December 14, 2018

Eye on the Trail: Craftsmen Mushers in McGrath

Perhaps it’s by necessity but mushers seem to be very ingenious people who are good at designing and building things. In the checkpoint are two such mushers who have interesting stories.

Al Eischens and his wife Tanjela operate Cable 17. It’s a sewing and embroidery company named after a dog, Cable, and the fact with the machines they have, they can have 17 needles sewing at one time. Al makes his own sleds and Tanjela sews sled bags. They also do digitizing and embroidery. A specially designed pocket for the SPOT Tracker is right up front on Eischens’ sled bag. Iditarod requires mushers to carry the SPOT. Normally the SPOT is slipped into a bootie and then pinned to the sled bag. It’s not just one but also a second for backup. Cable 17 has created a mesh zipper pocket to slip the SPOT into. No pins necessary, just turn them on, slide them in and zip the pocket shut.

Al is an encyclopedia when it comes to all things sleds and sled dogs. Out of a drop bag he fetched a can that looked like tuna fish. He popped the top and asked if I wanted some cat food. Cat Food? Al claims that if you have a dog that’s not eating, just offer it cat food and the problem will be solved. There are plenty of other mushers who swear by the same trick and pack a couple cans of cat food in drop bags going out to checkpoints.

Jason Stewart and Meredith Mapes were chatting. Meredith was trading out sleds. She was going from a tail dragger to a traditional sled that would allow her to run and push up hills which is very difficult with a tail dragger. Turns out the sled she was switching to was built by Jason Stewart. Jason who likes to tinker and build has rebuilt many sleds over time but has also spent a year as an apprentice with traditional sled builder Bernie Willis. Stewart has taken over building Willis type traditional sleds. One could say he builds Willis inspired Stewart Sleds.

Willis sleds have a reputation of being extremely functional and durable. As a testament to the Willis sled, Jason is running a twenty-year-old Willis sled previous owned by Mike Owens, Jason’s father-in-law.

Willis’ wife, Jeanette has designed and fashioned sled bags to go with the sleds Bernie Built. Jason’s wife, Melissa (Owens) is doing the same. She has an industrial Singer sewing machine. With plenty of mushing experience, she knows what needed in sled bags for ease of use and function as well as what works in ice and snow, what’s aerodynamic and what’s durable. The Stewarts are carrying the Willis business forward into the future. Jason is extremely happy to have worked with Bernie to learn the trade. Likewise, Bernie and Jeannette must be extremely happy to know their passion for sled systems is in good hands for the future.

Another innovation that’s showing up here in McGrath is ski skins. There are a few different designs of the wide short ski that helps the front of the sled to float over deep snow rather than plow into it. Meredith was showing Jason a pair. Eischens had a pair on his sled. Travis Beals left the start line with a pair. From trail reports of soft sugary snow, the skins might have proved useful. Like all inventions, if it’s around next year, it would be considered a success.