AMBLER – Lolo Johnson woke up before 4:30 a.m. on Friday to make pancakes and sausage. Together with other volunteers, she cleaned, set up tables and got the beds ready at the Boys and Girls Club— all to greet the Kobuk 440 sled dog race mushers and make them comfortable in this Northwest Alaska village of about 260.
Located about 200 miles east of Kotzebue, Ambler is almost a midway point of the Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race. Ambler volunteers put in sleepless nights to make the stop welcoming.
“This is a special event for me. It reminds me of our lifestyle, the way we used to live,” elder Virginia Commack said after she watched musher Jeff King arrive. She said that in Iñupiaq culture, dog sledding was a crucial mode of transportation in the past. “So we’re real happy somebody’s following our tradition. No matter where they come from, we’re happy.”
This year’s race winners started to arrive in Kotzebue on Sunday: Hugh Neff won, outrunning Richie Diehl by just 2 minutes. Rookie Eddie Burke Jr. took third place. Racers continued to trickle into town throughout Sunday and Monday.
On Friday, Commack and other Ambler residents gathered on a hill and got a bonfire going while waiting for the teams to show up in the village. Some of the youngest spectators ran toward the Kobuk River to see the teams slowly crossing it, with the Angayucham Mountains gleaming in the backdrop.
“Look! Is this Jeff?” Anaya Dozette, 11, said, pointing toward the river. When the silhouette of Jeff King and his team came into focus and got closer, the three girls ran back toward the Boys and Girls’ building to see the racer up close and pet his dogs.
After giving their dogs food and water, all the mushers came inside. There, the volunteers prepared gifts for them: handmade beaver and fox hats, sealskin gloves and fabric cozies for serving dishes. Hugh Neff was rewarded for being the first musher in town, Ebbe Winstrup Pedersen as the first rookie, Miriam Osredkaras as the first — and only — woman musher in the race, and DJ Starr as the last musher to arrive.
Some of the hats were sewn by sisters Helena Jones and Myra Upickson as they have done for several years. Jones said it was a task made more difficult this year because her sister Upickson grieved the loss of her son. The family was motivated, she said, to celebrate and maintain a village tradition that began when her mother, Clara Lee, started sewing for mushers in the early 1990s.
“I almost gave up this year,” she said about making the hats, “but my brother said, ‘This is what mushers go for here.’ … This is our moment in Ambler, the big get-together.”
When Upickson and Jones were growing up, their father had a dog team — to hunt, fish, get wood and move around. Now, Ambler has no sled dogs but the residents support the race.
Race winner Hugh Neff came first into Ambler as well. While he ate, Neff chatted with people he said he hasn’t seen in a year. The trail conditions were brutal, he told them, due to punchy snow and twisty tracks. Still, he said he was happy to take on the challenge.
Scenery of Northwest Alaska lifted the spirits for mushers. Neff said that the trails all around Ambler were gorgeous, especially with a caribou herd scattered a few miles out from the village.
“It’s always magical coming in here because it’s a beautiful area, but then you add 500 caribou to it, you’re just like Willie Wonka or something,” Neff said about the trail. “I was just out there laughing.”
Jeff King said that his team smelled the caribou long before they could see them.
“I get a kick out of imagining what information dogs get when they smell things,” he said. “It happened a couple of times out of Kotzebue, I looked at the willows and the banks and never saw what it was that excited them.”
In the warm Boys and Girls Club, the beds were set up for mushers and the table was loaded with food, from moose soup to caribou stew, danishes to pineapple sunshine cake, salads, bread and hot drinks.
As soon as a musher or volunteer would come in, one of the women would tell them, “Eat!”
Ila Griepentrog made most of the desserts and continued cooking throughout the weekend, placing a new dish on the table as soon as the mushers and volunteers emptied one of the plates.
“They used to have special menu orders,” Commack said. “Today, they eat whatever’s put in front of them.”
Several children in the room helped Johnson, Griepentrog and other volunteers. Johnson said she hopes younger generations will stay interested in the race, especially with only a few Alaska Native mushers participating in the sport and with the number of volunteers dwindling year after year.
Besides warm food and a place to sleep, each musher was greeted with a drawing from local children. When Deke Naaktgeboren ate a late-night dinner, he saw a poster with his name and a big yellow-blue dog.
“This is incredible,” he said and wrote a thank-you note and his lead dog’s name on the drawing.
Dempsey Woods said, looking at a poster made for him, that a gift like this can make a difference when the mushers are exhausted on the trail.
“It lifts you right up and then you make it,” Woods said.