dogs of his own at one time. He hunted and trapped. He worked at the Naknek Cannery before he settled in Nikolai in 1961 and became a school maintenance worker, substitute teacher, substitute cook, and anything else they needed him to do, he says with a smile.
The area is rich in natural resources. From marten, wolf, beaver, otter, moose, and sheep to King Salmon, pike, sheefish, and whitefish. And never forget the berries: salmon berries, cranberries, and blueberries.
Sammy’s wealth of information is unique and broad. He tells me that it is his job now to tell stories, entertaining stories for sure, but stories much deeper and more meaningful with long-lasting effects.
In his words, “If you want a better way, a better life, pass it on.” And he is willing to talk to anyone because it is that important to him.
What can he pass on? How to build your own house, how to build your own sled, how to make snowshoes and fish traps, and …
He said he is retired, but at 85 years old he still works to make Nikolai better. Remembering when elders would go house to house passing on “how to grow up”, Sammy wants to give the tools and wisdom he has to anyone who wants to hear it.
He leaves us with this message, “Go forward. Be happy.”
Oline Ticknor was born in the area. She loves Nikolai, remembering fondly how the kids were outside all the time helping fish, hunt, and pick berries.
She recalled spring carnivals when visitors would come from all around for dancing in the community building. “It was packed,” she said smiling dreamily at the memory. And she loved the “starring” that happened at Christmas; groups would carry the star from house to house singing and praying. They were able to eat at every house, or collect the food in a Ziploc to take home for later.
Iditarod Trail Committee is thankful for the communities that open their doors to the race each year and hopes they know that the race is meant to honor their history and influence on the Alaskan way of life.