George Attla - Tape #ORAL HISTORY 2011-19-08

George Attla was interviewed on June 27, 2011 by William Schneider, Kathy Turco and Karen Brewster at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks, Alaska. George Attla grew up in Huslia, Alaska when dog teams were used as basic transportation. After suffering TB as a child, George was limited in his physical abilities, but his father gave him puppies to raise. This started a life-long love of dogs, mushing, and eventually dog racing. George, nick-named "The Huslia Hustler," became well known for his sprint racing success. In this interview, George talks about how he got into dog mushing and racing, how he trains dogs, memories of specific races, and what dogs and mushing mean to him personally. For more about George Attla, see: Spirit of the Wind: The Story of George Attla, Alaska's Legendary Sled Dog Sprint Champ by Lew Freedman (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press, 2000); George Attla: The Legend of the Sled-Dog Trail by Lew Freedman (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1993); and Spirit of the Wind, a 1979 film directed and produced by Ralph Liddle.


Click to section:

  1. Introduction
  2. Childhood
  3. First getting involved with dogs
  4. How smart dogs can be
  5. Making a dog team from paper as a child
  6. Getting involved with dog sled racing
  7. Getting dogs from other people in the village
  8. The quality of Huslia dogs
  9. Training and feeding dogs
  10. Learning about dogs from elders in Huslia
  11. Selecting and breeding dogs
  12. Training puppies to be successful racing dogs
  13. The mindset of a racing dog
  14. The importance of building a relationship and trust with your dogs
  15. Racing in the Fur Rondy and North American dog races
  16. Getting village dogs into town for races
  17. The most interesting race he remembers
  18. Proving himself as a successful racer
  19. The role of dogs in his life

Transcript:

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Ok, today is June 27, 2011. I'm Bill Schneider. Kathy Turco's here, Karen Brewster is here and we have the great pleasure today of talking with George Attla. So, we really appreciate you taking the time to do this.
GEORGE ATTLA: Thank you.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: And I know that you've been a little under the weather and so -- but I'm glad to see you're up and running.
Let's start by having you talk a little bit about your personal background, where you were brought up, a little bit about your childhood and your parents
because a lot of people that listen to this may not know about your village and where you come from.
GEORGE ATTLA: Okay. I come from a village called Cutoff.
It's called Huslia now, but it was Cutoff back then and really in reality when I was -- when I was growing up we lived mostly in fish camps and trapping cabins and spring camp.
We never ever hardly live in the village, you know, because that wasn't where you got what you needed. You know, you had to go out in the country to get everything you needed.
So in reality I was raised off the country.
You know, my dad made a living as a trapper and we -- and a hunter and we lived off the country.
Everything that we were raised on, such as, you know, you need money to go to the grocery store,
well all of that come off the country too because my dad was a trapper and all our meat and fish that we needed was caught off the country
and it wasn't I don't think -- when I think back about it I don't think it was a easy life but we never went hungry when I was a kid.
I don't remember wanting anything and actually I mean you go in people's houses today and there's --
if there's kids there, there is piles of toys, you know, that they play with.
Back in my day when I was a kid everything that we played with we made ourself.
So, you know it was a different world.
I was talking about it with Grandma Eliza Jones today and that people didn't own a lot of material, you know, it is just the necessity.
So that's the way I grew up and my dad had a dog team that he used on the trapline and the history of dogs go way back within our tribe.
You want to ask me a question?
KATHY TURCO: I'm going to grab this one hair you've got right there. There. Uhm.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: When did you first get involved with dogs? How old were you, do you suppose?
GEORGE ATTLA: I was eight years old and my -- I had TB in the kneecap when I was a kid,
and the first time I went to the hospital after I went home
my dad had six pups and I couldn't get around too good, so he told me you go ahead and raise these pups.
You're responsible for them and you break them into the harness when they get old enough.
So that's how I got involved. I was about eight years old and he gave me two of them.
When they were raised and I broke them into the harness, he gave me two and said that these are your dogs.
KATHY TURCO: Do you have a good mem -- memory you have of even long -- when you were really small, when they strapped you in the sled when you went -- remember that one, that story?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. When we moved from cabin to cabin, we --
those of us that were too small were tied into the sled, you know, in a bundle of blankets and that's how we traveled.
I remember my older brother telling me that when there was just three of them -- just three kids that,
you know, they couldn't haul all the stuff to the camp at one time so they would have to take a load ahead and then come back and get it from their camp, you know.
And he said my mother took the team and she went to pick up the stuff that was -- they needed at the camp
and she said -- he told me that my mother loaded up the sled and she told the dogs to get up and they broke the line.
