Effie Kokrine was interviewed on February 10, 1987 by William Schneider, Sue Will and Doris Southall in Fairbanks, Alaska. Effie grew up in Tanana, Alaska when dog teams were the dominant form of transportation. Her father, Johnny Folger, ran a leg of the diphtheria serum run between Minto and Tanana. She helped care for her father's team and soon learned to drive her own team. She and her husband, Andrew Kokrine moved to Fairbanks in 1949, where she got involved in dog racing. She ran in the Women's Division of the Open North American Sled Dog Race from 1949 - 1965, and helped found the Junior Dog Musher's Association. In this interview, she talks about growing up in Tanana and their use of dog teams, dog team mail carriers, positions of dogs in the team, training and disciplining dogs, choosing dogs for a team, feeding and caring for dogs, getting involved in dog racing and specific incidents in races, equipment and gear, junior dog mushing, the trail to Wiseman, breaking trail and use of gee poles, keeping dogs in Fairbanks, her favorite dogs, and the importance of having trust between dog and musher.
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The first dog Effie remembers
Using loose leaders with a dog team
The importance of dogs in a team taking commands, and the role of the swing dog
What to look for in a puppy that tells you it will make a good team dog
Taking care of the dogs' health
Feeding the dogs
Dog team mail carriers
How she got into running the North American Sled Dog Race
A particularly surprising outcome of a race
Training the dogs
Talking about Whitey, one of her good lead dogs
Effie's last sled dog race
Women in the sled dog races
Gear and equipment
Junior dog mushing and benefits of dog mushing for kids
Family history and connections with dog mushing
Dog team mail carrier route to Wiseman
Use of gee poles to help control a heavy sled
Her husband, Andrew Kokrine, working as a dog team mail carrier
Keeping dogs in town and use of boarding kennels
Moving to Fairbanks
Effie's favorite dog
Picking names for dogs
Talking to your dogs when in a passing situation
Passing moose on the trail
The importance of trust between a musher and their dogs
Disciplining and training dogs
Advice for mushers of today
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is February 10th. EFFIE KOKRINE: 10th. BILL SCHNEIDER: 1987. And we have the pleasure today of doing an interview with Effie Kokrine. I'm Bill Schneider, and with me today is Doris Southall and Sue Will. And we're going to talk a little about your history and involvement in dog mushing. And so it's a pleasure, and I appreciate you coming out here, even though we made you walk all around the building and all. EFFIE KOKRINE: Took me away from my world. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. But nice to have you here. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. BILL SCHNEIDER: And just for those people that are listening, this is a -- a follow up on an earlier interview that was done as part of the Chinook series, so we'll be talking about a few other things and also picking up on some of those good stories, too. So thanks for coming. And Sue, why don't you start off. SUE WILL: Well, you said that you were telling Bill the story about the first dog you remember. EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, the first dog that I remember when I was, oh, say, about seven years old was because he was forever giving us a bad time. He was an old dog that my father just kept as a retired pet because he -- he was just a likeable dog. And so as I was telling Bill, he was probably the father of all our strange dogs we had at that time. But he was old and we couldn't afford to keep pets, but he stayed along as -- run along like a loose leader and everything, so... And when he was getting older, my father used to go out and drive dogs or something, go out, haul wood and things, and he would leave him home. So every time he left him home, no matter how good he was tied, he used to get loose. So it was my brother and I forever going out after him and dragging him back. So I remember him the most because many times my mother tell us, now, you go out and look for Tonnish (phonetic). And Tonnish is an Indian name and it's short for Quitonnish (phonetic). And Quitonnish in Indian means he's going to live. And, you know, in Indians, you know, you -- when you talk, a lot of your words is backwards. Like you make a sentence and it will be reversed. And when -- a lot of the dogs's names was named Indian names, same as kids and people. So he -- this is, well, this is dog is going to Quitonnish, that means this dog will live. So his name became Quitonnish, and then he was known like Tonnish to everybody. And he was always Tonnish. But my mother said his real name was Quitonnish. SUE WILL: Did you have -- did many of you guys have loose leaders when you started out? EFFIE KOKRINE: Not in a family life, not in our daily life. But my husband, and not only him, the others that used to carry mail out in the blizzard, out in the cold with no trails, no Sno Go's, over mountains, loose leader was very important because he was the leader and he was understanding of -- of his master, like you could wave and whistle and something, and he'll -- he'll understand. SUE WILL: He's like a lab or a heel trial dog is today in a way. EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah, but...
