Championship Sled Dog Races
A special "thank you" to Sherri Pristash of
the Alaska Dog Mushers Association,
Sled Dog Racing in Fairbanks
By PETE BOWERS
(From the 1983-1984 ADMA Race Season Program)
Since 1927, sled dog racing has been a Fairbanks area tradition that has captured the minds and hearts of many. Although no longer unique to Alaska, dog mushing has its roots here and continues to be identified throughout the world as "Alaskan." The history of dog mushing is ingrained deeply in the history of Fairbanks and the villages scattered along the Yukon, Tanana and Koyukuk Rivers. Dog teams once were vital to transportation in the Interior and have been the focus of the areas major sporting events for many years.
Modern sled dog racing dates back to the gold rush era of Nome. The Nome Kennel Club held races such as the All Alaska Sweepstakes (408 miles) and the Borden Cup Marathon (26 miles) from about 1906 until 1916, when gold mining activities declined in the area. The focus of Alaskan sled dog racing turned to the Interior after that. A 57-mile race was run between Ruby and Poorman, and, in 1927, the Signal Corps race was created in Fairbanks by the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System. The Signal Corps races initially followed a trail of some 58 miles between Fairbanks and Chatanika, which reached 2,240 feet in elevation near Summit. In 1931, the contestants ran two 30-mile heats, and in 1935, it became a mid-distance race to the Salcha bridge and back. In 1935 a musher named Bob Busky won the race for the third time and retired the trophy.
At least three other major races were held in Fairbanks between 1927 and 1941. The Sweepstakes trophy competition began in 1936, consisting of three 30-mile heats. In 1940 and 1941, that race became a mid-distance classic of some 165 miles round trip between Fairbanks and Livengood. Between 1927 and 1934, the Fromm trophy was presented to the winner of the womens sled dog championship, which ran over a distance of about 17 miles. The H.Wendell Endicott Sweepstakes, a 17-mile sprint, began in Fairbanks in 1928 and was discontinued in 1933.
Dog racing in Fairbanks brings people from the bush villages to the city, and people from all walks of life together at the race track. In the past 57 years, dog teams have been driven by fishermen, laborers, river boat pilots, Air Force officers, lawyers, judges, doctors, biologists, miners, trappers and people claiming numerous other professions. The history of dog racing in Fairbanks is inexorably entwined with the lives of many colorful individuals, including Fred and Joe Stickman of Nulato and Walter Nollner of Galena, a trio of native mushers from the Yukon River who dominated some of the earliest races. The kennels of Judge Cecil H. Clegg. District Attorney Julian A. Hurley, and Thomas B. Wright made major contributions to racing and breeding of race dogs, while the winning records of Bob Busby, Johnny Allen, and Bergman Kokrine have only recently been challenged.
Dog racing in Fairbanks was interrupted from 1942 through 1945 by World War II. It resumed in 1946 with the first North American Championships (NAC) sled dog derby. Originally a four-day event of 18, 18, 18, and 20 miles, which followed the Chena and Tanana Rivers, the NAC was moved to the Creamers Field area in 1953 where it consisted of 20, 20, and 30 mile heats.
The postwar race drivers were mostly new faces to sled dog racing fans. People like Horace "Holy" Smoke of Stevens Village, Andy and Effie Kokrine of Tanana, Jimmy Huntington (the original "Huslia Hustler"), Charlie Titus of Minto, Dan Snyder of Kotzebue (the winner of the first true NAC), and Lt. Col. Norman Vaughn (who in 1953 flew the USAF official dog team to Fairbanks) were among the notable drivers of the late 40s and early 50's. The 1950 NAC winner, Gareth Wright, is still active in the sport and in 1983 again won the Open NAC.
The Alaska Dog Mushers Association (ADMA) was founded in 1948, in part through the efforts of Mike Agbaba and Jake Butler, to promote dog mushing, dog racing, the humane treatment of dogs, and especially, the North American Championships. Since then, the ADMA has sponsored numerous preliminary races and limited class races, in addition to Fairbanks premier sporting event, the 70-mile Open NAC.
In recent years, there has been continued development of sled dog racing in Fairbanks with a greater than ever emphasis on scientific feeding, breeding, and training. Teams from the Koyukuk region, driven by such notable mushers as Jimmy Huntington, Cue Bifelt ,Bergman Sam, Warner Vent, and George Attla provided some of the best dogs and competition to be found anywhere. Other Interior villagers from places such as Minto, Tanana, Rampart, and Galena also continued to produce top contenders.
These kennels, as well as those developed by the likes of Harold and John Greenway, Lester Erhart, Steve and Rosie Losonsky, Roland "Doc" Lombard, Bill Taylor, Gareth Wright, and Harvey Drake produced some of the major lines of race dogs that are actively sought by mushers today. Names like George Attla, who won his first NAC in 1969 and has since won it six more times, and Dr. Roland "Doc" Lombard, who won his first NAC in 1958 (the first outsider to do so) and also a six-time winner have consistently provided excitement for the crowds. Other recent contenders include Carl Huntington, the only triple crown winner in dog-racing history (NAC, Fur Rendezvous, Iditarod), Harvey Drake of North Pole (who has the fastest time ever recorded for a NAC race heat, slightly more than 19 mph) and Harris Dunlap of Bakers Mill, New York, the 1982 winner.
The women mushers have not exactly been idle through this long history of sled dog competition. In addition to the 1927-1934 Fromm Trophy races, a womans NAC was run from 1952 until 1982, when it made way for the Mini North American. Though competitors such as Effie Kokrine, Libby Wescott, Rosie Losonsky, Natalie Norris, Jean Bryar and Roxie Woods consistently provided some of the finest dog teams and racing competition to be found anywhere.
The limited class races of the 1970's and 80's have also provided excitement and spirited competition. One shouldnt get the mistaken impression the "limited class" equates with "limited quality." Many of the Open team drivers today actively buy, sell, and swap dogs with owners of the smaller kennels, and many of the limited class teams are dog for dog as fast as their open class counterparts. The limited class races have produced drivers such as Rosie Losonsky, Linda Leonard, Jane Cosgrove, Roxie Woods, and Kathy Frost/Lloyd Lowry, who have fielded consistently strong teams in recent years.
All in all, the sled dog racing tradition of Fairbanks has truly earned this town the title of "sled dog racing capitol of the world." With 57 years of nearly continuous dog-racing competition and 39 continuous years of North American Championships, Fairbanks and the North American are in a select category. Just as we associate Newport with sailing, Louisville with horse racing, Wimbledon with tennis, and Daytona or Indianapolis with car racing, so should we think of Fairbanks and sled dog racing. It is an exciting and colorful tradition that we can all take pride in.
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