As one of Alaska's best and most beloved mushers rests in an Anchorage hospital bed, George Attla's journey continues.
Attla is 81 and has bone cancer. He tried one treatment, to which his body responded poorly, and he doesn't want to try more aggressive forms of chemotherapy. Fingers are crossed that this month he'll be able to watch racers in the Fur Rendezvous World Championship sled dog race cross the Tudor Road bridge, which is visible from the Alaska Native Medical Center's south-facing windows.
It's been a year since the Huslia Hustler was last on the runners of a sled. He drove an eight-dog team on two 12-mile runs at the Arctic Winter Games in Fairbanks, said partner Kathy Turco. When he finished the final run, "he stepped off his sled and he said, 'I can't do it anymore,' '' she said.
But in his mind, or in his dreams, Attla is still driving dogs.
"I needed to take one more trip, so I went around the world on a sled," Attla said. "It was a beautiful trip. Each tribe, they took me in, all around the world. It was almost like the history of what they call the beginning of the earth.
"I was thinking, wow. I never dreamt in my life that something like that would happen to me. It was the most amazing thing. It was a gift."
In a recent 90-minute interview, Attla was alert and engaged. One eye is blinded and clouded by glaucoma, but the other is bright and clear, and when Attla is amused by something, his eyes smile and so does he. As Attla spoke about the need to sell his sled dogs, he paused, smiled and explained why: "Because I think I'm retiring."
Attla's body might be almost done, but he is still very much with us.
Who didn't think of Attla when the Iditarod Trail Committee announced Tuesday that Huslia, Attla's longtime home, will be the halfway point in this year's rerouted race?
And who won't think of Attla when Fur Rondy rolls around, especially if his grand-nephew, 20-year-old Joe Bifelt, enters the race with a team of Attla-raised sled dogs? Bifelt and the Attla dogs recently traveled from Huslia to Willow to prepare for the Rondy sprints.
Before he was hospitalized, Attla coached Bifelt with the use of a GoPro camera and laptop computer. With the GoPro as his companion, Bifelt ran dogs on the trails around Huslia, and when he was done, he and Attla would watch the video and Attla would provide commentary and advice. "Put these two dogs together," he would tell the young musher, and then explain why.
"I could coach from my chair," Attla said.
Few people know dogs better than Attla, an Athabascan who has been described as the Picasso of mushing. He was a dog whisperer before the phrase was coined. The late, great Iditarod champion Susan Butcher was fond of telling others that "George has forgotten more about mushing than most people have learned.''
As a child, Attla spent several years in and out of hospitals because of tuberculosis that left him with a fused knee. The leg with the bad knee was the one he stood on during races; the good leg pedaled, famously and furiously, behind the sled, providing extra power for his team.
With one lame leg and, later, one blind eye, Attla captured 10 Fur Rondy championships and eight North American Open championships. During the height of his racing career, which spanned half a century, he was as famous as anyone in Alaska.
He has endured cancer, tuberculosis, heart ailments and heartbreak -- in 2010, his son Frank died at age 21. In Frank's honor, George helped start the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care Mushing Program, which has become part of the curriculum at the school in Huslia. Bifelt is a product of the program.
Though Attla is as proud as can be of Bifelt, and although Attla delayed his hospitalization to stay in Huslia to watch the village's annual New Year's races, he said he doesn't have an itch to take one more Rondy run.
"It's not the top subject," he said. "It was something I did in my life. It's a memory."
In recent days, it's as if Attla's memories and imagination are fused, sort of like that stiff knee of his.
Attla said that once he got to the hospital and his body didn't react well to treatment, he received advice from "the old people."
"They are all dead and you go to them with questions, and I was able to be there with them long enough to get the answers I need on Earth," Attla said. Their advice, he said, included prayer.
The same old people helped pick the dogs that took him on his round-the-world trip, he said.
His eyes brightened as he spoke about all of this.
"At this time of my life, it's not even a dream, almost. It's my imagination," Attla said. "Right now I feel great. In my mind, I am very at peace."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing