”One, two, three, six, five, four, three, two, GO! Celebrating the one-hundredth year and anniversary of the historical Iditarod Trail, that is Rod Perry in Iditarod thirty-nine, a legend in mushing circles in Iditarod history!”
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Cliff Sisson, of Kasilof, walks out of his house with a braking mechanism for a wooden Iditarod sled he and two companions are building Thursday Feb. 20, 2014 in Kasilof, Alaska.
History in the Making—Trio recreates freight sled
By DAN BALMER
Three life-long friends, joined together by dog mushing, are in the midst of a massive project set to pay homage to the history of the sport while showcasing a dying craft.
Brothers Rod and Alan Perry along with Cliff Sisson have spent hundreds of hours over the past four months crammed inside Sisson’s workshop in Kasilof, a space just large enough to hold their creation, a freight dog sled. It is 16 feet long and made entirely out of solid white oak. The men are working around the clock to complete the sled in time for the ceremonial start of Iditarod XLII on March 1 in downtown Anchorage where thousands of spectators gather to see the racers off.
The project is the brainchild of Rod Perry, 71, one of 22 finishers in the first Iditarod Dog Sled Race in 1973. Between the brothers and Sisson, whose families have known each other since 1926 and grew up together in Oregon, the group competed in seven Iditarod races in the first seven years. Sisson was the last to race in 1979 and the three men went their separate ways until an archaic sled design brought them back together.
Continuing the story begun in the previous post, John Norman had a most successful meeting with Mr. Joe Everhart. Our next action was to send my following letter to the Wells Fargo publicity and PR heads.
The Wells Fargo Co. Express Gold Train
By Rod Perry
Observers notice in Alaskans an unusual level of pride in their state and a desire to be identified as an “Alaskan.” The phenomenon here is taken to an almost singular degree, far distancing even that of Texans. A common question asked offhand is, “What year did YOU come up?” It is a casual, one-upmanship way of evaluating who outranks who as a Real Alaskan.
Some carryover to such rating exists among long-time Alaskans when they think of companies and institutions. There is a kind of provincial respect for the origins of local companies like Nerland’s which began in the Klondike gold rush, and Bagoy’s, founded by an Iditarod miner. Alaska’s first philanthropist Z. J. Loussac, mined at Nome and began his success in business at Iditarod.
Unexpectedly, selectors turned down our Anchorage Centennial Celebration grant proposal to build a historic sled and run a reenactment of the dog team mail pulling out of Anchorage a century ago. Of course, we were disappointed, but not defeated.
My friend Jonn Norman (a powerful Alaskan who took over Sarah Palin’s post on the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission and who performed first as attorney for the Iditarod Race, then for the past thirty-plus years has headed the Iditarod Foundation. Along with my friend of some 45 years, Greg Bill, (with Iditarod since the 1973 beginning and its Development Director since the 1980s) joined me in a new thrust. Our plan was to instead approach Wells Fargo about funding the building of the sled and running a reenactment of the Wells Fargo Gold Train mushing the gold out of Iditarod.
John had me sign and dedicate a copy of Volume I of my book, TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod to Mr. Joe Everhart, President of Wells Fargo here in Alaska. Accompanying that book, I wrote Mr. Everhart an opening letter, which follows:
Performing a historic reenactment, Dean Osmar
(1984 Iditarod Champion) driving his team and Rod Perry on the gee pole and
Ouija board lead the 2014 Iditarod Ceremonial Start before 30,000 onlookers
and an international television audience.
Commentary Read Over the PA System at the Starting Line
Folks, what you see before you is an authentic freight sled of the type originally used on the Iditarod Trail.
Go back with me to Christmas Day, 1908. Deep within the almost unexplored Iditarod Country, from the bottom of a 12-foot-deep test hole, a man cried out to his partner………..GOLD!
Gold! The magical call once more rang out from Alaska and the stampede was on. Thus began the last great gold rush on the North American Continent.
Gold founded the Iditarod Trail, and Wells Fargo transported it out. Had there been no gold in the middle of a wilderness so vast and distant; there would have been no need for a Trail to connect it to civilization. And, without a trail to captivate Joe Redington, there would not be a race by dog team over this historic route today.
The town of Iditarod boomed, and gold began to pile up in the vault of the Miner’s & Merchant’s Bank of Iditarod. So it was that the country’s most trusted gold transport company, Wells Fargo Express, was tasked to mush it out over the Iditarod Trail.
During the eight years of peak gold production, Wells Fargo and its dog teams annually made the grueling hauls. Some years, they made more than one trip and the Wells Fargo Gold Train became the stuff of legend.
The greatest haul was some 3,400 pounds of gold towed by several teams made up of 46 huge huskies. Today’s racers may take as little as four days to cover the distance to Iditarod. The Gold Train took over six weeks.
The dog trains of yesteryear used great freighting dogs, twice the size of these modern racing dogs. Almost all else you see is historically true to the era. Note first, the man up front on the “Ouija board” and gee pole. With that long lever he can steer a thousand pound load easily. The man at the rear also plays a vital role. Look at that huge, blacksmith-made brake; actually used on a freight sled that once plied the Iditarod Trail.