She said they had 12 dogs and the whole team took off and she said -- my mother ran after them and Steve
and his two sisters were tied in the sled and he said pretty soon he saw these dogs coming back.
And the leader's name was Tom, and he said Tom was right next to the sled and he said whoa.
He was just a little boy then.
He said Tom stopped, you know, and he said my mother came back and just tied them back on there.
And the leader was so well trained that, you know -- when we had a leader like that years ago,
the rest of the dogs in the team had no use for that dog, you know, because they couldn't do anything wrong by themselves. The leader will control them all the time.
So there -- you know, the stories on those lead dogs go way back. You'd be amazed at what they do -- can do by themselves.
If you turn them loose.
I have a memory that I needed moose meat at one time after I became a man and I went --
I know where the moose was. So I went down there and the trail that I was on goes to the next cabin. And I remember turning the dogs --
I saw the moose so I jumped off with my snowshoes and my rifle and I just let the dogs go.
And I'd never done that to that leader before, you know. So I thought well he'll go to the next camp which is about ten miles and he'll stop, you know.
About three hours later I came back.
I got the moose. I came back and here was the team just exactly where I let them go. They were all laying down in there.
The leader took them off the trail and held them there.
See, dogs are smart.
KATHY TURCO: Wow, what a great story. Uh, so after -- go ahead. WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Go ahead.
KATHY TURCO: I was just going to say, um, so when you came back and you had your -- do you remember the name of those dogs -- that was -- two dogs -- those?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, that was Buster and Jimbo. Those are the first dogs I owned
and that was about when I was about eight and a half he gave them to me.
And actually when I -- by the time, you know, I was having problems with my legs all those years,
and by the time I was a little over 17 I had my knee fused and I was able to walk again.
And Buster and Jimbo were still alive at that time.
And to give you an idea of how smart those dogs were, that fall we stayed in camp --
in our camp, which is about fifteen miles from the village.
And after freeze-up I wanted to go to town and I didn't know my way, you know.
So I told the old man I want to go to town, but I don't know my way.
Well, he said, just put Buster in the lead and he'll take you to town.
And you know there's big lakes and -- that you have to cross, you know. You have to know how the portages and stuff.
So he told me don't tell him anything even if you think he's doing something wrong, don't say anything to him.
And sure enough I took off and he took me all the way to the village, you know.
So, you know, he knows the country and he know where -- dogs never forget.
If they see a trail when they're young ones and then five or six years later you take them over the same trail, you never have to tell them anything. They remember where the trail went.
I think dogs actually have a better memory than people. I believe that, you know.
KATHY TURCO: That's a good one. I have to -- You have to tell them that one story.
I can't help it. It's such a good one -- about when people sometimes ask you what's your first memory with being a little boy with dogs --
and you have to tell them the story about when your mother -- with you and Rose cutting up the --
GEORGE ATTLA: Oh, yeah. KATHY TURCO: It's just the best. GEORGE ATTLA: I always had -- KATHY TURCO: You were three years old maybe. Three?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. I had to be three or four. And, you know, it's even hard to imagine how things were back then.
Even a piece of paper was hard to get.
You know, like my mother's patterns were all made out of paper.
And, you know, patterns that she used when she does beadwork and that kind of stuff.
But anyway I must have been right around four years old and -- and my mother had to go to her snares, her rabbit snare.
And Rose and I stayed home. I don't remember what the rest of the kids were doing. We were a big family and --
But anyway, Rose and I were the ones that was at home and I started making paper dogs out of my mother's patterns.
By the time she got home I had -- we had a cabin that was fairly long, you know, for those days.
We had a double cabin, you know, one in front of the other.
I had a dog team that went from one end to the other end by the time she got home.
KATHY TURCO: You got some scissors and you were cutting the -- GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, I was, yeah and I was making dogs out of her patterns. I just didn't know any better, you know.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: What did she say?
GEORGE ATTLA: Well, when she come walking in the door and she saw that dog team that was stretching from one end of the cabin to the other end,
she knew where the paper came from, you know.
And she took a broom after us. So Rose and I -- I never forgot that.Rose is older than I am.
So I always tell her that you're the one that should have known better.
So I remember we ran out of the house crying and Rose and I were sitting in the dog barn, you know,
because there was grass in there, you know, nice and dry in there.
I never forgot that -- sitting there crying, you know, and I always tease my sister about it. I said you should have known better than that, you know.
KATHY TURCO: Can you imagine his mother? All those patterns. GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: For her mittens, and slippers and -- GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. Uh huh.
KATHY TURCO: Oh. And he made a dog team that stretched from one end of the cabin to the other. You had a good time though, huh?
GEORGE ATTLA: Oh, man, I had a good time.
But you know basically that's all I remember of that.
