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Checker, trail builder, promoter -- Doug Katchatag molded Iditarod's soul

  • Author: Laureli Ivanoff
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 6, 2016

UNALAKLEET -- The race was talk. He heard about it all summer long. Finally, after the fishing season in October, Doug had had enough.

"Go check the mail," Doug told the fish buyer over a morning cup of coffee. While Joe was at the post office, Doug packed his friend's bags and called the airline. His friend came back and asked what the heck was going on. "You're going back to Anchorage to start your damn race," Doug told Joe. "I'm sick and tired of hearing you talk about it."

Joe Redington spent those summers working as the manager of the Norton Sound Fishermen's Cooperative, purchasing salmon from area fishermen. After leaving Unalakleet that October, Joe called Doug in February, saying he'd raised $50,000. It was 1972, and knowing there was money, Doug Katchatag got to work on the trail.

The portage trail between Unalakleet and Kaltag had historically been used for trade between the coastal Inupiat and the Athabaskans in the Interior. In recent history, the trail was used by dog teams delivering mail. It became nearly obsolete in the mid-1950s when Alaska Airlines stationed a Bush plane and a pilot in the Norton Sound community. Unalakleet Air Taxi was also founded in those years and flew charters between the two communities. Planes took care of mail that was once delivered by dog team.

Doug thinks he remembers the very last people to use the portage trail.

"It was Eli and Missouri Stanley, and Franklin Madros and Junior Solomon from Kaltag," Doug said. "They were the last ones who came down and visited. They were trapping at Tenmile Creek and decided to come down and trade. It was in '56," Doug said. "We were young boys then."

Doug was bitten by the Iditarod bug even before the first race. He knew that for Joe's race to happen, the trail between Unalakleet and Kaltag needed clearing -- overgrown, as it was, with willows and young spruce trees. Doug and five other men, including his dad and brother, cut brush and trees and three of the men made it all the way to Kaltag that winter. "A year later, in 1973, Duke Katongan and I started using the trail to keep it open," Doug said.

Using it, he pointedly clarified, "by dog team."

By that time, the snowmachine had taken over, having first appeared in our community in the mid-1960s. Sled dogs were no longer essential and this was the reason Joe so persistently talked about the race from Anchorage to Nome. "He (Joe) said, 'You know, Doug, when I first got here, I'd see dogs in every lot. And today, yours is the only dog team I see in Unalakleet.' "

Doug has one sled dog today, forced to quit by arthritis. "Joe was hoping to start bringing back dogs to the Bush. He brought it to Willow, Fairbanks, Anchorage," Doug said. "Only white people are running dogs today. They can afford it. We can't. It takes a lot of money."

But a few rural Alaska mushers are racing, including 2012 champion John Baker of Kotzebue and two-time Kuskokwim 300 winner Pete Kaiser of Bethel.

Like most things, the race has significantly changed since the early days. Back then, Doug was a checker at Old Woman, 35 miles inland from Unalakleet. Old Woman was a checkpoint for just the first two years, and Doug said he and Charlie Towarak worked out of a whitewall tent for more than a month when Dick Wilmarth won the inaugural race. "It was 40 to 60 below. It didn't warm up until after the race," Doug said. He and Charlie had to eat something and spent parts of their days fishing and hunting. He spoke of hunting ptarmigan at the base of the Whaleback Mountains.

"There would be thousands up there. Like a cloud taking off," he said.

And, according to him, the early days were fun. "People were nice. They were always friendly and always willing to camp and talk. And they always tell stories of the (race). Today, if you try to get stories out of them (mushers), you ain't gonna get nothing. It's changed so much," Doug said.

It's true. In the early days, Doug said mushers would run their dogs during the day and camp every night. Today's race is so fast, rest is sacrificed. Competitive mushers aren't day running and night camping. They have conformed their schedule to that of the dogs and don't have much energy left to sit down and visit.

But sit down with Doug Katchatag and one realizes he loves this race. He's proud of the 40 years he worked as an Iditarod checker. He's proud of the work he, his dad, his brother and friends did to re-establish a trail, now part of the Iditarod National Historical Trail. He's proud of the fact that when his friend Joe asked him if dogs can run from Anchorage to Nome, he encouraged the idea. He even seems proud describing how he's lost money in this race.

"I never gotten paid. Matter of fact, first five years of the race when people dropped stuff to send back, I paid the postage," Doug said. "Until I started getting too broke. I said, 'That's it.' After, they got NAC (Northern Air Cargo) to start hauling their drop bags."

Doug realizes that some mushers and others have gotten wealthy from the race he helped to start. "I'm still happy. Happier than those millionaires," he said with a smile.

And he seems to be. He doesn't come out and tell you he's in the Alaska Dispatch News Iditarod Hall of Fame. You have to ask him. After all, the race didn't start because of a love for money or attention. It started with a love for sled dogs and the mushing lifestyle. And that hasn't waned.

Laureli Ivanoff lives in Unalakleet, where she's raising her two children, Joe and Sidney. They eat a lot of fish and are very proud of their yorkipoo named Pushkin.

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