SUE WILL: (indiscernible) EFFIE KOKRINE: It was -- he was a dog that's been over the trail before, and once a dog's been over the trail, like from Tanana, when my husband used to drive dogs over towards Wiseman, once a month they'd make that trip where there was no trail from, you know, day to day in the mountains, it's just swept clean. And that dog would follow that same trail, and then he'd go ahead and the dogs would follow him. And if he'd break off the trail, well, he can find his footing and get back on. And then if you want his attention, you'll whistle and you'll go like this, you know, and he'll -- he'll understand you, and the dogs all in the back follow him, and he was very important. But as our daily life, our just like hauling wood or running to town or something, a loose dog was never necessary. SUE WILL: So the loose leader had to know hand signals? EFFIE KOKRINE: Hand signals, uh hum. SUE WILL: And voice signals. EFFIE KOKRINE: And he has to be a dog that's been, like, over the trail before, and they can almost -- SUE WILL: One you can really trust. EFFIE KOKRINE: -- crossing the lake, they can just go right across and find the exact spot on the other side where they're supposed to go in. And they were just -- your dogs was your -- almost your life because you depend on them for so much; that is, if you lived out in the country. SUE WILL: Did you -- did most of the team dogs know commands? Did the leaders in the team know commands? EFFIE KOKRINE: The leaders in the team are the leaders because they take a command, and the swing dogs take just as good command as the leader because when the leader go, like, jump, you know, one way or the other, well, they are right there to -- to bring up the rest of the team, so they are just as important. The swing dogs are just as important to the team as the leader because you have two swing dogs that's not going to obey the leader, what good is the leader because they can just pull him around, jerk him around. But if they just all take commands, so your swing dogs is almost as good as the leader, which a lot of times they are your extra leaders. SUE WILL: Also, I've heard a lot of people say that for, like, when people were freighting or carrying the mail that the wheel dogs were so important because when you went around a sharp corner or a tree, you know, the wheel dog had to be able to -- to not cut a corner like a lot of our racing dogs do today, but to pull ahead and then follow the leaders around. EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, I don't know about that part, whether they actually pull it around the corner and anything, but then the wheel dog, in pulling the load, does take more of a beating. So we used to -- well, the bumbest dog in the team automatically went in the back because you can control him more. Like, if he wants to be lazy and don't want to pull, then you have a easier time to -- SUE WILL: Tell him he better move it. EFFIE KOKRINE: -- to get the message across that -- and then we used to always take a bigger dog, you know, a big -- a heavier dog, because they do take a lot of abuse of -- they are the ones with the sled behind them. So as for knowing how to go around corners, I don't know, but I know they were always the -- SUE WILL: Heaviest and the orneriest. EFFIE KOKRINE: Or -- and then I think it's a -- it was a hard work because they are the ones with the sled behind them, where the others, the dogs move along with them, you know, with the motion and everything of every little hump or bump or little curve, where the back ones, they got the sled that's coming behind them. SUE WILL: Okay. My next question is what do you look for in pups? How did you decide which ones in a litter to keep or did you just try them all? EFFIE KOKRINE: No. Well, when we were -- in the olden days when we had to ration our dog food and then we controlled our breeding of our dogs, too. We always had -- my father always had one female, or maybe two in reserve so that if this one gets old, well, we have this other one that is special. But as soon as the pups are born we got rid of them, the ones that we don't need. And my father used to always -- I'm going to use my father as an example because that's my earliest recollection. We used to save, like, two every litter like when we had -- then that way the dogs don't get old at one time. And we still have enough, like nine dogs for our freight team -- I mean, our living, like we move from camp to camp, or we go to Tanana and go back to home which is 16 miles away from town where we lived, we trapped and everything there, so our transportation, we always had enough. But you just -- so one dog get old, you always have this other one to take its place so that they don't all get old together and you don't have all young dogs together. You keep them rotating in the right age. And we used to look for the pups, if you wanted to keep only two or four, we always look for pups with the black feet. And the white feet, we say, well, we don't keep them because they say they got tender feet; and for cold weather, or running through different conditions, their feet is not as strong as a dog with black feet. SUE WILL: Uh hum. I've heard that. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. And then it's not true, but then when the puppy is born, too, you pick them up by the nape of the neck and give them a little shake, and if they squeal, well, that's a sissy, you don't want that, but I don't believe that, you know. So anyway. SUE WILL: So you practiced in a way like selective breeding for the dogs. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. SUE WILL: Did you do anything special for worming them or anything like that? EFFIE KOKRINE: Long time ago we didn't know anything about worms. We don't have them. SUE WILL: Did you use kerosene or gas -- grass? EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, if they did, I don't -- I just -- it wasn't my thing. And they always said the dogs ate grass if they needed it. SUE WILL: Which seems to be true. EFFIE KOKRINE: And then one thing, too, like eating hair, like moose hair or something, they says it causes worms, so we never did use it. And we always cooked our dog food, we never gave them just raw food. We always had it cooked, our feed. The only time we gave them raw food, like when we were in fish camp sometimes we'd give them raw -- the heads only, but not the meat. SUE WILL: You were talking before about what you had for available dog food, how you limited your dog team to what was available then. Can you talk about -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, we had no commercial dog food long time ago. The only thing we had was what we -- what we got off the country because, like, we went fishing all summer long, we weren't limited, we didn't -- they didn't tell us, okay, you fish today, you fish tomorrow. We fish as we needed, and dried all our food, dog fish. And then in the falltime, we froze a lot of food, fresh -- fresh whitefish and stuff, you just put them up to freeze. And even if they soured a little bit, it didn't hurt the dogs because they were dropping, they were sour, but it didn't hurt the dogs. And then we had a lot of dry fish, and then a lot of the dry fish we used to sell to the stores in exchange, like, for food, so someone else that don't have enough dog food will be able to purchase it. And then we used to get rolled oats to put in our dog food because that's -- we had no commercial dog food to put in it, so we did use rolled oats. And some people have used rice, but it's -- most of my memory was rolled oats, a hundred pounds a sack of rolled oats, and then you'd mix that up. And then in the falltime, you'd take -- we used to buy all our gasoline with five gallon cans, but you rinse that out and you put the fish eggs in there. And you just put that away, and even that soured. You take a little of that fish eggs and you cream your dog food with it as you're cooking it. The dry fish is good for the dogs to eat dry when you're travelling or if you can't cook or something, but if you're home, your own home, then you still cook the dog food because they need the juice, then you throw a chunk of this frozen fish eggs in there and it richens and creams the deal. And in the springtime when you're travelling long ways, like we used to go to Stevens Village or someplace, and we were light on dog food, even if you take little fish eggs and mix it with water and water them with that, they still get a lot of food value and energy to -- you know, to go with less food. So when we travelled, we used to go trapping and things, we used to go from Tanana and up to Stevens Village and go up into the Flats to -- to spring camp. Survival. Of course, the dogs eat the muskrat, too, then when you have enough muskrat, or whatever you have. SUE WILL: Did you ever accompany your husband when he went up to Wiseman and any of those? EFFIE KOKRINE: No. That's before I knew him. SUE WILL: Okay. And he was doing the mail carrier? