Herbie Nayokpuk: 'Cannonball' commanded respect

No musher in Iditarod history has been more admired, more respected or better liked than Herbie Nayokpuk.

"If I had to choose one face to represent the Iditarod, it would be Herbie's," nominating committee member John Larson wrote in 1997. "If I had to choose one heart, it would be Herbie's. If I could only meet one Iditarod musher ever -- Herbie again. This Eskimo from Shishmaref was everything that was good about the Iditarod: tough, strong, savvy, kind. No one was more respected on the trail, and his team was a thing of beauty to see."

In addition to all that, Nayokpuk had the coolest nickname ever given to a dog musher -- The Shishmaref Cannonball.

Nayokpuk was a formidable competitor. He never won the Iditarod, but he finished in the top 10 in eight of his 11 races. His best finish was second in 1980.

"It's hard to understand how much Herbie's presence in the Iditarod meant to rural Alaska without being on the trail," nominating committee member John Tracy wrote.

But out on the trail, there was no doubt.

"The cheering started for Herbie Nayokpuk before he had even reached a point where he could hear it," Anchorage Times reporter E.W. Piper wrote of the musher's entry into Unalakleet in 1983. " 'Eskimo town! Eskimo town Herbie!' hollered a man on the riverbank as several hundred pairs of mittens pounded a muffled welcome."

That year the 53-year-old Nayokpuk finished fourth -- despite having had open-heart surgery five months earlier.

Nayokpuk was just as popular with his fellow mushers. He took more than one rookie under his wing, and his dogs showed up in many of the early Iditarod teams. There was not a murmur of dissent when, in 1992, race organizers made Nayokpuk the first living musher to receive the honorary No. 1 starting position.

Inducted 1997 Greatest accomplishment First living musher chosen to be the Iditarod's honorary No. 1 musher. Vital stats Born: Shishmaref Hometown: Shishmaref Died: 2006, age 77 Best finish 2nd -- 1980 Fastest time 1981 -- 12 days, 22 hours, 18 minutes Race record 1973 5th 1974 3rd 1975 4th 1979 Scratched 1980 2nd 1981 7th 1982 12th 1983 4th 1985 8th 1987 25th 1988 6th Awards Halfway -- 1980 Golden Harness (to outstanding lead dog) -- 1980, '87 Most Inspirational -- 1988