Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Herbert Nayokpuk
Herbert (Herbie) Nayokpuk was interviewed along the Iditarod Trail in 1982 by Karen Michelle McPherson for the Chinook Radio Program on KUAC-FM radio. In this interview, Herbie talks about running the 1982 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, including trail conditions, feeding dogs, use of dog booties, camaraderie and competition between mushers, and dealing with high winds and bad weather.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 85-216

Project: Dog Mushing in Alaska Project Jukebox
Date of Interview:
Narrator(s): Herbert Nayokpuk
Interviewer(s): Karen McPherson
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.

Sections

Introduction to Herbie Nayokpuk and his dog racing career

Traveling the 1982 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, trail conditions, and race speed

Feeding dogs during the race and the effect of changing their diet

Equipment and clothing

Use of dog booties

Camaraderie on the race trail

The emotions of the race

Strategy and game playing between mushers

Herbie's skills as a coastal musher

Traveling in a severe storm

Finishing the race

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.

Transcript

ANNOUNCER: Next up is a man who is probably one of the best respected mushers in Alaska, the Shishmaref Cannonball, Herbie Nayokpuk.

KAREN McPHERSON: Welcome to Chinook. I'm Karen Michelle McPherson. Nayokpuk was drawing his starting position in the 1983 Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race.

He started number 28 and finished in 8th position three days later.

The Shishmaref musher is a veteran middle and long distance racer. In 1980 he finished second in the thousand mile plus Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome.

1983 was the third anniversary for the Kuskokwim 300 race from Bethel to Aniak and back, but the Shishmaref Cannonball's first try.

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I just want to enter the races this year, you know.

I don't have too many more years mushing, I think, so I just want to enter all the races this year.

KAREN McPHERSON: He was referring to the heart operation he'd had a year and a half earlier.

A number of sponsors contributed to his racing efforts, including his heart doctor.

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Dr. William Mayer, he's my heart doctor last year, and he wanted to put -- put up a bit of money for the race, so that helped me out.

ANNOUNCER: Well, you're a good advertisement for him, too.

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Yeah. Yeah. He's -- he's a good doctor, so -- and so if anybody got heart problem, he's the one.

ANNOUNCER: The next musher coming up doesn't really need any introduction, known as the Shishmaref Cannonball, Herbie Nayokpuk from Shishmaref.

KAREN McPHERSON: In 1982, shortly after the open heart surgery, Herbie ran one of the most challenging races of his career,

a race where, at one point, other mushers feared he was risking his life in an effort to win; the Iditarod race.

On this Chinook program, we'll travel the 1982 Iditarod Trail with the Shishmaref Cannonball.

ANNOUNCER: This is the professional dog musher, Herbie Nayokpuk.

KAREN McPHERSON: How do you feel about the trail this year? HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I hope we'll get more snow.

KAREN McPHERSON: It's supposed to be pretty icy, eh?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: That's what everybody say.

KAREN McPHERSON: Which route do you prefer? Do you like the northern route or the southern route better?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: This route we're going to take. I like it better. KAREN McPHERSON: How come?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Better trail and less hills.

KAREN McPHERSON: You've got the kind of dogs that like it flatter, huh?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Right. That's the kind of trail they’ll like.

KAREN McPHERSON: It's been said that there will be a record, a 12 day record this year. Do you think that's possible?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: They'll be real lucky if they make it in 12 days.

KAREN McPHERSON: Well, they didn't. As is usual on the Iditarod race, except for 1983,there were numerous storms along the way, long stretches with no trail, places to get lost, as Herbie did not far out of Knik;

and fouled up logistics, dog food not at the checkpoints as expected.

At the Rohn Roadhouse checkpoint three days out mushers staked their teams along the spruce trees.

Most kept to themselves, but a few got together to share food and trail talk, like Ruby's Emmitt Peters, Alex Sheldon of Ambler, and Herbie Nayokpuk, who were gathered around a Coleman stove eating hot dogs.

KAREN McPHERSON: Are you guys low on food, we heard you were. HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Yeah, I am. UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm out.

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I never bring my dog food here, so I use chicken. First time they had chicken and some got diarrhea this morning.

KAREN McPHERSON: What were you feeding them before you ran out of dog food?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I feed them seal meat, fish, fish and hamburger. Hams. Have some wieners. UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They could use snack bar.

KAREN McPHERSON: In McGrath, 118 miles further down the trail, feed was still troubling the Shishmaref Cannonball.

KAREN McPHERSON: What kind of food is that snack?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: That's hamburger. Ground hamburger. KAREN McPHERSON: Uh-hum.

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Beef.