Well folks, enough of history. Let’s give them a countdown and send-off.
There they go folks. The Wells Fargo Iditarod Gold Train rides again!
Dean Osmar (1984 Iditarod Champion and my best mushing buddy) driving
his team with me on the Ouija board and gee pole out on the trail.
Interested in more about building of this historic sled, the legendary Wells Fargo Gold Train of the Iditarod gold rush, and Rod’s Reenactment of those famous Gold Train passages over the Iditarod Trail and through early-day Anchorage? During the Iditarod Race we will be putting up a number of posts, so keep revisiting Rod’s Blog.
Oh, little town of Bethlehem, looks like another silent night Above your deep and dreamless sleep shines an everlasting light For the King has left His throne to sleep in a manger tonight.
Karen, my ever-alert bride, became aware last summer of a nativity scene up for grabs. Upon bringing the molded figures home, for lack of room elsewhere I put them in my johnboat parked in the driveway. Then about October we moved the boat to its winter resting place which happens to be just outside the window behind my computer screen.
Fabian Carey died in 1975. The year following his passing, I lived in the cabin shown in the photo. Part of the agreement with Fabian’s widow Mary, was that I take down the old cache, which had become worm-eaten and teetery. In the cache were thesled dog tug lines shown in the photo. Being sentimental and a dog man, I just couldn’t throw them away. They were too symbolic.
I carried these lines with me by dog team when I came out of Lake Minchumina in January of 1977to reach the highway system to run that year’s Iditarod. It was an 18-day expedition by compass, axe and snowshoe ahead of my dog team.
Fortunately, I am a nut on traditional sleds and their design, and have been since I was introduced to dog mushing in 1968. Having constructed ten hickory sleds for freighting and long distance racing, I am considered an artisan at the disappearing craft.
Doubly fortunately, an elderly and dear family friend as I was growing up, Alma Preston, had worked for Col. Harry Revell of Seward, Alaska, who held the contract to deliver U. S. Mail over the Iditarod Trail. Alma took many snapshots of the sled dog operation and gathered them into a priceless photo album. Included were numerous shots of the sleds. To one intimate with sled construction, Alma’s pictures detailed enough design features for me to replicate the distinctive Revell sleds.
The Iditarod Race provides an important reminder of an era in Alaska and early-day Anchorage when overland trails bore travel, transport, and communication over this vast northwest subcontinent. However, although the modern event serves as a valuable reminder of the old trails, it can throw observer’s perceptions off, crimping modern fans’ capacity to conceptualize old time realities, warping ideas about historical trail use, equipment, and dogs.
As soon as railroad construction crews blasted past cliffs and through rocky headlands and filled the way over mud flats along Turnagain Arm to rough in their pioneer rail bed as far as Potter, much of the Iditarod Trail traffic shifted from running through the mountains behind the new town, to running right through it. Telling testimony to the importance of dog team transport is that the main hotel in Anchorage was built with a dog barn next to it. And today on the “Anchorage Area Time Line” featured along the wall of the 4th Avenue Marketplace, a picture of the original post office with dog teams and laden mail sleds on the street in front is captioned, “The post office was social center of the town.”
In 1914 Anchorage was born. For projects contributing to our city’s yearlong centennial celebration, $500,000 in grant money is available We are applying for a grant to replicate two historic dog sleds used a century ago to carry mail, passengers, and freight in and out of Anchorage over the Iditarod Trail.
Inimitable Alaskan Episcopal Archbishop Hudson Stuck, who organized the first successful climb of Mount McKinley among other singular achievements, oversaw a far-flung archdiocese that covered much of Alaska. He traveled much of it behind his dog team and authored the classic, Ten Thousand Miles on a Dog Sled. He once stated, “In the North, the greatest gift one man can give another is a broken trail.” Having traveled, outside of the Iditarod, on expeditions short and long over untracked wastes, I would add an exclamation point.
With Martin Buser setting a blazing pace and a small handful just a little behind him, farther back a raft of former champions and high place winners—certainly supremely knowledgeable tacticians—are forming strategies of overtaking the frontrunners – - – if that is even possible. These racers know their dogs’ capabilities for endurance like a human distance runner knows his own capacities. Their run-rest ratios and cycles are tuned to operate right at the limit just like a human marathoner runs at his edge.
Seems that some things never go away. PETA, the Humane Society, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the usual suspects) are again—or should I say “still”—out to change the animal world for the better – - – their way. Recently they mounted another campaign to do in the Iditarod, sending hundreds of letters of protests and threats to one of Iditarod’s major sponsors.
It’s hard for someone like me who battled to make Rohn Roadhouse (as the checkpoint was originally named) in seven days on the first Iditarod, hard to imagine anyone pulling in there in less than 24 hours from the start. Of course, the evolution of the race after four decades makes holding 1973 up against 2013 like comparing apples to oranges.