Everything I Know about Training and Racing Sled Dogs
by George Attla, edited by Bella Levorson
In the first comprehensive book ever written about sled dog racing, George Attla, one of the world’s top-ranking mushers, passes on all the secrets he has learned in a lifetime devoted to this highly competitive sport. George tells everything he knows, from the breeding, feeding, and training of sled dogs, to the equipment needed and the strategy of winning a race. And he tells it all in an easy, informal style, sprinkled with anecdotes and homespun philosophy. George’s collaborator Bella Levorsen trained and raced a team herself.
Special note to readers: The first edition was published in 1972 by Publishing Service. The second edition, published in 1974 by Arner Publications, contains a bonus chapter entitled “Beyond Knik – The Iditarod Trail!” Both editions are out of print; however, copies have been sold by Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Know-About-Training-Racing/dp/0914124021.
From a speech by Ginger Attla at the celebration of George Attla’s 50 Years of Competitive Racing. The event was held in Huslia in April 2008.
In 1958 at the age of 24, George began his career in dog racing by winning the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous. Everybody knows that George’s racing team was made up of the best dogs of the Koyukuk River area. In an interview with George, he told me that his winning team had dogs from Steven Attla, Cue Bifelt, Lucien Sam, George Frank, and Sidney Huntington, among others. George said he learned from other incredible dogmen like his father George Attla Sr., Bergman Sam, Bobby Vent, Winkler Bifelt, Alfred Attla, and others. He said that all the original Koyukuk River dog racers were his “professors.”
He also told me that he felt it was an incredible privilege to grow up in such great country with an amazing breed of work dogs that had been developed over a long period of time. He said it was everything about the Koyukuk River area including all of its history that inspired him to become the best dog racer he could be.
The back wall of the gym shows what Alaska reported to the world about dog racing. From left to right, the articles cover 50 years of George’s racing. Please take time to look at the articles. All the poster boards will stay in the school for the students in Huslia. Of course, the best stories you can hear directly from George and the many other mushers from the Koyukuk River area. I’ll read you some letters about George from dog mushers from all over Alaska:
•Roxi Woods: “I can remember listening to dog races on the radio when I was living in Circle from 1960 to 1964. I would hear my Dad, Gareth Wright competing with George and Doc Lombard. Little did I know I would someday be racing all of them. When George came in for his first race, he had to beat my Dad who was the reigning champion. Then in 1989 when I won my first Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, it was none other than George Attla who came in second. George is a legendary musher; he knows dogs, was always a tough competitor, and his racing career has spanned nearly a half a century! I wish I could be there to join all my friends in honoring George and the Koyukuk River Championship.”
•Marvin Kokrine: “He’s been an inspiration to me. He was a good friend of my dad’s. He is a good friend of mine. I got inspired by being around him. He’s always trying to find a better and faster way of racing. Everything he did was geared to win dog races. No matter what was happening, nothing slowed him down. That’s what inspired me. He is always up and would come away with a good attitude. He doesn’t let anything slow him down. One year his leader died 1-2 weeks before North American Championship, and he just went about his business trying to put in another leader. “
•Steven Bergman: “He’s the greatest. Did pretty good over the years and he sure helped the Native mushers.”
•Egil Ellis: “He is the true hero in the sport and it’s an honor to be up there with him.”
The last race of the Alaska dog mushing season, the Tok Race of Champions, held since 1954, is one of the oldest sled dog races in the state. Located in the Tanana Valley between the Tanana River and the Alaska Range and known also as one of the centers of dog breeding, training, and mushing in Alaska, Tok claims to be the Dog Capital of the state. Mushers from Alaska, Canada, and the Lower 48 participate in six-dog, eight-dog, and open-class events for cash prizes.
The first North American Championships (NAC) sled dog derby was held in 1946. Originally a four-day event of 18, 18, 18, and 20 miles, which followed the Chena and Tanana Rivers, the NAC was moved to the Creamer’s Field area in 1953 where it consisted of 20, 20, and 30 mile heats. To learn more, go tohttp://www.sleddog.org/category/races/open-north-american/.
The video below shows the finish of the 1975 Open North American World Championship at Jeff Studdert Race Ground in Fairbanks. A crowd of cheering spectators watches an exhausted George Attla win the 70-mile race over three days by a memorable 2.4 seconds.
See two video clips of George Attla competing in Championship races in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The footage was taken by KTVA Channel 11 in Anchorage and KTVF Channel 11 in Fairbanks. The Alaska Film Archives of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks provided the 1968 Fur Rendezvous archival film footage in digital format. The last video clip is George training a team near his cabin before his win of the 2011 Huslia New Year’s Race.
• Mushers racing 1968 Fur Rendezvous Championship This footage shows the top four mushers along the Fur Rendezvous World Championship race track in Anchorage. George Attla, Charles Belford, Bill Sturdevant, and Gareth Wright make a road crossing, with a crowd of spectators nearby; Roland Lombard in the lead followed by George Attla, Charles Belford, and Bill Sturdevant; and lastly, George passing Roland Lombard to win the race.
