To Build Historic Dog Sleds, Part III

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.

Today, probably not one Iditarod Race fan in a thousand has so much as a glimmer of an idea about what old time dog team travel and transport looked like. Naturally, all they can envision is what they have seen, which is racing teams hauling tiny modern race sleds carrying almost nothing, driven by mushers “garbed like fashion plates from a Patagonia catalogue.” Watching the start and restart, they see today’s fifty-pound dogs, sleek speedsters charging out at fifteen miles per-hour or faster. They don’t know those sleds, dogs, and that pace would have made drivers of old, used to their great wooden sleds carrying hundreds of pounds, their huge freighting breeds of 100 to 150 pounds and their regimen of “five miles an hour, eight hours a day,” blink their eyes in lack of recognition and drop their jaws in amazement.

In 2011, I was asked by Iditarod Race Development Director Greg Bill, to perform a historic reenactment. In a centennial celebration of the construction of the Iditarod Trail I would lead the Iditarod Ceremonial Start out of downtown Anchorage. In that performance, to demonstrate a common freighting method of a century ago, I drove the vintage 13-foot-long hickory freight sled I had constructed in 1976. A friend assisted, riding a “Ouija board” (a short toboggan) hooked into the towline between sled and dogs. He steered with a “gee pole” (a lever extending from the right front of the sled) while I rode break behind. (Go to www.rodperry.com and click on Rod’s Blog for the YouTube video.) It was truly an eye catcher, drawing continual cheers from the crowds lining the trail to Campbell Airstrip. However, among the estimated 30 thousand observers, almost all must have been pleasantly puzzled by the odd sled-and-driver arrangement. Probably no more than a handful understood what it was all about.

Immediately following that run, I began formulating ideas for conducting an educational and entertaining living history. As envisioned, this “Show Before the Show” would annually take place on 4th Avenue in the hour preceding the Ceremonial Start of the Iditarod Race. My concept would be to have about a half dozen types of gold rush era trail users dressed in period costuming driving representative sleds and teams. In their turn, as each arrives at the starting line, I would introduce the musher and his trade—mail carrier, trapper, freighter, and so forth. Mike in hand, I would walk around the sled and team delivering tutorial commentary about the equipment, the user’s purposes, and trail history relating to such use. Then I would have the announcer send them off.

Every effort would be made to have all details authentic—no nylon webbing harnesses or sled lashing, no poly lines, no Carhartts, Sorrels, or bunny boots, nothing you would not have seen a century ago. I envision authenticity to the extent that a black-and-white photo taken of the musher, sled and team out on the trail would not look different from a similar picture from Alaska State Library archives.

Beyond the prerace living history, I see much more use for this equipment. Documentaries on trail and race history could use reenactment footage. The Anchorage Museum, The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headquarters, and the Iditarod National Historic Trail office are logical places to display the sleds when not in use.

The key to make all of this happen is to build the sleds, costuming, and associated gear and harnesses.  Construction will not be cheap. Particularly in the case of sleds, non-builders are always surprised that almost any large sled built artfully with attention to detail will have 250-300 man hours in it, and the biggest, more complex ones more. The early-day harnesses were much like horse collars, leather stuffed with hair padding, encircling the dogs’ necks. I have hand stitched them, demonstrating to myself that they are very makeable, but they take time and effort. (Might an Amish harness maker be found to build them?) The period costuming should be easier to get done, but will still be somewhat expensive.

Happily, at just the right time comes Anchorage’s Centennial and the $500,000 in grant money that will fund the celebration. The Alaska Humanities Forum has been tasked with deciding how to divide the pie among the many proposed ways to celebrate. We are in the application process for a grant to replicate the two 15-foot-long Revell sleds that hauled to last two loads of dog team mail out of Anchorage.

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