I don't remember if I was able to keep the dogs. I must have been, you know.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, what got you into racing dogs? How did that happen?
KATHY TURCO: Good story.
GEORGE ATTLA: When -- well, when I was growing up I actually developed a chip on my shoulder because of being a cripple.
And all the rest of the guys my age were able to go hunting with their dad and that kind of stuff.
And I wasn't able to do those things, you know, and when I came back from Edgecumbe I was about seventeen, a little over seventeen
and all the guys, you know, they would go out hunting and stuff and I was able to, but not as well, you know.
And, in fact, when I was growing up I took a lot of teasing because I wasn't able to, you know, walk in snowshoes and that kind of stuff.
So I was actually looking for something that I could compete with the rest of the village with, you know.
And I actually started running dogs and I wasn't good at it, you know. I -- I -- at least I don't think so, you know, but I was really interested in dogs.
And, you know, they were doing what I wanted them to do, you know.
And so I got started running dogs because I actually needed the dogs on a trapline.
So I just had myself a little team of five dogs, but my dad had dogs, you know.
And I remember the first winter that I raced I used my dad's dogs.
And I was pretty much like any other kid, you know. It -- you know, even today's kid.
He was telling me how to run the race, you know and I was thinking in the back of my mind that what does this old guy know, you know.
I was smarter than he was, you know.
That's just exactly what he described me was going to happen happened, you know, just the way he described it.
So that taught me a lesson, you know.
The old man must know what he is talking about, you know.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Where was that race?
GEORGE ATTLA: That was in the village of Huslia or rather it was Cutoff back then.
KATHY TURCO: And then maybe you can tell them about the times when you were interested. It was when the snowmachine came and then all those old-timers had all these dogs and --
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, there was -- KATHY TURCO: Interesting.
GEORGE ATTLA: The snowmachines started coming into the country that was back in the 50's, the early 50's, you know.
And about 1962 people still had dogs but they actually wanted -- they wanted snowmachines, you know.
And down through the years mainly the breed of dogs and the whole works actually came from different people in the village, you know.
Because I was -- because I was interested in running and racing dogs I actually got the best dogs in the village, you know, because they were getting rid of them anyway.
So, you know, that's where -- and then, you know, the village of Huslia was very unusual in that they had the best dogs in the country
and we weren't aware of having the best dogs until about 1956, '55 or '56, Raymond Paul was the champion in the Rendezvous and the North American.
And we weren't aware that we had super dogs up there in Huslia.
But there was a race in a village called Hughes that spring in April, and Raymond Paul went up there to race against us.
And there was actually three of us that beat him.
We weren't aware that we had that good of quality of dogs, you know.
So when that happened, the next year Jimmie and Bobby Vent, they came in out of the village
and they actually came in first and second in the Rendezvous and the North American with the dogs from the village of Huslia.
To give you an idea of how outstanding the dogs were, all the way up until 1962 there was three of us that left the village of Huslia and we raced in Anchorage.
We came in one, two and five.
So the three teams from Huslia were in the top five of the best in the race in that race called world championship, you know. So you know we had good dogs.
KATHY TURCO: And so the only other time that you raced them kind of was within the village where people would come in in the spring and that was the carnival time where they'd race?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah.
KATHY TURCO: But no one knew how good they were until that guy came in?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. We didn't have any idea of, you know, the super dogs that we had
But they, you know, back then the food was so scarce for the dogs that you could just keep so many.
And the quality of the dogs that you kept had to be the best.
And usually in the springtime was when the supply got real low,
so if you had one or two dogs that weren't really -- didn't look really like a super dog to them,
they actually got rid of them, you know, because the supply of food was low.
KAREN BREWSTER: What did you do special in terms of training or feeding the dogs that made them so good?
GEORGE ATTLA: Well, you know, that on feeding the dogs when we first came out of the village we were feeding fish and rice and meat, you know.
And that's really the best diet that you could imagine. We didn't have no commercial food.
Everything that they ate was coming off the country except the rice, you know.
And down through the years I -- actually a guy named Lombard started racing the same year that I started,
and he was from Massachusetts. And I started in 1958 and that was his first year.
And all the way to 1973 I was able to beat him.
But two years in the 60's he started beating me -- actually he bought a few dogs from me, you know. So he started beating me.
And he was feeding dry dog food, you know, commercially -- commercial dog food.
And he beat everyone so steady back in the 60's, that we started thinking we must not be feeding our dogs right, you know.
We're feeding fish and rice and he's feeding commercial dog food.
So we switched to his diet, which was a mistake, you know.
We didn't know what super diet we were feeding.
And actually that didn't come to light until the Iditarod started.
I remember when I -- the first Iditarod I was feeding commercial dog food and, you know, and that's what I took off with. That's what I had in my sled when I left Anchorage on the Iditarod.
