FAIRBANKS — George Albert and his friend, George “Butch” Yaska of Huslia, are among the last Athabascans to build snowshoes, a once-indispensable tool for a nomadic life in the far North. Aging snowshoe creators include Gwich’in Simon Francis of Chalkyitsik and Nikolai Dena’ina elder Nick Dennis, slowed today by arthritis.
Albert’s former companion, Eileen McGlynn, was the first to tell him that he was a master artist. He answered her, “No one has ever told me that before,” even though from childhood he’d been supplying collectors like Harold Esmailka with “Albert artifacts.”
George Albert was born to Phillip Albert Sr. and Justine Demoski Albert in 1951 and raised in Kokrines and Ruby. Kokrines, on the north bank of the Yukon River, became an Army Signal Corps telegraph station that connected Nulato and Tanana in 1909. When a roadhouse and supply depot were built, the Koyukon Athabascan of Mouse Point moved to a nearby hill by a creek. In 1911, Albert’s great-grandfather, Big Albert, was one of the band chiefs.
George Albert grew up trapping and fishing up the Nowitna River and at Kokrines. In the Native way, his father didn’t teach his sons skills but rather they absorbed by observation. They also learned by trial and error.
In the late 1970s, George Albert desperately wanted snowshoes to race, but there were none. He tried steam-bending his own snowshoe frames, but he wasn’t sure of the next step. He went to Agnes Titus and asked her to fill the frames. After she did, he studied her design, then he spent years perfecting the fill’s tightness, using babiche — rawhide thongs — and then twine.
A quiet, ponytailed man with a chiseled, angular jaw, Albert enjoys bending, sanding and filling snowshoe frames. For years, his craft has helped support him and his son, Vernon.
The strength and gentleness required for bending a birch frame without splintering it impressed the managing editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, who wrote, after watching a video of Albert in 2011, that it took “great feats of strength.”
In 2010, George Albert was named an Athabascan Living Cultural Treasure by the Alaska State Council on the Arts; the council included his snowshoes in its lending collection.
The following year, Albert made caribou babiche snowshoes as well as creating a 21-inch set of shoes for a raffle. When four-time Iditarod race winner Martin Buser asked him to build snowshoes based on race-size regulations, he did. That year, Ruby was also celebrating 100 years since its founding, so McGlynn dubbed them the “Ruby Centennial Snowshoes.”
At 61, Albert has retired from decades of competing in long-distance snowshoe races, to the relief of his younger competitors.
Years ago, journalist Craig Medred lamented the decline of the foot-powered Native athlete in the villages. He referred to Albert’s brother, the late Howard Albert, running on his snowshoes next to his dog team.
Ironically, there is now an effort to get snowshoe racing into the Olympics. Using wooden snowshoes in the Arctic Winter Games has long been a tradition for circumpolar youth.
Master craftsmen have encouraged Albert to increase his prices, but he keeps them moderate so villagers can afford a pair of “George Alberts.”
Albert is a lone wolf personality who has lived on his hard-gained talents in a solitary way for decades. For an endangered Native craft to survive, community participation is critical. Birch and moose, the natural resources, will continue to exist, but the artist will not.
“To protect this indigenous craft in the future, it will require a disciplined tribal effort,” said McGlynn, who for a dozen years watched Albert as he spotted the perfect straight birch and pulled the wet moosehide babiche webbing to fill the birch frames.
In 2010, Rose Albert watched her oldest brother, George, as they both sold their artwork at the Alaska Federation of Natives bazaar. She smiled, watching her solitary brother meeting strangers from all walks of life, patiently answering the same questions over and over.
“He finds himself a representative of a passing lifestyle and a spokesperson for an iconic Alaska art form,” she said. “However the public doesn’t realize he would much prefer to be out breaking trail on those snowshoes.”
Judy Ferguson is a freelance writer who lives in Delta Junction. She will be signing her newly released book “Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story, Vol. I: Alaska Native Land Claims Trailblazers” at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics July 17-20 and at the Tanana Valley Fair craft tent Aug. 2-11.