FAIRBANKS - In 1958, when the two sprint dog sled championships, the Fur Rondy World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage and the Open North American Championship in Fairbanks, were at their height, when thousands of fans thronged the streets, an unknown Athabascan with a fused leg, George Attla of Huslia, came to town.
Fifty-two years later, Attla, the greatest sprint sled dog racer of all time, walked down Second Avenue at the 2010 GCI Open North American Sled Dog Championship race in Fairbanks.
As the 78-year-old Attla cut through the crowd of urban and Bush Alaska Natives in town for the race, hands reached out: “Hi, George,” “Hey,” patting his arm, clapping his back. He answered some but kept his course straight for his destination.
With a racing record that spans from 1958 to 2011, Attla embodies the evolution of competitive sprint dog mushing, birthed from village Native life. In March 2010, at McCafferty’s A Coffee House, the snowy-haired, rail-thin Attla sat down and began to share his story over a hot cup of tea.
“When I grew up, the world was a very big place,” Attla said. “There was no village of Huslia (or as it's known in Koyukon Athabascan) Ts’aateyhdenaade kk’onh Denh. Everyone lived in camps, following the game.”
George Attla Jr. was born in Koyukuk in 1933 to one of the state’s best trappers, George Attla Sr. He grew up at Cutoff, four miles overland from today’s Huslia.
At age 8, when he spoke only Koyukon Athabascan, Attla contracted tuberculosis of the knee. He spent the next nine years in and out of hospitals, away from home and family. Driven to stay fit, he exercised hard. After years of streptomycin, Attla’s knee was fused to save function.
The year after Attla went into the hospital, Jimmy Huntington, the original “Huslia Hustler,” placed fourth in a tough, 90-mile sweepstakes trophy competition sled dog race in Fairbanks in 1939.
Attla returned home from the hospital in 1950 when he was 17, but felt he no longer fit in.
“I was pretty bitter,” he said. “I entered a few races as a junior musher, and I won one in Huslia. I wanted to race in Anchorage or Fairbanks.”
Attla was lucky to have strong dogs from Huslia. In the years before he started racing, fellow Koyukuk region mushers Huntington and Bergman Sam had both won major sled dog races using dogs from the area.
In 1958, Attla decided to try the Fur Rondy World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage with the same winning team Sam had used. Attla battled stiffness in his leg during the three-day race, but placed first and second during the first two days and, as an unknown, on the last day crossed the finish line first to take the Fur Rondy World Championship.
The win wasn’t enough to satisfy him, or his critics, though.
“When I returned home, the old, great racer, Bobby Vent, said to me, ‘Kid, you didn’t prove anything to me. Those dogs you had were already trained and they had been driven by somebody else,’” Attla said. “That stuck in my mind and it made me hungry.”
Rebutting the critics
Every winter after that, Attla trained dogs, but every year he knew they weren’t yet good enough. He watched and admired Sam’s innovative training and realized that there must be ways to produce champion dogs other than by inciting fear in them. He began searching for creative training methods instead of the traditional goad of fear. Because he could communicate with his dogs, he worked with their minds, shaping them to believe that they were able to run at top speed for an entire race. Attla and his dogs became one unit, running with the mindset of a champion.
He returned to the Fur Rondy World Championship Sled Dog Race in 1962. He won with his own dogs, putting the naysayers to rest.
“Back in Huslia, Bobby Vent congratulated me: ‘By God, you are a dog man,’” Attla said. “Then, I figured I could do it again.”
During the 1970s, Attla began to dominate the sport, thanks to good breeding and training.
“In my day,” Attla remembered, “my biggest competitor was a quiet, very humble man — a great racer — Doc (Roland) Lombard.”
Attla also was one of the first entrants in the 1973 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and placed fourth in the race. He had no idea the 1,100-mile Iditarod would some day overshadow sprint racing, “which is now a second-class sport,” he said.
Every winter for 10 years, Attla competed in races across North America — from Alaska to Canada to New York and down into the Midwest. He could go to a $20,000 race every weekend.
“I was a public figure promoting an emerging sport in Alaska,” Attla said. “Sportswriters referred to my famous ‘Attla kick,’ my energetic, fused leg. It was such a great time.”
In the late 1970s, Tesoro became his sponsor “and,” he said, “I had to earn that sponsorship.”
Changes to the sport
About that time, people like Harvey Drake, Charlie Champaine and Harris Dunlap, the non-Natives, began winning some races on the circuit.
But Attla kept coming back. In 1979, Attla caught up with Doc Lombard and took his eighth World Championship title. By 1981, he was pushing to get his 10th, to surpass Lombard and become the greatest dog musher of all time.
“However,” he said, “I began looking at all the young mushers, like Roxy Wright-Champaine, Gareth Wright’s daughter, as well as Lester Erhart’s sons, Chuck and Curtis, and I began to feel old. I told Lester, ‘All these years, you told me you were my friend, but now, you send out your sons to whip my butt.’”
In 1982, when he was nearly 50, he won his 10th World Championship. By 1984, with Lombard out of the picture, some said he was king.
Attla drew a lot of attention over the years. Reader’s Digest did a story about him in 1970. In 1972, Attla wrote his first book with Bella Levorsen, “George Attla: Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs.” A movie about his young life and first victory, “Spirit of the Wind,” was made and released in 1979. In 1993, Lew Freedman wrote, “George Attla: The Legend of the Sled Dog Trail,” which was republished in 2001 as “Spirit of the Wind.”
“However,” Attla said, “in 1984 when I was 51, my hunger was gone. Although I was determined to keep going, by the mid-1990s, I told my sponsor I didn’t want to do it anymore. I retired with 10 World Championships, eight North American titles and nine International Sled Dog Association Unlimited Class medals. For four decades, I’d placed in front of the pack. Until I was almost 60, I was in pretty good shape.”
It was then that Attla decided to race for pleasure, not for sponsorship deals.
Still a presence
In 2007, Harlow Robinson and Chris Myers of Anchorage opened the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. Attla, as one of the first five inductees, cut the ribbon at the hall of fame exhibit when it opened at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Despite health woes — including cancer, open-heart surgery and a hip replacement — Attla started racing dogs again in 2010. In April, he won the 2011 Koyukuk River Championship spring carnival race, dedicated to his mentor, the late Sam.
Anchorage Daily News columnist Beth Bragg wrote in 2007 that “in a two-day New Year’s race in Huslia, Attla set a speed record for the trail, and beat both his son and his grandson. There’s still some hustle in the Huslia Hustler.”
Indeed, 48-year-old John Baker of Kotzebue, the 2011 Iditarod winner, said of Attla, “It was incredible for him to stay on top of his game for so long.”
Marvin Kokrine, 56, of Tanana and North Pole, said “other mushers complain about a lot. Although George may be blind in one eye and lame in one leg, he doesn’t cry about it. That inspires me.”
From Huntington in 1939 to Baker this year, village mushers have continued to grab the headlines, and Attla wants them to keep doing so.
“At almost 80, I look back on four decades of carrying the torch. To youth like my granddaughter, Georgia Attla, and those inspired by the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, I pass the torch to discipline your mind and your body, to give your best. If I can do it, so can you.”
Judy Ferguson of Big Delta is a freelance writer. Look for her new book, “Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story” in late 2012-2013 on her website, http://alaska-highway.org/delta/outpost. For more on George Attla, see “The Making of a Champion: The Mindset of George Attla,” by Kathy Turco in 2012.