Koyukuk man recalls early mushing life
KOYUKUK, Alaska (AP) — The whole village of Koyukuk was abuzz with excitement as team after team of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race pulled through the community, but perhaps none were more excited than 83-year-old Benedict Jones, one of the last living dog mushers in the community.
Jones was born in a fish camp near Koyukuk and grew up in a time when sled dogs and mushing were an integral part of village life, whether it was for travel, trapping, hunting, fishing or racing.
The elder and village tribal chief spent last weekend lending a hand in the dog lot, hauling jugs of water or bales of straw, and personally welcomed many mushers into the community. Whenever he walked into the community hall where mushers were warming up, he’d check to make sure the fire was well-fed and hot.
He was excited to see that mushing was still alive, but was pretty sure that the dogs he mushed on were tougher.
“They were a lot tougher than the Iditarod dogs because we used them every day from October after freeze up,” he said over a cup of warm sugary Tang at the community hall. “We used them every day working traplines.”
The winner of many local sprint races in his time, Jones comes alive when recalling stories about growing up in the community and working with dogs, whether it was gathering food with his family, racing other locals or bonding with friends.
He started mushing dogs when he was 6, taught by his father who would walk ahead on snowshoes to break trail. Later in life, his father taught him the tricks of picking a puppy that would grow up into a good sled dog.
“Back in the early days we used to use our dogs year-round,” he said. “Most families had eight or nine dogs and because dog feed was hard to get, we had to get summer chums to make sure they had enough to eat.”
He said he got the taste for racing when he was 17 and coming back into town after working a trapline with his grandma. They were riding in a double sled, his grandmother in the back sled, and 14 dogs in harness.
“I noticed my grandma was holding the brake the whole time because I checked the line between the two sleds and they were tight,” he said. “The dogs never shot, they were just galloping the whole way. So we had lunch at the cabin and told my grandma to not hold the brakes no more, but as soon as we got on the river I checked the line again and it was still tight.”
He told her again, while on the trail some 70 miles later and closer to town, to let loose of the brakes.
“The dogs took off about 16 miles an hour with two sleds,” he said, a pace far faster than the long-haul marathon pace of Iditarod. “There were people watching us, standing on the banks. They saw us come and started applauding. The dogs took off barking, we had to both hold onto the brakes when we got to town. We got to the barn and they were barking, hollering and rolling around.”
He said from there he was hooked, and soon found his way into an adult men’s sprint race even though he was too young for the race.
He was speedy, he recalled, but still had things to learn about driving.
“I drew number two behind the late Jimmy Malemute. He had good dogs and it was a 14-mile race. The late Edward Pitka started third and he really had good dogs,” he said. “But I kept watching for Pitka, and at the six-mile turnoff I had never seen him so I knew I was catching up with the first team.”
The 17-year-old musher would have probably won the race if not for one of his dogs falling off the trail into the deep, unpacked snow. He came in second after Jimmy Malemute by about two seconds.
“They came down to me after, and said, ‘You young punk,’ and I said, ‘What did I do?’ He said, ‘You almost beat the North American champion,’” he recalled. ’I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”
Jones worked and lived in Fairbanks for most of his adult life, working road maintenance for the Department of Transportation. But his childhood connection to mushing and sled dogs was still very alive when he retired and returned to Koyukuk.
“After I retired, I got six dogs from a local musher and trained them all winter,” he said, recalling how it was his return to racing.
Jones joined together with a handful of other local mushers to sponsor Leo Kriska to try and bring the Fur Rondy championship for Koyukuk. It took three tries, but they did it.
But beyond racing, Jones talks reverently about the close personal connection a musher builds with his dog team.
“It made us happy just driving dogs, especially when we were young,” he said. “It feels good during the night when there was a full moon. We would all go out and drive dogs. It was kind of spooky but made us really happy, too.”
Today, mushing has all but disappeared in rural villages, replaced by snowmachines. Jones sold the last of his dogs a few years ago, but the deep connections to life on the trail with a team of dogs has not left him.
“After I sold my dogs, I kept dreaming about mushing,” he said. “And every now and then I’ll have a dream that I’m in the race, winning the race.”
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com