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Mushing 'dying out' in Alaska's Bristol Bay region?

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman
Fewer and fewer dog teams are being kept in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. Loren Holmes photo

What happened to dog mushing in Bristol Bay? Just five dog teams ran in this year's Beaver Round Up sprint races in Dillingham. Some 10 to 15 years ago, there were three times that many, according to longtime musher Jimmy Hurley, 57.

"It's dying out," he said. "I've got the last team left in Ekwok."

Too expensive and time consuming

All around the region, and especially in the villages surrounding Lake Iliamna, it's the same story. Dog racing is on the decline. It's expensive and time consuming. "There aren't many races around here anymore in Bristol Bay," said musher Wassillie Chocknok, of Manokotak. This year, there were only three, in Dillingham, Koliganek, and New Stuyahok. Back in the 1990s, 10 races were common during the winter in the villages.

"I think that a lot of them gave up on dogs, so there's only like one team over in Newhalen, and no others left in Kokhanok or Nondalton or Levelock," said Chocknok. In the recent Dillingham race, 70-something elders were well represented, more so than younger generations, he noted.

Hurley is passing dog mushing on to his children, and with the help of Facebook, hopefully to other people, too. He's making videos showing how to run dogs, and less glamorously, how to take care of them.

Work never stops for mushers

"Mushing is the fun part," he said, adding there's a lot more to it than a cheering crowd at the finish line.

"It's putting up fish, and getting wood. It's a lot of work. We have to care for the dogs every day, cleaning up after them and getting water," said Chocknok. Race training is another time consuming activity, running the dogs hitched to a sled or a four-wheeler, he said.

Dog mushing isn't cheap, both mushers said. Hurley said the decline may reflect an overall economic downturn. Chocknok noted the costs of dog food, the cost of transporting the dog food to the villages, and other expenses.

Hurley is making movies on how to do it, with the help of sons William, age 14, Jimmy, 4, and daughter Orpha, 11, on a sled and William driving a three-dog team. He plans to show the movies on his Facebook page, to prove that even with all the work, mushing really is fun.

Hurley, a longtime Bristol Bay salmon fisherman and former Bering Sea factory trawler worker, said mushing is more affordable using smaller teams with fewer dogs.

Longtime dog race volunteer and former Dillingham mayor Chris Napoli said a full team represents around "20 to 25 mouths to feed," and is essentially a "full time job."

Back in the day, "everybody had dogs," and dog sleds were a primary form of transportation. Nowadays, snowmobiles are the preferred ride in rural villages, Napoli observed.

It's been a long time since a local race featured at least 10 teams, Napoli said. A lack of financial sponsors makes it harder for mushers to compete, said Napoli, saying that Glen "Skin" Wysocki once had to sell his dog team in Nome to raise money for his trip home to his Nushagak River village of Koliganek.

Lead dogs pricey

The Iditarod is Alaska's most famous distance race, stretching over 1,000 miles between Willow and Nome. Most races in rural Alaska have a different format, known as sprint races. The same route, typically about 20 miles, is repeated over two or three days.

Serious competitive racing is very spendy, with a lead dog easily fetching $2,000. Top leaders can sell for as much as $4,500. And even dog food costs more, with the rise of sophisticated blends for peak performance, he said.

One Nushagak village with a strong mushing culture, New Stuyahok, is keeping the tradition going more than elsewhere, Napoli said. The town is home to about eight teams, with three that travel around to races in other communities.

Chocknok, a former New Stuyahok resident, said the sport is in better shape in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where he recently competed in a dog race in Bethel. Those passionate about mushing, however, say that more needs to be done to keep the Alaska tradition alive.

"We're not teaching our young," said Hurley. "A lot of people aren't passing the information on."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times. Jim Paulin can be reached at paulinjim@yahoo.com.