Rod Perry Focusing On Traditional Dog Sled Design
Iditarod Ceremonial Sled
New Sled A Throwback to Early Times
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:
Saturday, March 1st, Rod Perry cleared away some mists of time to help thirty thousand Iditarod Race spectators and an international TV audience look back into the glory days of the historic Iditarod Trail. Along with 1984 Iditarod Champ Dean Osmar and his team, Rod performed an Old North reenactment. Leading the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Ceremonial Start out of Anchorage, Rod rode a ouija (weegee) board and steered with a gee pole in front of the great oaken freight sled he, his brother Alan, and Cliff Sisson had just built. The performance demonstrated a freighting method unknown to moderns, but commonly seen during the North’s gold rush era.
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.
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.