March 10 Huslia 11am
AFter an internet hiatus, we are back on line from the very beautiful, remote, village of Huslia. ONe can be lulled into an assumption that Huslia is interconnected by a local backroad highway because of the immediacy of communication, but in fact this community is quite independent of the world in its secure far north location. The Koyukuk river runs by the village, a gateway to abundant resources of big game, fur animals, fish, logs, and a wilderness lifestyle. Children with abundant energy investigate the arriving dog teams, and it seems every adult is an authority figure, “Hey, step away from the dogs while the musher is busy,” as if the entire village of adults seems to beinvolved in monitoring.
Now to the Mushers
A first stop for a true fan is the community hall and a wonderful buffet. Here I encounter mushers, a group of sage village elders, notably a good friend of mushing, Larry WEstlake from the Kobuk country. Larry is acting as honorary judge in Husia and has been a tireless ambassador for the tradition of dog mushing in Alaska. Fans might remember a photo of George Attlas team in a previous article and note that Larry Westlake was a contributor to that team.
With Mitch Seavey at one end of the table consuming eggs and potatoes, musher Jason Mackey on his first cup of coffee, and musher JOhn Baker perusing the time sheets, Larry and Huslia elder and long time musher Warner Vent recounted stories from their childhood when dog teams perforrmed the necessay work of hauling wood, checking the trapline and even pulling boats upstream. “I enjoyed training leaders,” Larry begins, and tells us about JOhny, one of George Attlas (the legendary Huslia musher) memorable leaders who would literrally jump left or right on a whisper of command to go GEE or HAW.
Apparently a little white pup, probably too small for a stouter freight team, became the pet of 8 year old Larry WEstlake. As the youngest son he gained preferential treatment from his Mother. “WEll, if Larry wants the pup, let him keep it as a pet” she told his older brothers. Instead, the white pup became the snappy leader JOhnny of George Attla. “He worked so hard in the lead he was good for only 20 miles. George would often pack him in the sled on a thirty mile race, put him in the team to finish the last 20 miles.”
Eating breakfast at this table of story tellers we find the race leader Mitch SEavey. He muses out loud that his son Dallas is willing to travel slower, waiting for the final runs of the race to unleash his teams. But he enjoys the greater speed and will consider his rotational strategy if the trail is slow going. “The best is to rotate dogs on a good fast trail. On a good trail you can cruise along.” ASked about his travelling speed on the trail from Galena to Huslia, Mitch recounted that his dogs hit a stretch of hard trail, and relieved of that constant drag of loose snow, began barking while they were pulling. It takes discipline to slow a team so motivated.
John Baker, from the huge tract of wilderness known for the Kobuk River, sits at the table. Huslia residents of the Koyukuk River introduce themselves to the 2011 champ and youngsters dutifully come forward to shake his hand. He asks where the mushers are sleeping and a good place to dry his clothes, all questions quickly answered by the Huslia locals. Of course, he is a huge local favorite. JOhn is also known in this community because of his efforts to establish programs to positively encourage youth in the village to pursue their dreams, providing solid, practical, pathways to financing for education and on the job experience. In fact, John and his brother Andy have received substantial public and private funding to put their programs into action. He is widely respected in these far north villages for leveraging his Iditarod notoriety into functioning programs that benefit these remote artic communities.
Jason Mackey is taking his 24 hour break, just sitting down as Larry WEstlake and entourage finsih breakfast. I shift my attention to Jason’s race. I know his DAd , Idiarod champ Dick Mackey, and his older brother , Ric Mackey , also a champ and my neighbor when I lived in Nenana, and of course his brother the Incredible Lance Mackey, the 4x Iditarod champ. Jason is the youngest of the brothers and now running a team to include 7 from Lance and 9 from his own kennel.
Jason and Lance are very close. In fact, it can be said that Jason dedicated his race in 2015 to the joint efforts of he and Lance to finish the race in brutal conditions of fifty below temperatures. Lance’s hands, very much compromised by radiation treatments for cancer, put him at a real disadvantage in this very difficult race. Jason, as a musher in the race, was allowed by the rules to travel with Lance. With the two working closely together, the brothers moved up the trail with a goal to finish.
This year Lance is not running the race, and is attending to his tour business. Hopefully, he can perfect some strategies to keep his hands warm and compete again in 2018.
Jason is to the front of the pack, running a very disciplined race. Jason, talkig about the close bond between his brother Lance and he, related, “He sent me a text just at the start. He said if I felt a little down just ask, “What should I do, Lance?” He told me that he would answer. It’s crazy, but he is really helping me get to Nome.” Jason consumed another mouthful of breakfast, “A lot of fun this race. Great dog team. My goal is top 20 and I think I can do it.”
Arguably, Nicolas may be considered as having one of the fastest, maybe the fastest, team on the trail at this MOMENT. He was giving his team dog Rastra a rub down for a sore shoulder when I found him at this dogs.
Nicolas Petit is on his 24 hour break, and in the balmy 20f temperature and bright sun, is checking on his dogs. He will put each on a leash for a little limber up walk. Rastra, seen above in photo, demonstrated a sore shoulder on the run from Galena and given a ride into Huslia. “She’s getting a rub down and I bet she’ll be ok after the 24 hour to go with the team,” comments Nicolas. Sure enough, he leashes her and walks about the area, seeming to have worked out the soreness. If Rastra sticks with the team, he may well leave with the complement of 16 in the team.
Petit gave a demonstration of leader control last night when he manuveured the team into its present location by dramatically directing his leaders in a circle around the dog yard and than easing in against a protective boundary fence. He will be considered a front contender when he departs later tonight. Can his team maintain speed? “I am just pushing the snowball down the hill,” he says, in reference to his strategy of resting and then launching on raucous fast runs with his animated dog team.
Huslia hospitality is off the charts. This community has provided guests of the Iditarod a generous welcome. I n the above photo a Huslia volunteer chops wood for a cooker that provides boiling water for the mushers. AT 20F, with bright sun, race fans walk leisurely about the checkpoint without gloves, adjusting sun glasses, moving slowly to investigate the resting dog teams and their very attentive mushers.