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah, he carried mail for his father -- his father had the contract, and he carried the mail for him. But that was, like I say, before my time. But it was still being done my time him and I got married, it was still being done, but it was getting more like the airplanes and things was starting to do the work. SUE WILL: Yeah. Did you know of any women who did any of that? EFFIE KOKRINE: I don't know of anyone that actually took the mail run, but I know of a woman that helped quite a bit. That's Katherine Mayo, you know Freddie Mayo and Clyde Mayo's mother. She wasn't Katherine Mayo then, she was -- they were living down at Kallands. SUE WILL: Oh, I know where that -- EFFIE KOKRINE: And I know she helped. Now, whether -- it wasn't on her contract to do it, but you helped whenever you can. And I know my father said she used to put on snowshoes and go up and break out the mail trail, so that's when the mail team is coming down, they can hit her trail and walk -- you know, come in because we used to have more severe weather those days. And I'm pretty sure my Andrew was telling me one time that she did make a run, but that's the only woman I know. They had roadhouse there where the mail carriers used to stop overnight, and she had to have the wood and -- I mean, the water and everything all ready for the dogs to be watered and everything and then they -- they house the mail carrier for the night. And so she played a very important part in those days because she was living with her mother, which her mother couldn't get around and do things, but Katherine was a young woman and she done all the work. Uh huh. But she's -- she was a tough -- tough one in those days. To snowshoe out a trail in a blizzard and in heavy snow and stuff, just... SUE WILL: I want to switch to something a little different now. EFFIE KOKRINE: Okay. SUE WILL: Unless you have something you can think of asking. On the other tape you talked about running your first race, the Tanana, and then you talked briefly about the North American Race. Why did you -- something I didn't find out was why did you run that North American, that first North American that you ran? Just because you had -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Because my husband told me to. The first North American I ran was the first year after we moved to Fairbanks. And I didn't know no -- the racetrack or didn't know any of the dog mushers or anything. I met Libby Westcott and them, you know, just briefly, but I didn't know my way around or anything in Fairbanks. And all of a sudden he came home one day and he said, "You're going to run the women's race." "Now, where am I going?" SUE WILL: But you liked it because you did it after that. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. Well, then, he just said, "Follow the trail and let the dogs lead the way." You know. And then when you hit the river, and then such and such a place you turn around." Then we started under the Cushman Bridge and we went up the Noyes Slough, and we went up the bank or something around under the railroad track or something, and you zigzagged around down way, down until you hit the -- go under another bridge or something. SUE WILL: It's pretty much the same. EFFIE KOKRINE: And the only thing I could remember, though, is I was going through the woods, then all of a sudden here comes the river. Okay. When you hit the river, I know you're supposed to go up the river. And in those days, you had no trail. There was a dog trail. You know, someone had run the dogs through there. We had no trail to follow, but there was probably a sign or something. But anyway, when you hit that river is when you go back up the Chena River, which I did. And I don't remember coming in or anything, but I remember making that turn after you once hit the river, and I thought, "Oh, I'm home." SUE WILL: Which was your favorite race? EFFIE KOKRINE: There is no favorite. SUE WILL: There isn't, huh? EFFIE KOKRINE: Huh uh. Because every one is -- was a -- a run in its own. Maybe the most shocking one would probably when I won the three -- the year that I won my third year. That probably would be the most surprising. SUE WILL: Why? EFFIE KOKRINE: Because I didn't think I was going to do it. Because it just came as such a shock, a surprise. Because I was number four starting that day. And that was second day of running or three days of running, I can't remember. Anyway, I was number four, and I had no idea whatsoever. All I wanted was to make sure Whitey -- I had Andrew's little Whitey, which did not like to obey me. He was strictly Andrew's dog, and he'll run for me, he won't get into mischief, but he wouldn't give me his heart. So I was just going along, coming down the hill at the KFAR up there on Farmers Loop Road, just after I head into the brushes, here's a dog team ahead of me. They are having a tangle. I was shocked, so I went around it, and I looked up and here's two more teams ahead of me having the same problem. So Whitey right there, you know, okay, he's trained instinct. He just went right around this first dog team, and their dogs is anxious to go, and they were, you know, well, all just wanting to go, but he wanted to show off then. That's the only time I could say that dog knew what he was doing. He went right around that one; and the next two, he went right around. And Libby Westcott was the third team I passed just, "Come on, Effie! Come out your whip!" You never pull out your whip or anything in the races because that's courtesy to the others. And she goes, "Come on, go!" And I was, like, shocked. I still didn't realize what was going on. And so I just kept pushing, and she was behind me all the way through, she said, "Go ahead, go ahead! Use your whip!" I don't use a whip when I'm driving. I use the rattler, noisemaker, or a chain in my hand, like a piece of broken chain. And you just hold it in your hand like -- you make a noise with it. But then -- but the best thing I liked was I always carried a little sticks in my hand, in my chain bag. And -- like, I'd take a little stick, a little bit like that, and then I'd hit it on the side of the sled, and just like make rhythm. And I seemed to find that more comforting and I don't have to use my voice or something, and then I sing or you know. So I just, "Come on! Come on! Let's go!" And I just came in. And like I say, Whitey, really, I take my hat off to him that day because the starting of the race, he just -- he was just doing his own thing. He'd look around and just run along, and I'd coax him and talk to him, and he was not giving me anything except staying ahead. So that -- I think that was the most surprised race. SUE WILL: How many dogs did you have in the team? EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, probably -- I don't take only seven or eight if I can. I avoid nine. Nine is a good number, like two or three day race, because you can always drop one, but I'm more comfortable with eight. SUE WILL: Did you generally have a single leader or a double leader? EFFIE KOKRINE: Mostly a single leader if