TANANA, Alaska—It has been a dozen years, but this village near the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers has not forgotten how to play a welcoming host to the mushers and dogs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Tanana was a checkpoint in 2003 when, like this year, the Iditarod’s official start was moved north to Fairbanks. Called upon again in 2015 to help with feeding mushers and handling with logistics, this community of about 300 has pulled together, not only as an army of volunteers but also to celebrate a rich dog mushing history.
Athabascan Indian singers greeted Big Lake musher Martin Buser, the first musher to arrive here at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday after making the 66-mile journey from Manley Hot Springs, the previous checkpoint. Tanana residents had pooled some money to give Buser a $500 cash award for being the first to reach the village, and Buser promptly donated it to the Tanana Dog Mushers Association.
As of late Tuesday, 22 of the 78 teams that started the race were in Tanana, which is 227 miles into the 979-mile race to Nome.
Many of the dogs were napping after mushers fed them a soupy mix of dry dog food, warm water and, often, salmon. They lay on beds of straw, still harnessed to the sleds, which were parked all around the Tanana community hall.
Residents watched and snapped photos from their nearby porches. A group of women stood waiting to talk to four-time champion Lance Mackey, hoping to get the Fairbanks musher's autograph.
As Denali musher Jeff King, a four-time winner, walked into the community hall, local Tom Hyslop shook his hand.
“Welcome back!” Hyslop said, standing under a sign he designed that said, “We knew you’d be back.”
Hyslop said there was more community planning this year than in 2003. This year, the race had once again brought residents together, he said.
“It’s neat, you know, I just thrive on it. I love it,” Hyslop said.
There are five or six full dog teams in Tanana, and the community has a spring carnival complete with sprint mushing each year. Still, like elsewhere, the cost of keeping dogs and the convenience of modern transportation, like snowmachines, has made for a decline in mushing, said Julie Roberts-Hyslop, who was standing on her sister’s front steps taking pictures of the teams lined out in front of her.
“Tanana loves this kind of action,” Roberts-Hyslop said. “A lot of us have really cherished dog mushing. It’s important to us. Our tradition is not to let it die out.”
“It used to be everybody had dogs, a long time ago,” she said. “It’s important to expose our young people to this type of event.”
Tanana has a strong, fundamental tie to the Iditarod: The community was a link in the 1925 relay of diptheria serum — the famed run to Nome on which the Iditarod is based. Tanana resident Sam Joseph, age 35 at the time, ran his dog team 34 miles to Kallands, where he handed off the serum to the next dog driver, Titus Nickoli.
Resident Pat Moore, one of the local dog mushers, said there were people who had been living in Tanana like him all year that he was just seeing for the first time in months because of the race. In 2003, the volunteer effort had been chaotic, but they were working better this year, he said.
“It’s a hoot,” Moore said. “From a cultural standpoint, all the locals are pretty hyped for it. Culturally, it’s a big deal.”
“When I was a kid here,” Moore said, “every family had a dog team. Snowmachines weren’t around then. That was transportation.”
Moore and a former musher John Huntington joked with each other and talked about how they wished the race would come through more often. They assumed it was commercial interests on the traditional route that trumped their desire to regularly host the Iditarod.
Moore said having the Iditarod in town also gave Tanana a chance to show “its other side. Not the police blotter side.”
Moore and Huntington did not speak directly about it, but they spoke of the May shooting in which a villager is alleged to have killed two Alaska State Troopers. Moore and Huntington agreed that, before the Iditarod, that was the last time there had been a lot of outside attention on Tanana.
Doing a good job hosting the race can only help Tanana’s image, they said.
“The more people that see that we’re not villains, you know?” Moore said. “There really is a lot of good people here. If it was all bad people, we’d move away.”
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Iditarod reporter. Follow on Twitter: @kcgrove and instagram: fairbanksdnm