And by the time I got to McGrath -- I was the first one in McGrath -- and my dogs were actually starving on their feet with the commercial dog food.
It wasn't a good enough quality, but it was the best there was at that time.
And that was in 1973.
And I had an old friend in McGrath that I went to school with, and I said my dogs are starving.
They're starving on their feet and I'm feeding them all I could feed them of what I'm feeding them.
He said what are you feeding them?
And I said I'm feeding dry dog food.
He looked at me and he said, "If you were only eating corn flakes, how far do you think you'll get?" You know. It was as simple as that, you know.
It took -- I had to learn a lesson the hard way, you know.
KATHY TURCO: Tell them about um -- this is a part a lot of people don't understand about when -- you always told me that when you were starting way back and you were --
You know the story about Bobby Vent and the dogs you borrowed for the 1958 race. But then you told me about, you know, you had all these professors.
You had these amazing old-timers there helping you and --
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, it's amazing what the tribe in Huslia knew about dogs.
You know, any time you had a problem -- that I had a problem within the dog team that I was training,
I could pretty much go to any person in the village and ask the person and they would tell you what your problem was, you know.
So all the answers were right there and, you know, it was -- I had access to all of that, you know, that --
Maybe down through the years, you know, I was able to learn from those people that can't be done today, you know.
KATHY TURCO: Like Bergman. Remember Bergman was a really special -- Bergman, Bergie?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, Bergman Sam was champion North American musher back in 1958 and he was from Huslia.
And I remember watching him train and he was experimenting on how to handle these dogs.
He was doing things that I didn't understand, you know. So I would ask him after he got done, you know, why did you do this, you know.
And he said it is just something new I'm trying, you know. So, you know, there was people back there that were experimenting,
trying to get better at what they were doing, you know, and they were always thinking.
You'd be amazed when I first started -- that was in 1958, that I could borrow dogs from someone. I didn't own any of the dogs. Like I said, I just had five dogs, you know.
And I had two of my own dogs on that first team that I was training.
But I could go to anyone in the village, if I crippled a dog or something.
I had to replace the dog because I wanted to keep the number at twelve.
That was what we were racing back then.
I could go to anyone and get another dog as good at those twelve.
You know which -- you couldn't do it today I mean.
Everyone had a super dog, you know.
And some of them not only one, you know.
You know, when you think, I guess today when you think back about it, you'd call it wishful thinking, you know. I mean I wish I had some of those dogs.
KATHY TURCO: Still do.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Was there a particular line of dogs in terms of -- you talked about the culling and the selective, but was there different types of breeding that occurred?
GEORGE ATTLA: Not that I would -- well, yes there was. Yeah, I remember, you know, I remember people breeding bird dogs into their dogs, you know.
You know, into the Husky's line to try to get a better dog.
You know, they were experimenting, you know, with Labs and Irish Setters and, you know, they were crossing their dogs as, you know, a different -- different type of dog.
KATHY TURCO: But that -- that trap -- like if you compare the trapline dogs to today, it was just a whole different animal, right, this dog?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, my dad -- my dad's line of dogs were what we call village dogs.
They were just bred for pulling, you know, and actually those dogs, like I said earlier, we had dogs that, you know, just very well selected even within their trapping team.
And they had to be able to take care of themselves, such as clean their feet when you stop. And any dog that didn't take care of itself never made --
never was around for too long, you know, because they were very strict on culling their dogs just because of dog food being so scarce, you know.
KATHY TURCO: Yeah, you had to feed the dogs to feed the family, right? GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah.
KATHY TURCO: And then your dad -- the care your dad took of dogs was unbelievable, huh?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, the way those dogs could pull. I could remember when I was a kid
when we were moving from the trapline cabin to the village of Huslia. I believe it was Christmas time
and I was tied in the sled and we had -- we must have had about sixteen dogs and huge load, you know.
The old man had a fouteen-foot basket with a pair of skis in front to steer the sled with, you know,
and I can remember watching those dogs. Even back then I was interested in dogs, you know.
And I could remember this one dog called Blackie.
That was the most powerful dog that probably I've seen in my life, you know.
Because his team like he probably had sixteen and they were all pulling, but Blackie pulled so hard that when he slacked up within that team --
he slacked up every now and then just to take a little rest, you know.
And when he slacked up, even as a kid I noticed the sled slow down.
KATHY TURCO: Wow!
GEORGE ATTLA: It was quite an experience.
KAREN BREWSTER: I'm wondering about training. How do you train a pup to be a good sled dog and listen to commands?
GEORGE ATTLA: You mean for racing?
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, either way.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, I like - I'm not really familiar with how my dad did it, you know, but myself I looked -- I expect the dog to work.