I can, but double leaders is really good, too. I always feel like they give each other confidence, especially passing a team or something, if one is a little shy or something, that one is, you know, just going. But then the worst situation I got into is single lead, seemed to be what I had at the time, when I did get into where I was a little, you know, what am I going to do? Feeling. So you have a good leader, a single leader is good, but I always feel like a double leader give each other a level path along the way. SUE WILL: Did Andrew pretty much train the dogs or did you share training in the dogs? EFFIE KOKRINE: Before he used to do all the driving, but then when we got to Fairbanks, there's a lot of times while he was working, I used to take the dogs out at the Chena River. SUE WILL: Did you do anything special for training of them? Did you hit specific problem areas, or did you train puppies -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, I think -- well, the puppies, that was my -- I used to, you know, play around with the puppies quite a bit, but the main part of training which I did was just hardening them up. Give them the running time, the mileage. And then when it comes to training, then he wasn't working by, like, March and stuff, so he used to take over. That's in Fairbanks, you know. SUE WILL: Did he break the puppies? EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, with puppies, we always played with them and, you know, put them in harness and play around with them, so by the time they know what it's about, they know the feel of the harness. Now, going up the hill, you know -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Are you talking about Whitey? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. Okay. This is off, isn't it? BILL SCHNEIDER: No, it's on now. EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, right now? Well, do you want me to talk about Whitey some more? BILL SCHNEIDER: Sure. EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, the part that made me feel, oh, my God, can't you do any better than that, was we used to haul the dogs to the starting line with truck. And now -- now -- excuse me. You know, who'd think anything of it. Here I was going up towards the college, and you got up to the -- to the -- up on the hill there. That -- anyway, you know what I mean, that Yankovich Crossing. Anyway. And he was just running along and not paying any attention. And then he was looking around at all these cars parked along the way and he spotted Andrew in the truck way up there on the hill. So he says, well, I don't have to run, so he was just -- oh. He was just -- just trotting along until we made that loop way down and we come back and we were passing right where Andrew's truck was. Of course, you know that, you shouldn't have been there. And then after we passed there, he decided, well, I might as well get home. And then, boy, he took off. Like we learned then for whatever truck Andrew, you know, delivered the dogs to the starting chute, keep away from there. Especially as long as I had Whitey. But before that I had sort of my own leader, too, so. Yeah. He had to. He was -- had a personality that was sort of comical, but he knew what he was doing. SUE WILL: How long did you have him? EFFIE KOKRINE: I -- we didn't have him too long because we bought him from a guy in Stevens Village. And he sent him over in airplane and said, "Well, you know, this white dog is the leader." So when we got him, Andrew wasn't sure which one was which, so he just put old Whitey in the lead. And we lived in Graehl, so he took up, there was no Hamilton Acres, so we used to drive the dogs up that way. And he put Whitey in the lead, and he was an ugly old humpback thing, but he was the biggest and he looked like he was strong. And he went all right. And he worked beautiful with Andrew after that, but right off the bat he was sort of hesitant and wasn't, like, sure of what he was doing. But we didn't know until way afterwards that we had the wrong dog in the lead. But he never did get out of the leader after that. He stayed there until we got rid of all our dogs. And he always had the lead since then, but it was so funny because he wasn't even a leader. But Andrew looked at him and he thought, you look like you have more of the -- you know, the go power than the other one. Because the other white one was sort of slim and smaller. So, well, he went in the back and Whitey went ahead, and no wonder when he started -- always we had to pass the old schoolhouse, Nordale schoolhouse in that area we used to go, and he was just like acting like he wasn't sure of himself. But it's all right. He was all right. SUE WILL: What was the last race you ran? EFFIE KOKRINE: The last race I ran? SUE WILL: Uh hum. EFFIE KOKRINE: Was in 1965 when I tipped over, coming in the chute, day after that big blizzard we had, and the Sno-Go went over the trail, but this one place the Sno-Go had gone off the trail and then got back on. Well, when I hit that spot where the Sno-Go got off because I was coming in first, and I tipped over. And just right after the problem I had, and I -- I didn't have the strength in my hands to get up, so I just -- SUE WILL: That's a pretty long racing career you've had. EFFIE KOKRINE: 15 years -- in 16 years time, I -- I ran 15 times. Even I did not have dogs a lot of times, I just borrowed, pick a team here, pick a team there, or whoever would let me have the dogs for the -- for the day, or you know. I just used to run because I love it. Not to run, not to win, just to be in it, just to participate. I still have that feeling. SUE WILL: I have another question in relation to that. How is -- what kind of competition was there between you women when you were running the Women's North American? Sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie. EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, a long time ago it was -- they had a women's race. Women didn't mix with the men, you know. They had a women's race, and we had some pretty good mushers that was familiar with their dogs and that has done it before me. And so they were -- there were some good women mushers, but we didn't make the time they are making now. Our road conditions were different, and there was a lot of skill and power and handling of your team. Because there is always someone in the team that did not know how to handle their dogs and was not able to handle their dogs. I run into several places during the races that I had to stop and help somebody. And one time I tied myself to the sled with the tree, before we had ice hooks, I tied myself to a tree to help another woman, and I couldn't get out. I came in second to the last that year, but I was stuck. I couldn't untie myself because my arms could not reach the -- where the snap was hooked to the line and holding the sled back. And they want to go, and I was trying to hold back, but I done that to help another woman that was in trouble. Her dogs got tangled, and there's a dog that was just laying there hollering, and if you didn't correct that right away, there could be a dog fight. Because any time a dog is hollering in pain, the towline had gotten around a younger dog and she couldn't control it, she had too many dogs. So I went a little ahead and then I tied -- I passed her. So I tied the dogs up and I ran back and I unsnapped her lines and released this dog that was hollering, because if you want trouble, that's one way to start trouble is having a dog in pain. That's animal in the dogs that just automatically turn on each other. Maybe they are trying to help, but they don't know how to help. SUE WILL: Uhm. You were saying that you didn't have snow hooks then, that you tied your dogs up -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. SUE WILL: -- to a tree, available tree. So that means you could only have as many dogs as you could actually -- EFFIE KOKRINE: That you could handle and hold. Uh hum. And on the Yukon River, long time ago when we used to drive dogs, we used to tip our sled over and, like, stick the nose in the side of this road enough so that you can run up there. And after the time I start handling the dogs, I always had one in the team that we raised in the house. And when she was a pup, and she understood me and she was my dog. And she'd lay down when I'd get up and have to do anything because that's another leader of Andrew's that didn't like to obey me; he liked to, you know, play around. She'd just lay down until I get up there and do my thing and get back. And it was -- it was really -- you had to be alert, you had to be fast, and it was just a different thing. We had no snow hook, especially on the river when you have no trees or no nothing, you're just on the river, Yukon River, that's where we used to drive dogs before we came to Fairbanks. SUE WILL: Did you make your harnesses? I know most of your -- I mean the sleds, manmade sleds -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah, we made our own sleds, we made our own harness, and our towlines, and whether your working towline or your working harness. Long time ago we used to have nothing but collar harness for working, and then we'd change the style to more comfort and lighter weight, and the best harness to work in. There is another harness that they used to have before they called Siwash harness, but then that was made where it was cutting under the arm, so they styled the harness to what they have today where it fits the body over the shoulders and snug over the hip without any, like, underarm rub. And then the neck lines and everything had to be for the comfort of the dog, without being a hindrance to step over the neck line. You know, long enough for the comfort of their movements, but not where it hung where the dog would step over it. And -- and for racing, there should always be enough space between the two dogs so that it will be comfortable, not put them too close together where there's -- they are just too clustered up, then they don't have the freedom and the -- to probably see an object or a stick or something, too, because you have to... SUE WILL: Did they put bells or anything, tassels or anything on the harness? EFFIE KOKRINE: We used to have tassels on for harness just for decoration, but for bells, when we were younger, we used to put them on, on holidays. Like Christmastime, you were coming to town for the holidays and things, and coming into town, you'd hear a dog team coming with bells on it, but that's the only time. Uh hum. SUE WILL: Did you use booties? EFFIE KOKRINE: Depends on the weather. That depends on the weather. And we used to use booties in towards spring because we used to run dogs and travel around until the ice is not safe to travel on anymore, and the snow conditions and everything; but in the springtime, when you're travelling in the spring or going anywhere, you'd have this thaw. And on the river there would be sand blowing all the time -- all the time where the sand would be over the -- the snow where it freeze at night, and it's just hard and irritate the dogs. We used to use dog -- dog booties. SUE WILL: Did you ever use dog blankets or anything like that? EFFIE KOKRINE: No. We did used to have -- if we had to travel any length of place, where -- like we were going to Tanana for the holiday or Christmas or something, and you have to have a female with -- with nursing, we used to have a blanket for a breast -- breast blanket. SUE WILL: That just fit under the harness? EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. Just fit under -- it just -- you tie it up like -- you wouldn't fit it to the harness. We -- we just had it so it tied in the back and around the neck and between the legs so that it'd protect their -- the breast. But that was only if you had to travel; otherwise, you left the female home, which hardly too many people raise pups in the winter. The summertime food is more -- you have more to feed the pups, so that wasn't too often that you had a female with breast, unless if you may have happened to just have pups, and -- but then we didn't save the pups either in the summer -- in the wintertime. SUE WILL: The last couple years you've gotten real active in the junior dog mushing. What have you been doing with that? EFFIE KOKRINE: Last couple of years? SUE WILL: Well -- EFFIE KOKRINE: We've been involved in the junior dog mushing, me, my family, my kids, or someone, for 30 years. SUE WILL: I didn't realize that it was that long. EFFIE KOKRINE: Thirty-one -- Well, this year it will be 32 years since the juniors started being active. And that was way back when they first started, like Jackie Landreu was still around, and she had a son, and Despain. So they just got together and they took one of my boys and a couple of their boys and went down to this Rendezvous. There was a place like a bar thing with a big back open, and they used to have their dog mushers's banquet and stuff there, so they all went back there one time and let the kids run. So the next year they started, like, a junior racing. So one of my boys was in one of the first junior activities, and then went through all my kids, and now it's going through all my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. So last year, there was seven of my children or great grandchildren involved in the junior dog races, but this year I think it's going to be less than that now. So... But that was the year that -- and I don't have a good picture of it. BILL SCHNEIDER: So you've been involved in that for 30 years? EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, it's -- if it's not me directly, it's my kids. And my son in law has been advisory, doing their advisor, and then my kids are always in there working with them and they are always in there, and like the timekeepers and all that. And even when I wasn't active, actually, I was active as the road marshal or something. And my one daughter that never raced, she was always out there road marshaling with me. So one way or the other, we're always involved. And Jeff Studdert used to have the honorary chair during the junior dog mushes, and now -- I'm not bragging, but now they give me the honorary chair, so I'm always at the banquets. I mean, I try always. I don't say always. I try always to be at the banquet, but this year I'm going to miss it. And my -- my son in law right now is a senior advisor for the juniors. And my daughter and daughter in law and them are all the timekeepers and everything, so... SUE WILL: So that's why all your children are into dog mushing or have been into dog mushing off and on. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. Well, I encourage them. That's a very good past time for kids because it teaches them to handle their dog and handle themselves, and it's -- it's a good leg work. Skiing is good, but with the dog and you, you're building your body. And contact with dogs is a comfortable thing. It's they understand you and they like you and they -- it gives you great pleasure to be able to work together. I know our dogs has always enjoyed being handled. SUE WILL: Well, I'm about at a hold point for the moment. BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us a little about your family's history. EFFIE KOKRINE: In the family history, the dog mushing has not been much because a long time ago they didn't have races like they do. But in springtime, they always had a little get together on the 17th of March, was a big day. And they used to have little races, but most people had just working dogs then. But then in 1925, when the serum run was made to Nome, my father was one of them that ran his section. I think he went up to -- I don't know where he went to, from Tanana up, wherever he was met, like, from Minto or someplace he was met, then he picked up the serum and then he took it to Tanana; and then from Tanana, then they switched drivers so that their dogs wouldn't have -- tire out so everybody just -- you know, just like a relay. So my father was the one that brought it into Tanana. SUE WILL: Effie, what was your maiden name? EFFIE KOKRINE: Folger. My father's name was Johnny Folger, and his -- his father was a prospector that came into the country in 1800. And there is a Folger place named, too, down there where he -- he covered quite a bit of Alaska, I guess, before. SUE WILL: Yeah, I've run across the name. EFFIE KOKRINE: And two kids didn't stop him. But my name is Folger, and my mother's father was Huntington. So I'm related to Jim and Sidney Huntington, too. So -- so we have -- SUE WILL: So you'd go for the dog mushing traditions? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. Well, it was our life. That was your life, same as a car is to you, the dog mushing was just the thing. In summertime, we used to hook up dogs and go up the river. You'd tie the -- hook the dogs up and put a big towline on there and you could -- they used to tow the boats up the river before they had engines, motorboats. And so dogs was a very important part of a person's life. You could tow around a sandbar. Of course, you couldn't do it too good on Tanana River, but on the Yukon River and you get a good sandbar, the dogs just run, in summer and they can tow the boat. SUE WILL: So you pretty much grew up around the Tanana area? EFFIE KOKRINE: I was raised on the Tanana area, but later on I -- we were on the Yukon River. BILL SCHNEIDER: You were mentioning about running the mail up to Wiseman. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? That was your father? EFFIE KOKRINE: No. My husband, when he was -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Your husband. EFFIE KOKRINE: -- when he was 17 years old, he was considered those days a man. And then he started running the dog -- the mail team up there for -- for his dad, he took over. BILL SCHNEIDER: His dad was named? EFFIE KOKRINE: Andrew Kokrine, Senior. And the Kokrine Hills, the Kokrine Mountains is for that Kokrine, yeah. They're all -- my father in law's father had a store there, that's where the Kokrine name came from, he had a little trading post. So my name is connected in a lot of the progress made in Alaska. BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you been on that trail up to Wiseman? EFFIE KOKRINE: Only as far as the 36 mile. That's 36 mile behind Tanana. We went up there one year to trap beaver in the Tozi River, was a relief cabin, the mail cabin there on the river, so we stayed there one winter. And we had to cross some of those mountains. I would say where you need a -- you need a -- a trained loose leader. And boy, it's just -- just mountain with nothing on it except the posts. They have the trail markers. Years ago they put, like, trail markers, they put three sticks together and put a tripod on the old -- on the trail. So that when you're crossing the mountain, you can at least have some landmark of some kind. And so I did cross the 14 mountains -- 14 Mile Mountains, so I know what it's like, only it's such a short way. But when you're running to Wiseman was a very tough trip because the weather was so cold sometimes. And you carried your -- the dog food you're going to use for the month's trip, and you have to carry some and leave one at -- some here at this mail cabin. You can either hang it up inside of the relief cabin or, you know, hang it up some way. And then coming back, then you depend on that dog food being there. And was just a -- it was a real -- it took a man, and you had to be strong and tough, you had to have tough dogs. And your equipment, your harness had to be heavy. Heavy equipment so that they don't way -- wear out or fray because you've got a load, you've got all the -- Then they had to be responsible also for carrying money. (Pause in recording.) BILL SCHNEIDER: You were saying it took a whole month. EFFIE KOKRINE: They used to make a trip one month, every month we made a trip. And that's allowing plenty of time to go over to Wiseman and stop in all the places and come back. Then you rest your dogs a little while or, you know, switch dogs around, take another one that's not tired, and then start again. SUE WILL: Where did they stop on the way up and back? EFFIE KOKRINE: They had relief cabin all along the route. They had the little log cabins, you know, built all along there. I don't remember what the first relief cabin on the Tanana was, but I've been there, too. And it's far enough where you can make, like, 10 miles a day or 12 miles a day because you had a heavy load. You had all your food, your equipment, your clothing, your dog food, and everything, and plus the mail. And then coming back, like, if you brought a bunch of fur, fox skins, and whatever, then you have all that to haul back, too, although it's a light -- a lighter trip coming back if you don't have that much dog food and stuff to carry. And then on the side, they used to take, like, beads; beads, sewing beads and stuff, and sell that along the way, too, if you want to do, but that's -- that's on your own. That's got nothing to do with U.S. mail. That is strictly on your own. So, well, he used to do that, too. I mean my husband did, in his little four years time. And then his brother, Tony Kokrine, which was never, you know, really known, he's -- he's made the trip with his brother, too. And then if two people go, then they can take two sleds, and the lighter sled can break the trail for the main heavy, heavy trail. That was the best way to travel if two people went because the one with the lighter sled and the lighter weight, not the mail, could go ahead and break the trail where the working team can follow and have a trail to follow. Because sometimes, it used to drift so bad and no snow and all, like. The winters were just different. Sometimes the mail carrier had to walk ahead of the dogs with the snowshoes to break the trail out. So you had to have dogs that you could trust behind you and also ahead. SUE WILL: Did they use gee poles? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yes. Towards spring days, they had the gee poles, and that's like when the snow start melting on one side and stuff, and the trail started to get sidings and stuff, that's when the gee pole was handy. Then you could either run ahead of the sled with snowshoes on. Or if it's a better condition, then you can put skis on and guide it. And they had another one that -- oh, they had, like, a surf board. SUE WILL: Ouija board. EFFIE KOKRINE: Ouija board. Yeah. Then you could use that also. Which was heavier to carry, where the skis was the lighter. I tried that one time myself coming down from the Tanana River in springtime, my stepfather told me to get on gee pole when I was a, you know, younger person, and that takes a lot of leg work. Boy, you have to guide the sled, you know, keep from falling off the old sled tracks. Like I said, in those days we didn't have no Sno-Go trails, we had a sled track to follow, and that was our roads, our trails. And to keep the sled on, it's -- you have to be strong to do that. SUE WILL: What did they do with hills? Did they rough block the runners or turn logs -- EFFIE KOKRINE: To -- to going down the hills, rough log them. Uh hum. Because coming down any hills or creeks. But that wasn't used too often. That wasn't practiced too often. SUE WILL: Did they ever let dogs loose coming down hills or were most of the dogs (inaudible)? EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh. Sometimes going downhill, and if you have a big load and you're scared, you could turn some dogs loose, but then -- then you can also just undo their back line. You undo their back line so they are not pulling. And the sled goes on their own. And if you have a long rope, like if you were hauling something heavy and you were going down into a creek, then you have a big snubbing line, then you can, you know, help release it, but that's something that hasn't been practiced too much. It's something that you just -- you don't do every day. It's just, you know, something that depends on where you are. SUE WILL: So your husband ran the mail route for four years. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. SUE WILL: Between Tanana. EFFIE KOKRINE: From when he was 17 to 21. By that time, they stopped. BILL SCHNEIDER: Is that when airplanes came in? EFFIE KOKRINE: I suppose so. And then -- but from Tanana up through they used to have horses, too, but then the horses quit, dog team came over, and then the airplanes. BILL SCHNEIDER: I wonder what the pay was back in those days for running that mail route? EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, probably a couple hundred dollars. It wasn't much. It was a lot, you know, to the people then, but it wasn't much. SUE WILL: Did they -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Just make expenses, and all you would do -- concerned about is having something to eat and just, you know. You never had enough money, you just went from day to day. And if you made money there, then you'd have to buy maybe new harness, and you might even have to buy a new sled in one trip or something. So it's just -- just a survival thing. SUE WILL: Did very many of the mail carriers board their dogs at fish camps? EFFIE KOKRINE: I suppose they did, but a lot of people had their own. SUE WILL: So most people you know were at fish camp in the summer with their dogs. EFFIE KOKRINE: Andrew's uncle used to have a bunch of dogs, but I suppose he did board his out because he lived in town as far as I could remember. So some people might have, but most of them had their own because you can put a fish wheel in anyplace and get your own dog food. SUE WILL: When you came to town, you kept your dogs because you were in a place where you could keep your dogs, but I understood that there was several people that had boarding kennels in town in the early days and that a lot of the racing teams were kept in those boarding kennels. Do you know where some of those were? EFFIE KOKRINE: No, I don't think we ever had any problems like boarding kennels. Like you went to town -- if someone came to Tanana, there's always a place someplace where you can put your dogs. But if you wanted someone to watch them, I suppose you could, but I just -- just don't -- my life was not into all that stuff, you know, like wondering what people did because, you know, in that time, too, I was still pretty young. SUE WILL: What about in Fairbanks? EFFIE KOKRINE: When we first came to Fairbanks, that was a hard time because we had no place to put our dogs. We had our dogs, like, for a couple weeks way up down there at the city dump when we first came to Fairbanks because we had no -- we didn't know anybody or anything. And then after that, we moved to Graehl, then we had our dogs up on the bank, which there was nothing, no Hamilton Acres, nothing, just -- Graehl was just -- just really an extension of Fairbanks, you know, thepoorer section. But I loved it. And we had our dogs up on the bank. And then after that, we got rid of our dogs because Graehl was growing, and then we moved out to seven and a half mile there, and then we started up another batch for the kids, so my kids can be -- have junior dogs. And then we moved back to Fairbanks into town again, and we weren't supposed to, but we had about seven or eight dogs, and we kept them right in our yard, where I'm still living now and I still have dogs in my yard. But I -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Let me -- let me ask you a question to back up again. Why did you move to Fairbanks in the first time? Was that '49, you said? EFFIE KOKRINE: 1949 we moved to Fairbanks because we just could not make a living in trapping. The trapping was no good, and the fishing, you just couldn't make it on fishing anymore. And my husband came up two years before that and worked in Fairbanks during the summer, and he joined the Carpenters Union. So Ladd Field was just building up, so there was a living to be made. And then our schooling situation in Tanana was just a small little school, so for the future of our kids, if they wanted to go to high school or anything, then we just moved up to Fairbanks for the -- for the work and the schooling, and I've never left. Oh, I've left just for visit and stuff, but Fairbanks is my home now. And I don't know. And Graehl, Graehl is my home. So my kids all grew up here, and this is their home, and that's the only life they know. They don't know the life of hunting and trapping and stuff that I grew up with, that I accept -- we accept as our everyday life, like we haul water and cut wood. And we used to go out and trap snares -- I mean, set snares and stuff any time. Here in Fairbanks, you don't do that. You live off the store, which spoils the kids. You turn on hot water, you turn on water, well, the kids don't get out and haul water or pack ice. The kids are not working to be important in the home anymore because all they do is touch buttons. BILL SCHNEIDER: Over the years, what's your favorite dog, then? EFFIE KOKRINE: My favorite dog. Well, there's -- in every litter, every year, you have a -- one, you know, I mean, the dogs are important, but one time we were -- my husband was freighting gas -- oil down to Galena during the -- you know, during about 19 -- early '40s, and George Jimmie, he was a known dog musher in those days, they had a dog on a beach with a litter of pups. And my little boy went over there and he was just, "Oh, I want a puppy." You know. And so when we were leaving there, after we lunched at that camp, he said, "Take one of the females." So we picked the little dog named -- I mean, little female. And that's the one that grew up in the house, and she -- she just grew up with the kids. And when I started driving her, she's ended up my leader. And even when she was an adult, she used to come in the house. And when she had pups, I put her in the lead and run her six pups behind her. And so she became, you know, very important to me because she was my leader, and she was the one that, you know, during the race and I had trouble with the other, she would lay down until I say all right. And then after we moved to Fairbanks here, she finally had to be put away. SUE WILL: What was her name? EFFIE KOKRINE: Her name was Jip (phonetic). She had an Indian name. SUE WILL: What does her Indian name mean? EFFIE KOKRINE: Her Indian name meant a girl, Sołt'aanh is a girl. Sołt'aanh is a girl. And so we cut it down to Doldah (phonetic) because my little girl at that time couldn't say Sołt'aanh. She kept calling her Doldah. So they grew up together like, you know, as Doldah. So, she was Doldah. SUE WILL: How do you pick names for your dogs? EFFIE KOKRINE: How do you pick names for the kid? SUE WILL: I don't know. EFFIE KOKRINE: You just look at them -- you look at them and the name just comes to you. I mean, you know, okay, this is spot, he's got a spot. This is gray, he's sort of gray, or red or -- SUE WILL: I always ask that question because everybody does -- a lot of people do it differently. EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. And if you have a dozen, I suppose you could say 1, 2, 3, 4, or something like that, you know. A lot of people name dogs after -- you know, somebody else. Like Jean Briar (phonetic), in New Hampshire, she had a dog named Effie. Yeah. And she had a dog named George. SUE WILL: I know a lot of George's. Right now there's a lot of Roxies around, too. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. And it all depends on the person, you know, what kind of names you like for yours. But I always like to have a simple name. Like right now my son has a dog named Chief. Chief is a very poor name for a leader, a dog, because if you're going around the bend and you're meeting somebody and you say Chief, how do you know you're saying Chief or gee? And the dog can get confused. So you always have to keep that in mind when you're naming the dog that it's not going to be a name that's going to throw the dog. But then, of course -- I didn't tell my son this, though. But then my husband told me that before, he had -- he learned the hard way. He had a dog named Chief in the lead, and one time he hollered Chief, or something, and the dog jumped gee. And maybe he shouldn't have done that, you know. So it's -- and when you're passing a team, I always call my leader. And I talk to the leader, like when you're passing the team or in a bad place, you're talking to your leader. All right, like, Chick. I had a dog named Chicken. Okay, Chicken. Okay, Chicken. Okay, you know. Okay. Chick, Chick, Chick, you know. Then she knows she's building confidence from me, from my voice. She's doing right. SUE WILL: So you're talking them all the way by when you're going past the moose or whatever the situation is? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. Yeah. All right. All right. You know, like you're passing a moose. You know, just, all right all right. And come on, Chick, just go. And that's another dog that I had that I really liked. And that was my own dog that was given to me in Tanana. And she made a lot of chicken tracks for me. SUE WILL: Did you ever have any bad encounters with moose or anything? EFFIE KOKRINE: Not me myself, no. Huh uh. SUE WILL: You lucked out. EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. But one of the dogs that we gave away later on did. Got kicked in the stomach with one. But I don't want to, either. I've passed a lot of moose, I've seen a lot of moose on the trails, but I've never been close to one. The only time was when I was junior -- or race -- race marshal for the juniors, I ran into a couple on the road, but I just hollered and clapped my hands and then everything, you know, they say please. But she just walked, two of them, they just walked off the road because the juniors are coming, you know, and I wanted them off the trail. But I've been lucky, very lucky. BILL SCHNEIDER: Doris, what have we forgotten? DORIS SOUTHALL: I think that we've covered everything very well. I've been very interested. I've never heard a dog musher talk before. SUE WILL: Dog mushers can talk nonstop. EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, there's so much to -- you know, you're using your dogs to -- there's so much you have to understand about them and they have to understand about you. But the best of all, I think, is having your -- your dog trust you. You have to have your dog trust you and not be afraid of you. Because if he's afraid of you, in emergency he might move -- make the wrong move. He's got to depend on you for his -- he's our strength and you're their brains, really, except we're working through them. A companionship. SUE WILL: George Attla has made a comment that the dogs never do wrong, only the musher does wrong. Like you were saying about you're the brains. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. And they know danger, and they know when they are doing wrong. And you have to correct them like a kid, you know. Then a lot of dogs will try to get away with something. They'll -- they'll try to get away with things that they know they shouldn't, then you have to correct them and let them know that you're the boss then. SUE WILL: So when you discipline your dogs do you use your voice or shake them up or -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Use your voice, and if you have to, you go to slap them. You can slap them, and you can hit them on the rump or anything, you know. And let them know that you mean business. And you could even hit them. Not beat them up, but you can hit them. Let them know that you are the boss. And then if you have one that snaps or, you know, wants to cause trouble, you don't want him. That's a dog that you get rid of. SUE WILL: When you train your leaders, do you put them with older leaders to train them or do you train them separately? EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, if you have an older leader to go ahead, that's when he comes in the swing until you can trust him to go up to double lead. And then after you're running double lead, then you can put the other one back and let them go ahead. Whatever. There's a lot of different ways you can train a leader. And if you just have a couple dogs, you automatically hook them up, and the one that works the best ahead is the one that stays ahead. It's the dogs themselves, they will show you what they could do after you give them an honors in running. You can tell a good dog that's going to be obedient and hard working and not fool around. You can have a dog that want to pee against every little stick. Well, he's not to be up there. Because he's setting example for the ones behind all the time. SUE WILL: With your pups, did you run them loose when they were young when you lived out in the Bush? EFFIE KOKRINE: If you had to. If you had to. Like if you was hauling wood or something and you had pups in the yard, they can run behind you, or like not when you're trapping. Because there's traps all over the roads, you know. And if you're going to -- like I say, you live out of town, you have to go to town for your supplies, you have to go in, then if you have pups, they automatically run loose. And if you want to just drive dogs, you have pups, you can let them run loose, but not in town you can't do that; but living out in the country, you did. And the dogs understand what you're doing. You go out there and start working on the sled and things, and they know it's time to go, and then the other dogs see it. And if you have one dog that's sort of lazy and doesn't want to -- want to be a worker, you leave him home. If you don't want to get rid of him -- of course, he's grown now, you've got two years of food in him, and you want him to -- and he's, you know, a goof and don't want to, you leave him home two or three times and take the other dogs. And then when he gets in the harness he's going to want to go. Because the jealousy of being -- you know, he's being left behind. Okay. He wants to go, he's got to behave himself. I never keep a mean dog in the team. He's not worth it. BILL SCHNEIDER: What would you give as advice for the mushers today based on your experience? EFFIE KOKRINE: Goodness. Everybody has got their own technique. They all know more than I do. But to give advice, there's no way you can give advice unless someone asks you, you know, just what the advice is. Because I don't know, everybody is different, everybody's dogs are different, they act different, they train them different, they handle them different. Just -- I just don't know. I can't say. Uh hum. BILL SCHNEIDER: Sue, do you want to add anything else? SUE WILL: I think that you've given me a lot of good advice that I can use. Just in -- (Indiscernible.) EFFIE KOKRINE: But then, like I say, everybody has their own way, and their dogs are used to the way they are being handled and the way they're disciplined. SUE WILL: I think mush -- a lot of mushers starting out, though, you know, what -- the kinds of things you're talking about and saying in terms of the dog has to have faith in you and that sort of thing, are the types of advice that they don't really know. And you've got years of experience of handling the -- EFFIE KOKRINE: And they know your voice when you're happy and they could tell by your voice when you mean business, you know, and so they understand quite a bit. BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, thanks for taking the time to come out here, and I think it's been a good interview and we've learned quite a bit. EFFIE KOKRINE: My poor brain.
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:
First getting involved with dogs
How smart dogs can be
Making a dog team from paper as a child
Getting involved with dog sled racing
Getting dogs from other people in the village
The quality of Huslia dogs
Training and feeding dogs
Learning about dogs from elders in Huslia
Selecting and breeding dogs
Training puppies to be successful racing dogs
The mindset of a racing dog
The importance of building a relationship and trust with your dogs
Racing in the Fur Rondy and North American dog races
Getting village dogs into town for races
The most interesting race he remembers
Proving himself as a successful racer
The role of dogs in his life
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.