KAREN McPHERSON: How often do you give them a snack like that?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: About every four hours.

KAREN McPHERSON: Herbie and his team were on the bank of the Kuskokwim River off to one side of the airstrip in McGrath.

It was late afternoon on the fifth day of the race.

KAREN McPHERSON: I see it looks like pretty bad diarrhea.

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Yeah, looks like it is about three or four dogs got the diarrhea.

KAREN McPHERSON: Why do you think that's so?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I don't know. Maybe some kind of flu.

KAREN McPHERSON: Did changing their diet -- you said you had to feed them chicken when you didn't get -- your food didn't get into Rohn. Did that hurt them any?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Yeah, I think that hurt a couple of my dogs that time, when I use that chicken.

KAREN McPHERSON: Unlike many of the other 54 mushers, Herbie used a conventional sled rather than the popular toboggan style; and instead of a fancy form-fit sled bag, he had a regular green tarp, a caribou skin in the bottom of it.

And to lick the problem of cold feet, he had two pair of boots, the seal skin mukluks in the sled and the shoe packs he usually wore.

But instead of a felt liner, Herbie's were rabbit skin with the fur turned toward his feet. It wasn't only Herbie's feet that were in good shape, so were the dogs's.

KAREN McPHERSON: The feet look pretty good from here.

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: They never cut it. KAREN McPHERSON: You use booties?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: No. Not a one.

KAREN McPHERSON: But three days later, in Nulato, after a hundred miles travel on the Yukon River from Ruby, lots of his dogs were booted up.

After getting into Nulato, Herbie had taken off the cloth booties that protect dogs's feet, and now, as he prepared to leave, he put on dry ones, secured with adhesive tape.

KAREN McPHERSON: Are you booting up your dogs? HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Yeah.

KAREN McPHERSON: How come tonight? HERBIE NAYOKPUK: It's cold.

KAREN McPHERSON: They might get cold feet on that ice? HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Yeah. Some got cut feet from last night. KAREN McPHERSON: Hmm.

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: It was real icy. Real rough trail that time.

KAREN McPHERSON: The musher checked the paws of each dog in his team as they lay in a bit of shelter trying to get out of the wind.

In terms of distance, the race was more than half over. For several hundred of the previous miles, Herbie Nayokpuk was travelling with some other Iditarod veterans, Terry Atkins of Montana, and Joe May of Trapper Creek, the man who collected first place in 1980, the year Herbie came in second.

Terry and Joe were resting in the checkpoint building while Herbie tended his team. Earlier in the day when Herbie was again, short of dog food, Joe had offered some of his.

JOE MAY: That whole bag is extra beaver. Do you want some mutton, too? HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Okay.

JOE MAY: Do you think they'd eat some of that?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I just fed them a while ago.

JOE MAY: You just split up your dog food or whatever you've got, and if the other guy is short, you give him half, and there's nothing in return expected.

And you understand sometimes that you're competing against your own dog food, probably, but that's an insignificant thing, too.

This race, because of the extremes involved, I suppose, and maybe some of the -- well, what I'm trying to say, I guess, is there's a lot of emotion and sentiment involved in this race, and because of the conditions and the circumstances, maybe that has something to do with the extremes of the bracket, and in one day you can go from just about a total depression to an exhilaration thing, you know.

And so that's pretty fertile ground for good friendships and, you know, things like that.

KAREN McPHERSON: It's also fertile ground for head trips for putting on the other mushers, and Joe May is no slouch at the game.

JOE MAY: It's pretty subtle sometimes, but yeah, it's there. Sure, there's a -- there's a psychology thing going all the time.

Herbie and I are doing a little bit of that right now, inadvertently.

So every time we get to a checkpoint it seems like a lot of people get up and leave, and we're beginning to enjoy it.

KAREN McPHERSON: Why are they leaving? JOE MAY: Because we just arrived, that's why they are leaving. That's good enough reason for them to leave.

KAREN McPHERSON: Are you playing games on each other, too?

JOE MAY: Herbie and I? No, Herbie and I are traveling together. Oh, no, Herbie and I do seriously travel together.

If I had to sit and wait for him a half hour out there, he'd wait for me a half hour out there.

No, we're not racing. When we -- when we get up there on the coast, then we'll probably go racing, but before then, it will get serious when we get up to Unalakleet, I suppose.

In 1980 Herbie and I traveled together almost to the finish line, and Herbie was right behind me at Golovin.

And I left before -- just a few minutes before he got there and I went 18 miles over to White Mountain, and Herbie radioed over at to White Mountain and told the checkers over there to tell me that he was going to wait five hours in Golovin, so I wouldn't have to push my dogs.