This is for race dogs now. But I also expect them to run smooth.
And a young dog that is broken in like, at say five months, and you're running it, if he's smooth and handle himself well, it'll never change.
If he's not smooth, if he is rough gaited, you're not going to improve that dog's gait.
They're born with it as they're born being able to run, you know.
So, you know, in reality we never used to keep all the pups that were born.
I mean, you know, you keep them until maybe they're five, six years old or months old.
You know then we cull them out.
KATHY TURCO: How about their -- the mindset?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, well later on that -- You know, actually the super -- super athlete has to have the mind.
You know, it's pretty similar to the human.
If you don't have the desire to win, no matter how well your gait was,
you just can't do it, because the mind is not there.
And the mind of a dog has to be there.
Years ago when we were coming in from the villages and we had a trained team, a trained team of dogs,
those dogs will actually run until they pass out.
In fact, I had one dog in my team it was in the lead and I was racing in the Rendezvous that was back in the 60's,
the leader went down right in the middle of mid stride.
I have no idea what happened to it, but his body shut down.
And he landed on his side, you know, and I went -- I ran out there to pick him up and put him in the basket.
When I ran out there, his legs were still pumping.
I mean it's almost unbelievable, you know, what these dogs -- how dedicated they were.
This dog's legs was still pumping. He was out, but he thought he was still running.
Isn't that something? You know, it's just unbelievable what these dogs did.
Now today's dogs are just like today's people.
They're not as hard headed as they used to be.
You see a dog get hauled in the sled today. He couldn't make it, he come in the basket.
You'd see the dog sitting up wagging his tail, like saying I got the best of you again.
KATHY TURCO: Yeah, a different kind of dog, huh. You had a different re -- just a dedication that you tell me you can't even --
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, its -- KATHY TURCO: And the way they would work for you out of, you know, just voice commands.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. Dog racing is -- KATHY TURCO: Mindset.
GEORGE ATTLA: You know, dog racing is completely different than what people imagine today.
Back then, we mainly drove dogs with our -- the tone of our voice.
And I think in today's world that the dog is not given credit for the amount of brains he has.
People actually think they're training the dogs today, but in my way of thinking I don't think -- I don't think so.
People -- or the dogs are running today because they want to.
It didn't always work that way when I was a kid.
Some of these dogs we had that were super athletes actually were lazy.
They didn't want to do it, you know.
But you understood the animal so well that you understood the way you had to handle them to make 'em give you everything that he has.
The dog actually respected you above anything in this world imaginable, you know.
He would do anything for you.
KATHY TURCO: It was a certain thing you developed, right? You always used to tell me about you had a deal with them.
You would take the best possible care of them and they would -- they had to perform if they could do it, but you wouldn't ask a dog that couldn't do it.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, well, yeah, most of the dogs I work with, you know, after they were selected were super dog.
And really I try to take the best care I can of these dogs imaginable, you know.
They're eating and cared for better than any pet in the country, you know.
They're the most cared for dog.
And people don't give dogs credit for the amount of brains they have, you know, because when you have a team of dogs they could actually tell you how -- what kind of a day you're having, you know, just by looking at them.
You go out there in the morning, you may not know that you're not feeling good or, you know, you're mind is not --
you might be mad about something and you go out there in your dog yard and they'll actually tell you that you're having a bad day, you know.
It's almost hard to imagine, you know, being with dogs all my life that, you know, the things that they would tell you.
You could read them, you know, by their body language.
When you're running them, they're constantly talking to you, you know, by body language.
It's hard to imagine but if you're pushing them, if you're demanding something from them, it won't be long before they'll say, "You got to back off." You got to get off my back, you know.
So once you learn how to do that -- that's the hardest part, I think, in today's world.
People can't understand that.
For instance, I was working with a guy that was really well educated. He was, you know, from here in the state --
I was working -- he wanted to learn more about dogs.
So I actually put in a month with him, you know, and I was trying to train him how to make these dogs give you everything they got.
Well, after a month of trying I finally came in to his house one day and I said, "You're too well educated. You don't understand what I'm talking about, you know."
Because everything is done by reading -- reading the dogs, you know.
They're telling you how they feel. I mean in any given race you're actually getting the best possible work you can get out of them to try to ra -- to try to win that race.
And they're constantly telling you back off now, we need a rest, you know.
And then you give them a rest while they're running, you know, and then you start pushing them again.
And then after a while they'll tell you the same thing. That's enough now. We can't give no more. We need a rest.
And I don't know if today's world -- in today's world that's going on with the dogs, because they're actually running a different type of dogs now.
You know, it's really been crossed out from the village dogs.
KATHY TURCO: Well there's a certain -- there was a respect going on all the time, you and your animals have.
