Alaska Native culture

Dog Mushing Traditions in Alaska

My friend, Michelle Sam of Alatna, recently reminded me of a funny story of going for a sled dog ride in Bettles. It was over 20 years ago, but we still laugh about it!

“Remember taking the dogs out that one time? We got near home and were tipping over like crazy! One time after the other. The dogs were still full of energy. As we got near the dog lot, they were cruising around every corner. Maybe there were no corners! I was in the sled and we tipped and you were dragging. I fell off and you got back on and I was on the handle bars then we tipped over again and I was dragging and you fell off and I had to catch up. We were laughing a lot!” -Michelle Sam

My dad, Al Yatlin, Sr., was a dog musher. I think he had the most dogs when we lived in Bettles. He’s been in many local and regional dog races. We all helped in one way or the other, whether it was feeding,  watering, picking up poop, catching them if they got loose or helping to train them.

The Fur Rondy, North American, Yukon Quest and Iditarod sled dog races were always a big thing in our household. It was comparable to watching the Super Bowl! My dad keeps track of each the times at each check point and analyzes the times. Everyone had to be quiet when there was a race update on TV or radio. If my dad was out, we had to write the times down for him.

Andrea Swingley (@akswingley) mushing in the Limited North American Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks

I love watching sled dog races. Andrea Swingley of Fairbanks races in the Limited North American in Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

“Dog talk” is what we refer to as a conversation about dogs. We heard a lot of dog talk over the years with dad and friends and fellow mushers. They would discuss the diet, training techniques, harnesses, sleds, stories along the trails and much more. It puts a smile on my face when I hear dog talk.

Huslia is a pretty well known town for dog mushers. “Huslia Husler” is what dog mushers were known as back them. George Attla II gained an international reputation as a champion sprint dog musher. There were other mushers who ran the Iditarod. Dog mushing goes way back as a form of transportation in Alaska. Huslia still holds local sled dog races for all ages. I’ve enjoyed many races over the years. I even got in the five dog race and won one year.

I know how hard the mushers and their families work to raise and race their dogs. It is a huge commitment. It is also rewarding to your mind and body. Taking care and running your dogs requires a lot of physical work and keeps you in shape. It also keeps your mind busy.
Marvin Kokrine #7

Marvin Kokrine (Athabascan) runs in the Fur Rondy in Anchorage, Alaska in February 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I don’t own any dogs, but I enjoy watching sled dog racing. There is an excitement in the air during race times. It is something to look forward to in the winter and gets me out of the house. My dad no longer raises a dog team, but he volunteers during race times and with a dog mushing program in Huslia.

Downtown Fairbanks comes alive during the Open North American Championship Sled Dog Race. Kudos to the dog mushers, families, fans, supporters, sponsors and the dogs!

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