Huslia has a storied past when it comes to dog mushing. It's hard think of the Koyukon Athabascan village, home to such legendary mushers as Warner Vent, Jimmy Huntington and George Attla, without thinking of racing dogs.
But there's one thing the village so famous for sled dogs can't lay claim to: The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has never traveled through the community of about 300. Until this year.
For the first time in its history, the Iditarod race trail will go through the village, roughly 260 air miles west of Fairbanks, taking a slight detour from a similar 2003 route that started in Fairbanks. That year, mushers looped down the Yukon River to the village of Anvik before heading back up the traditional trail to Kaltag. This year the mushers, after leaving Fairbanks, will follow the Tanana River and then the Yukon to the hub community of Galena, then head overland 82 miles north to Huslia.
After the announcement of the rerouting last week, Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman said the decision to go to Huslia was made in part to break up hundreds of miles of running on rivers as well as for a chance to honor Huslia's rich mushing history.
That history includes numerous mushers from the village who raced in both the Iditarod and many sprint races. Vent was an accomplished Iditarod racer, never winning but never placing lower than third in three races during the Iditarod's early days. Huntington was a champion sprint racer, winning numerous races in the 1950s. But Attla was the most famous, winning 10 Fur Rendezvous titles and eight North American Open Championship titles in a career spanning more than half a century. He also finished fourth in the inaugural Iditarod of 1973.
Attla's presence is rooted deeply in the community. The local school mascot is the Hustlers, a nod to Attla's nickname "the Huslia Hustler." In recent years, Attla turned his attention to young mushers in an attempt to pass on traditional knowledge. On Sunday, just days after the Iditarod announced it would be traveling to the village, Attla died at age 81.
Musher and Huslia Village First Chief Speedy Sam said it's an honor for the Iditarod to come through the village, especially given all the elders in the community with a long history of racing.
"It's the way it worked out this year. The dogs are coming through, but the old man passed away," Sam said from Huslia on Monday. "Maybe that's a sign that Iditarod is honoring him."
For the mushers, the biggest unknown will be the trail to the village. According to locals, dog teams and snowmachiners regularly use the trail between Huslia and Galena. Vent, a longtime Huslia resident who placed second in the 1974 and 1976 Iditarods, said it's relatively flat and travels through lakes and swamps with just a few hills in between.
Vent said the trail from Huslia to Koyukuk -- another small village in the region also getting its first official Iditarod checkpoint experience -- is less used but is a "known portage" in the area. Vent said the geography over the 86 miles of trail from Huslia to Koyukuk is similar to the trail from Galena, with lakes and tundra. Even though it's not as well traveled, Vent said, it would be marked and ready to go come race time. As of Friday, Huslia trailbreakers were just waiting on gas to arrive for snowmachines.
"We will take care of (the trail)," he said.
Sam said at least one snowmachiner made the trip from Koyukuk over the weekend. There's plenty of snow on the trail and no overflow on any sections, Sam said.
"We just hope it don't warm up," he said Monday.
Sam said villagers met Saturday to discuss preparing the checkpoint, though much of that planning will wait until after Attla's funeral.
Despite Attla's death, Huslia expects to be ready when the Iditarod mushers arrive in mid-March. Residents are excited to see the mushers, Sam said, and expect that given Huslia's status as the race's new halfway point, many mushers will elect to take their 24-hour mandatory rest there.
Students at the village school are preparing too, Sam said. Posters, familiar along portions of the trail, are already being drawn up to cheer on favored racers.
"It's exciting, oh yeah," said longtime resident and musher Floyd Vent. "It will be nice. The kids will be happy to see all the new racers and not have to watch them on TV."