GEORGE ATTLA: Oh yeah -- KATHY TURCO: You had something going on there.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. They know. And everything was understood between you and them.
You know, they -- I know how they felt because they were talking to me all the time.
I know what they were thinking mentally and also physically, you know.
And I have no idea if that's what is going on today with these dogs that are --
maybe in distance dogs but these sprint dogs are really bred out to the bird dogs now.
KATHY TURCO: Yeah, well --
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Is this the Euro Hounds?
GEORGE ATTLA: Pardon? WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: The Euro Hounds.
KATHY TURCO: Um. German short haired? GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. Yeah, they're a different kind of dog.
The dogs -- the sprint dogs are actually running on all desire.
KATHY TURCO: Almost crazy, right? Almost crazy when there's no gaging.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, they're running for all their worth. KATHY TURCO: So, they don't know how to gage themselves.
GEORGE ATTLA: But you could see the best mushers, you know.
You could, you know, such as Egil Ellis, today's champ.
You could see pictures of his dogs and they are actually talking to him, you know.
They're -- you could see -- I could tell by the pictures if he is being nice to them or is he demanding, you know.
And in the pictures I could see at times that Egil Ellis is demanding the best out of his dogs.
But there isn't that many people that actually do that today, you know.
He is very dominant because of that -- because of being able to -- being able to demand what he wants out of those bird dogs.
You know, so it's a different world, but here's a guy that is getting top performance out of what he's got.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, you kind of specialized in the Fur Rondy and the North American distances, didn't you? KATHY TURCO: That's sprint, yeah.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, but in reality when I was -- Back in the 80's, I was going all the way back to New York to race.
There was sprint races back then, back in Saranac Lake and then in the Midwest there was a lot of 16 milers, 12 milers.
There was a lot of championship races like that.
But mainly over the winter I was getting ready for the Rendezvous and the North American.
Those are my two main races, you know.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Was the training different for those longer sprint races?
GEORGE ATTLA: No, not really. Yeah, they were paced down a little bit, you know.
They weren't sprinting just for six or seven miles, you know. It had to be -- they had to pace themselves.
But really back then because you were -- you were -- as the musher of these dogs, you were responsible for getting the best possible work out of them.
I mean it is like a gas tank that was -- only had a gallon of gas in there, but you had to go 40 miles.
So you had to, you know, you had to make that gallon of gas go 40 miles.
So it was the same thing with sprint dogs, you know.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Yeah, I can remember seeing you in the North American where there might be one dog that was slack a little bit back in the team,
and you had to make sure that he didn't get run over but you had to make it through the 30 miles that last day.
GEORGE ATTLA: Right. Uh-huh. Yeah, some of these dogs they're not all equaled out, you know.
They're -- actually there's a saying in dog racing that you're only going to go as fast as your slowest dogs and the races are won by the dogs that you leave at home.
KATHY TURCO: Extremely delicate work. Because you can't burn them out, and you got to keep them healthy. But you can't -- mentally you can't mess with them or they won't run and you know how that is.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, sometimes, you know, you had to be really into your animals because they can't tell you if they're feeling bad.
You had to be able to read that yourself, you know, and it was just a --
it was I guess you would call it art, you know. It was just a feeling for these dogs that they would, you know, somehow you would read them that they're going to have an off day.
So you -- that's, you know, so that's what you had to go by.
You had to go by the way you felt, you know, about certain dogs.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well you certainly had the art on that.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, right.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Tell us a little about some of the logistics of getting village dogs into town for the big races. How did that work?
GEORGE ATTLA: Well, actually, the first race that I ran -- that was back in 1958 and I came in -- I flew into Fairbanks.
That was the nearest -- nearest place that was connected to the road system.
I was actually going to Anchorage.
To give you an idea of how tight money was back then, you know, the whole village was involved in this operation, you know.
And we figured out -- and money was really tight back then. I mean, you know, every dollar you made off the country went to the family.
So we figured it would cost $600 to go to Anchorage and back to Huslia.
And, you know, so that's what the village of Huslia actually furnished that, you know, the people.
They put this $600 together to send me in.
So really I came to Fairbanks and back then Fairbanks was a small town, you know.
Back in 1958 Fairbanks was a very small town. I had a friend in town.
His name was Bill Carlo and I went and stayed at his house.
And I said I'm going to need a truck to go to Anchorage. And he said go see Gene's Auto.
So I went to Gene's Auto, and I told the owner that I need a truck to go to Anchorage.
The way things were back in them days it's almost hard to imagine.
I mean I was a total stranger and a young guy.
I told them I needed a truck to go to the race in Anchorage, and I actually walked out of there with a truck.
He said you go ahead and use this truck for your race.
It didn't cost me a penny, and we drove out of there with this brand new truck.
It is hard to imagine, you know. I mean in today's world that wouldn't be done, you know, but back in those days that's the way things were.
And so I come driving home with this. I didn't have a driver's license or anything, you know.
I come driving home to Bill Carlo's house with this brand new truck, you know.
And I pull into the yard and sitting there admiring this brand new truck, you know, and -- and, you know, he told me by God you got a vehicle.
And I did, you know.
And he had a truck there, and it was an older truck, but it had plywood cabin in the back.
And he said maybe you should take my truck and leave this truck here, you know.
He said my truck has a cabin on there for the dogs and everything already.
So I thought it sounded like a good idea, you know.
So a friend and I took off to Anchorage for the race and there was two trucks.
There was another dog musher behind us that was traveling with us.
And out of Palmer the transmission blew out on my friend's truck.
So the truck behind me said well there's nothing we could do, you know. We just leave the truck here and in Palmer we'll get a garage to come back and pick it up.
So we pile all the dogs in the truck -- in one truck.
24 dogs and there was four -- four of us and we couldn't all fit in the front of the, you know, front of the truck.
So I get in the back with the dogs.
Can you imagine how hot it was inside that cabin?
But anyway, the reason I'm telling you this is because I had the $600 that I'm supposed to make a round trip with.
And with that truck breaking down and then the entry fee, I was almost broke by the time I got to the race.
I didn't have no money to get home with.
I think I may have had enough to get back to Fairbanks with.
So I actually had to do something in the race, you know. And I was just a green guy, you know.
But I had friends there that was telling me that, you know, they watch my dogs run, they said we think you could win this race.
So I had a lot of confidence, you know, these guys telling me, you know, guys that done it before telling me that I think you could win this race.
So that's what happened, you know, in my first race and made enough money to go home.
I think I won $2,500, which is a huge bundle of money back in them days, you know, that was a lot of money, yeah.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: That's a great story.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, but the race that sticks in my mind over the years of the race that -- the most interesting race I've ever had.
I don't actually remember what year it was, but it was the race in Anchorage.
The World Championship there and I was coming back from the states two weeks before that.
And my truck started breaking down. And actually it took me two weeks to get home and back to Anchorage from Fort Nelson.
I was breaking down pretty constantly, you know, and my transmission was going out and that kind of stuff.
But I got to Anchorage the night before the race.
I got there late and the dogs hadn't ran for two weeks which is, you know, unusual, you know, for a team you expect to race, you know.
But I was fortunate enough I had 32 dogs in that truck, and I would swear that every dog in that truck was a super dog.
So I picked all the dogs -- I figured I'll pick 16 out that are the calmest, calmest dogs in there. Where they wouldn't tire themselves out before the finish line.
So I picked that bunch out and the next day the race started.
I actually came in fifth, you know.
And you could see that morning when I was pulling them out of the truck, that they were still tired from all the riding and, you know, not being able to run for a couple of weeks.
So they weren't really feeling up to it. You could see that, you know.
And they came in fifth, which I was happy with, you know. I thought this is pretty good, you know.
But I didn't expect them to come back the way they did.
They rested that, you know, that day. They ate good, and that night they apparently rested good.
Next morning I went out there and I was pulling the dogs out and they were just as happy as can be.
I mean they were like saying we're ready to race now, you know.
And I came in fifth the day before. And the two leaders I had back then was called Freckles and Trot.
And those two dogs they actually starting pacing the team.
And they were running slow, you know, the first 15 miles they were actually holding those dogs back.
And I kept trying to encourage them, you know. I say you got to run faster than this to win this race, you know.
But they weren't listening to me. They were running their own race.
And about 15 miles out of a 25 mile race, all of a sudden those two leaders kicked in, you know, and they started running for all they were worth. They had 10 more miles to go.
And I was fifth the day before and pretty soon they started picking these teams off.
It was hard to imagine they were running so fast that these teams that beat me,
I actually pass all of them before the finish line.
And they got away from every team they passed.
It was just unbelievable -- an unbelievable ride, you know.
And they did it all on their own, you know.
I mean those two leaders actually paced the -- they paced the team. It's too bad I don't remember what year that was, you know.
KATHY TURCO: And then the third day they did -- they just -- you said you were so proud --
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, they hung in there well enough to where they didn't do anything outstanding the last day, but they won the Rendezvous, you know.
You know, it's to me it was amazing. I mean, I didn't expect that.
That just goes to show you how much more they have in reserve, you know.
You know and they -- they all been on a trackl before so they know how far they're going to run, you know.
So they actually pace themselves accordingly.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: That's amazing.
KATHY TURCO: And you couldn't do anything. They wouldn't listen to you at all.
GEORGE ATTLA: No. I was mad at the leaders, you know, for holding these dogs back. These dogs wanted to run but, you know, the leaders would say no.
This is how fast we are going to go, you know.
When they decided to go -- I remember Roxie was fourth the day before. I remember when I passed her.
I passed her so fast that I was gone before she knew it, you know. I mean it was just -- it was a dream ride.
KATHY TURCO: A dream ride, isn't that great? One in your life, huh?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. I have a story I would like to tell you about things that changed my career, down when I first started, you know.
Back in 1958 was when I started.
And I won the Rendezvous. And I went home. And here was all the old-timers at home, you know. We were sitting around the house and visiting that evening.
And Bobbie Vent came up to me and he said, "Kid, you didn't prove anything to me." He said all these dogs were actually raced by someone before you got them, you know.
So I thought in my mind, I'll show you, you old son of a gun, you.
I didn't speak my mind, but that's what I was thinking, you know.
So I waited four years. I trained dogs every winter after that, but they didn't look good enough to me, so I backed off, you know. I said I'm not racing.
And then in 1962, when the snowmachines were coming in and everybody was wanting to get rid of their dogs,
I was actually getting the best in the village. So I got these dogs and I put a team together.
I put a team of 16 dogs together, which was huge for those days. That was a big team.
And I went to Anchorage and I won the Rendezvous then.
I won it by a pretty good margin this time.
And I went home and the same thing again. We're all sitting around the house visiting and Bobbie Vent comes up to me and he said, "By God, you are a dog man."
It took me four years to earn that, you know. I never forgot that.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: That's a good -- KATHY TURCO: Taught you something, huh? GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, the final question that I have is kind of a hard one but we always ask people in this series what the role of dogs are in their lives, um -- KATHY TURCO: Today.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Today. I mean here you are an Elder, a distinguished Elder, and dogs are still important to you.
Can you talk about what they mean to you today?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, I think you saying what they mean to me today is probably the same thing that they meant to me when I was a kid.
It's actually a way of life to me, you know. It's -- I tried at one time down through the years after I retired I thought well I'll get rid of my dogs, you know.
So I went down to seven dogs in my kennel. That's how many I had left, you know and I wasn't happy any more.
I miss my dogs, you know.
So in reality what these dogs mean to me is almost like life itself, you know.
It's -- they're a necessity. It's almost like you need a fork, a knife, and a spoon, you know, to get by every day.
Well, that's what those dogs mean to me.
I need my team to get by every day, so I got actually more than I need, but I'm happy with what I have, you know.
Like I have -- today I have 24 dogs and that's more than a guy should have, you know.
KATHY TURCO: But they keep you active. Tell them about how they keep you active and it is just a --
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, these dogs keep me in shape, you know and then mentally, you know, I'm at peace, you know, with these dogs.
Every day I go out there to my dogs and they're actually telling me you're the best guy in the world, you know.
So it's almost, you know, mentally it's a necessity.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, it's pretty impressive that you're still hooking them up and training them. GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah.
KATHY TURCO: You love training. You love -- you love working with their minds and -- GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, I love working with them because you never really get to understand an animal.
You know, you think you know him but he's always teaching you something new. You know, so his make up, you know.
For instance, I had a leader that I got from a friend of mine this winter. A perfect command dog, you know.
The dog will do anything he will for you, but she showed me that she has her own mind too, you know.
And she's so smart that there was a Y in the trail, she knows the way -- the direction I go every day.
And when -- the first time she showed me that she could also cheat me, you know.
Was when she -- I came to this Y and I wanted to go to the right.
That's the way I went every day. And she act like she was going to the right, and before you know it she was into the left trail.
So she got her own way, you know.
KATHY TURCO: Waiting for him to be asleep. Just a little bit, right?
GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah, just that she catch you off guard she'll go her own way.
And I said you never -- they never get done educating you, you know. It's really interesting.
KATHY TURCO: And you got to see him around dogs. They're -- he has something. It's just they're looking at him -- GEORGE ATTLA: Yeah. KATHY TURCO: And they do something. It's really hard to explain.
GEORGE ATTLA: Even this winter now, this past winter, you know. I'm 78 years old now and this past winter I could hook those dogs up.
They could still win the race. And you know it's not me, I mean being 78 years old.
It has to be the dogs.
But I have a connection with them that, you know, I made an agreement with them.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: That's pretty special.
GEORGE ATTLA: You give me the best you got and I'll feed you the best way I can, you know. So it's a beautiful relationship.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Thank you very much.
GEORGE ATTLA: Yep.
KATHY TURCO: Very good. Beautiful ending. KAREN BREWSTER: That's great, thank you.


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