I could sit in Golovin if I wanted to. And -- and Herbie thought that much of my dogs and myself that he told me about it.

And the checker at Golovin said, "Do you suppose Herbie is putting you on." And I said, "Hey, man"...

KAREN McPHERSON: But Herbie's not that kind of guy. He's famous for his smile, his skill with dogs, and his integrity.

And his skills are especially evident when he's on the coast in country and conditions that he's used to, land that's mostly flat and offering little shelter from the often brutal elements.

After the mushers reached Shaktoolik and the final 200 miles of the race, there was a bitter storm and whiteout conditions.

Hard-packed snowdrifts and diagonals down the one main street required clamoring up and sliding down.

Some of the frontrunners, Rick Swenson, Rick Mackey, and Jerry Austin, gathered to discuss the prospects.

You gonna go on?

Well, yeah, he'll be breaking trail, into the wind, it's blowing snow, and then it's going to get worse. Right. Well, you know --

We don't even need to discuss it. I don't want to go out there.

I'm not going to go, either. For one thing, if a guy does go, there's very little to gain, and you'll just fry your dogs up and then someone else will wait.

You could wait 12 hours for it to calm down and go across in an 8-hour run, where it took another guy 20 hours to go across, and then he'd be up there just beat to death, and you'd just be right there rested up, you know.

Yeah, there's no sense in that.

No.

KAREN McPHERSON: But they worried Joe May might not have sense.

Send a couple of sleds and tell them. Because I want to be there to laugh at him when he goes out.

Shit, if he goes --

I don't think I'd go after him right now.

I don't know if I would or not. I just -- I don't think I would. I mean, these guys are in a situation to let him go.

He probably would crash but he might not.

KAREN McPHERSON: But it was Herbie Nayokpuk, the Shishmaref Cannonball, who did go out into the storm, in to conditions folks in Shaktoolik said was too dangerous, and conditions other mushers thought only Herbie might overcome.

Most, like Rick Swenson and Jerry Austin, took the opportunity to rest their dogs.

Well, I was glad to get here last night, boy. Everybody was thinking about leaving that, and remember, they also got to think how glad they were to get here.

You know. Especially those guys that don't have command leaders, they can’t -- can't go when they've got to go.

Well, I tell you, I'd hate to try to have to go across there from here to Koyuk, all that ways.

You know, 56 miles into the wind is a lot different than --

Straight into the wind.

KAREN McPHERSON: Herbie Nayokpuk wasn't followed out into the 50-knot north wind. People worried about him.

Snow machines were sent down from Koyuk to look for him and his team of 10 dogs. He didn't make it the 58 icy miles to Koyuk, he turned around and he came back to Shaktoolik.

The back of his neck looked badly swollen as he stood indoors next to the heater in his host home.

KAREN McPHERSON: Why did you actually take off in that weather?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: Well, I just don't want to stay here too long.

KAREN McPHERSON: What happened when you got out there?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: It was good weather until I hit that storm up there about maybe 18, 20 miles.

KAREN McPHERSON: Well, I heard you got to the rock mid-way. Did you actually get that far?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I passed that a long time last night.

KAREN McPHERSON: And then when did you turn around and come back?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: This morning, after I -- I tried to wait for good weather up there, stopped about four -- about three, four hours. After I come back to that rocky, I camp and cook dog food up there to feed my dogs.

I missed the trail all the time; the soft, soft trail and a lot of nigger -- niggerheads. Couldn't find the trail for a long time. But I think I'll have -- just have to rest them little more now.

KAREN McPHERSON: Since people here are pretty much out of food. Is that going to be a problem for you, too?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I have a lot of friends around here for my dogs. I can get food from my friends.

KAREN McPHERSON: Now that you're back? What's your plan for the rest of the race?

HERBIE NAYOKPUK: I almost quit from -- from here. So maybe we still get another storm, maybe I have chance to rest my dogs tomorrow and go again.

KAREN McPHERSON: And he did go again, though his face and neck were badly frostbitten, and both he and his dogs were discouraged. A break from the pack in an effort to win nearly cost him the whole race.

He pulled out of Shaktoolik the second time just an hour and a half after the first teams, teams with two days' rest.

The final 200 miles of 1,131 mile northern route of the Iditarod Trail became the race, and Herbie finished it in fourth place. The first cheers and songs of the finish line in Nome weren’t for him, as he'd hoped.

Rick Swenson won again, but the popular Shishmaref Cannonball, with his smile and his courage, won a great deal for the sport and the spirit of dog mushing, as he continues to do.

I'm Karen Michelle McPherson. Chinook is a production of KUAC FM at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.