• Mushers racing the 1975 Open North American World Championship Produced from actual race footage of the 1975 Open North American World Championship, this music video shows mushers passing a few sections of the racetrack. On a sunny mid-March day, see close-up and wide camera views of mushers and their dog teams.
•Huslia 2011 George Attla double-sledding with Hilary Schwafel on a training run This footage is of George Attla double-sledding with Hilary Schwafel 8 miles out on a 16-mile training run with 15 dogs. A snow machine follows to provide assistance if necessary. The run was taken in early January 2011, which was 11 months after George’s hip replacement surgery. He ran double-sled a few times to be sure he could handle the large team alone. George won the Koyukuk River Championship Bergman Sam memorial spring carnival race with this team.
How sled dog racing and George Attla’s career started George shares the history of sled dog racing, starting with Koyukuk River area trappers competing against each other to today’s Alaska championship racing circuit. In the early days dogs were pooled from the best village kennels so a musher could race in world championships held Anchorage and Fairbanks. As a young man, George had the great opportunity to race others people’s really good dogs. An Elder challenged him to raise and train his own team, which he did and it set his exceptionally long racing career in motion.
George Attla- The Young Racer George tells how the use of dogs for checking trap lines and winter transportation in the bush changed with the coming of the snow machine. He recalls trading a snow machine for the best running dogs in a village. Soon afterwards, he moved to Fairbanks and made a business out of selling sled dogs to competitive mushers. With winning teams, George earned sponsorships to support his sled dog racing. He shares what it took to stay on top.
Step back in time and look for George Attla’s famous kick among the field of other competitive mushers in footage from two village championship races in Alaska. The video clips were taken by friends of the Attla family. The 2011 New Year’s Men’s Race, held in the village of Huslia, was won by George Attla at age 77.
George Attla crosses the finish line Nenana, 1968
This footage shows four mushers kicking their way to the finish line on the river in front of the village of Nenana, where the race took place. George Attla, who won the race, is the last musher to be viewed by a crowd of spectators. Next see George Attla’s dog truck, his dog handlers, and some celebration activity after the race.
Huslia 2011 New Year’s Men’s Race
This footage of the 2-day New Year’s Men’s Race shows George Attla at the start and end of the first day. George is cheered on at the finish. When stopped, he starts to pull off his racing bib and is congratulated by locals. The last footage is of George crossing the finish line on the second day to win the heat. The next team is George’s second-string driven by Hilary Schwafel.
George Attla TV News Clip & Interviews about Racing
One Channel 11 KTVF news clip and three interviews of George Attla were provided courtesy of the KTVF Collection of Alaska Film Archives – University of Alaska. The Alaska Film Archives, located at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, holds the largest collection of film-related material about Alaska. Established in 1968, the archive consists almost entirely of 16 mm film dating from the years 1920 to 1959. Since 1993, the archive has been maintained as a unit of the Alaska and Polar Regions Department in the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library. To learn more, go to http://www.library.uaf.edu/film-archives.
George Attla at his kennel in North Pole before 1973 racing season
Jack Benson of KTVF Broadcast Center Sports visits George Attla in North Pole after a training run. Referring to George as the Huslia Hustler, he summarizes George’s racing career and his business of selling sled dogs. George answers questions about his moving to North Pole, his new sponsorship with BP Alaska, and the cost of raising and racing a dog team. George comments on the dogs in his kennel, predictions for the 1973 sprint sled dog racing season, and his hopeful participation in the first Iditarod.
George Attla at his home in North Pole before his clean-sweep of the 1975 sprint racing season: PART I
George Attla answers questions about his dogs and predictions for the 1975 sprint sled dog racing season. He shares details about the number of exceptional dogs in his kennel. George talks about his luck with breeding- he has his own very good dogs right now. He shares that he makes a living selling dogs mostly out of state and in Canada. He tells stories about dogs he’s sold. George gives credit to his brothers and his friends in the village as sources of good dogs when he needs them. Interview continued in Part II.
George Attla at his home in North Pole before his clean-sweep of the 1975 sprint racing season: PART II
Interview continued from Part I. George says has 24 exceptional dogs in his kennel. They are exceptional because they have been working really well together as a team and running like they have a fire under them. He compares his team now to his winning team of 1972. George lists all the races he plans to run in Alaska and lower-48. He shares his racing strategy for the season. He answers a last question: Why do you mush?
George Attla after his second-place finish in 1977 Open North American World Championship
A broadcaster interviewing George Attla tells about the race. He asks about the loaned dogs in Carl Huntington’s winning team. He also asks more questions about loaned dogs in George’s team. George comments on his team’s good performance, but says it’s coming up short on the last 30-mile heat. He acknowledges Alaska International Air as his sponsor.
George Attla before his second- place finish in 1980 Open North American World Championship
In a short interview, a broadcaster sums up George Attla’s racing record of the season and then asks him to predict his place in the upcoming Open North American World Championship. George jokes that he’ll try to get around the track for 3 days. He shares that he is using a couple of new leaders and will race a good team of only 12 dogs. George is not worried about the competition and says he’ll just do the best with the dogs he has.