The first Mushing History Conference was an unqualified success, bringing together many veteran mushers and a broad assortment of authors, historians, researchers, storytellers, writers and photographers for a wonder-filled weekend! On Friday the speakers and presenters, organizers and those interested in attending gathered at the beautiful Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters log cabin near Wasilla. Photographer June Price was on hand and shared several photos of the event, along with some great commentary, on the weblog for her book, Backstage Iditarod. Joee Redington shared a few slides from his family photo album at the gathering, and speakers who traveled to Alaska for the conference were delighted with the opportunity to tour the colorful Iditarod Headquarters log cabin, which is filled with race memorabilia.
The 2009 Conference got underway Saturday morning at the University of Alaska Anchorage, with Conference Director and organizer Tim White giving the first presentation, on The Evolution of Working Sled Dog Nutrition and Diets From Prehistory to the Present. Tim is a champion musher, expert innovator, reknowned sled builder and designer of the famed Quick Change Runner (QCR) System, in which an aluminum rail is screwed to the bottom of wooden runners, then lengths of plastic can be slid into the rails, greatly simplifying the process of changing plastic during a race.
In a 2004 interview with Mark Nordman, an accomplished racer and longtime Race Marshall for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, June Price learned that Mark and Tim’s friendship extended back to the early 1980’s, when they traveled to Alaska together, Tim as racer and Mark as his dog handler:
Asked to characterize White, Nordman pauses to think. “Sled dog sports are his life,” he begins slowly. He explains that as being someone whose every thought and action is somehow connected to the dogs. “Tim White is the ‘ultimate dog man,'” concludes Nordman.
Tim’s slideshow presentation traced working and racing sled dog diets, from the ingredients of wolves and of aboriginal people’s dogs to the typical modern racing diets in long distance events. Tim explained the diets used during historic expeditions and explained how, under difficult circumstances, things can go wrong when an animal is expected to perform under difficult circumstances without the foods it is adapted to through evolution. An interesting sideline was a spirited discussion of the various feeds used in the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973.
Carol Beck of Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, was the next speaker, and she brought to life the colorful history of the Diavik 150: The Canadian Championship Dog Derby, one of the longest-running sled dog races in the world, with a video clip from the outstanding DVD Trapline to Finish Line, The Story of Yellowknife’s Canadian Championship Dog Derby.
Carol Beck has raced for the last 26 years in many races in North America. She’s a very active race volunteer, and Carol and her husband Grant were co-chairs of the 2008 Arctic Winter Games Dog Sledding Committee. In addition to the video, Carol brought copies of the companion book, also titled Trapline to Finish Line, by Fran Hurcomb. The book begins with a brief history of the northern sled dog and goes into the early years of the Dog Derby, from 1955 to 1973 when local brothers Ray Beck and Danny McQueen dominated the race. Holcomb then explains the changes which happened between 1974 and 1986, as mushers from “outside” began entering the race, including Minnesota’s Tim White, who won six times, beginning in 1977 and placing in the top five in almost every race until his last first place win in 1996. The final chapters of the book relate the inevitable changes which have taken place in recent years, and toward the end the author notes how the young mushers from the north country understand sled dog racing in its original context: “Where their parents and grandparents once traveled with dogs out of necessity, mushers today run dogs for sport.”
This shift in perspective was epitomized in an exchange between Yellowknife musher Scott McQueen and his father, the late Danny McQueen. “Dad,” said Scott, “I just can’t seem to find enough time to run my dogs. The elder McQueen shook his head and laughed. “Boy,” he replied, “Times are sure changing. I could never find enough time to rest my dogs.”
The DVD Carol brought, Trapline to Finish Line, opens with a dynamic and riveting sequence shot from a lead dog’s-eye-view of the ice. The film was produced in 2005, on the 50th anniversary of the first race in Yellowknife, and includes historic footage of the early races. The DVD can be hard to find, but director and producer Greg Hancock has a short clip available at his website, figments of imagination. (Dec. 2009: Correction to this entry: Please see the much-appreciated correction and update regarding the “Trapline to Finish Line” book and DVD from Dave Anderson in the comments below.)
Next: The Mushing History Panels from Denali National Park Kennels, and the presentation by Kevin Keeler, Administrator, Iditarod National Historic Trail. Still to come: Rod Perry, Linda Chamberlain, Joe Redington Jr., Jane Haigh, Jeff Dinsdale, Chas St. George and others.
This post is the first in a series of reports on the 2009 Mushing History Conference.