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Jerry Austin's death reminds us of our own struggles

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 6, 2016
  • Published June 10, 2010

Writers aren't supposed to be at a loss for words, but I don't know what to write about old friend and former Iditarod musher Jerry Austin. His best buddy, Dewey Halverson, and I were talking about Jerry only a couple months ago. The longtime resident of St. Michael had just gone home there after seeing doctors in Nome.

Jerry was in a difficult battle with the booze. He'd been warned to stop drinking. The booze was the main reason behind his losing his guide's license. He'd been told that if he didn't stay away from the bottle he wouldn't live much longer. A few months later, he was dead.

There's a belief in this state that alcohol in the Bush is a Native problem. It's not. Jerry was a white guy from the city -- Seattle to be exact -- who came north as a VISTA volunteer more than 40 years ago. Volunteers in Service to America, for those who don't know, was a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Decades ago it attracted a lot of well-intentioned people like Jerry.

He came to Alaska to help rural Alaskans. He fell in love with the Yukon Delta country. Fell in love with sled dogs. Fell in love with St. Michael beauty Clara Lockwood. Got married. Raised four great children. Became an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race legend. Started a successful big-game guiding business. (He once backed up Motor City Madman Ted Nugent on a grizzly hunt.) Built a successful sled-dog tour business.

And somewhere in the end, he lost good parts of all of it to the booze.

It's not what I want to remember him for, but I can see bits and pieces of it now woven into his life going way back. It was Jerry who used to pass the bottle round in Gene Leonard's cabin in those early days of the Iditarod when the race was as much about having fun as it was about winning and no musher worried about his, or her, image the way so many do now. These were the days when the Iditarod had a "hospitality tent" at Rohn. There were some people who visited the tent and were encouraged to drink when they shouldn't have been encouraged to drink. I got a little sideways with some people over it once. (I'll probably have some people get sideways with me over writing this, too. I don't care. Jerry wouldn't have objected.)

Back in the day, he knew well when the booze was OK, and when it wasn't. I know he disliked what alcohol later did to him, but by then he couldn't do anything about it. Addictions are their own sort of cancer. When cancer killed Iditarod legends Susan Butcher and Joe Redington, everyone lamented the cancer.

Jerry, on the other hand, had the sort of cancer nobody likes to talk about in Alaska. Or probably much of anywhere else for that matter. Addictions are like that. We like to push them off in a corner and pretend they don't exist because personal issues are things we're all supposed to be able to rise above even if we can't.

Addictions can mess up your life in many ways, whether you're addicted to work or alcohol or something else. And they mess up some of the best people. Jerry was for a time addicted to work. There was a period there when he had so many businesses going in St. Michael -- regional fuel supplier, professional Iditarod musher, big-game guide, fisherman -- that he could barely keep track of them. He was in those days the epitome of the Bush entrepreneur and the hard-drinking, hard-working, fun-loving, man's man.

He once finished the Iditarod with a broken arm. Why would a guy let something that minor stop him? He three times won the race's Sportsmanship Award for helping others. He was always helping others. He was like that despite his competitive streak.

For a long time, he yearned to win The Last Great Race, but he never got more than close. He was 12 minutes late in 1982, which put him third behind Rick Swenson and Butcher. They were all good friends then.

Butcher, a future four-time champ, and Swenson, the race's only five-time champ, would later have a major falling out, and the Austin-Butcher relationship would be strained by Jerry's continuing relationship with Rick. The two were a lot alike -- hard men with soft spots.

Jerry used to refer to Rick as "that stupid old dog lover," which is probably about as accurate a description of Swenson as anyone could ever offer. Jerry, for his part, was more of a stupid, old good-times lover. He might have loved the good times too much in the end.

He died at the age of only 62. The official reason given was "liver disease." We all know what that means. It's the way the alcohol thing we don't want to talk about is described. I'm going to talk about it anyway. I've never much given a crap about social rules anyway, and I'm not that far away from Austin's age now.

It's a scary thought to think about the drink, something I happen to enjoy, killing you. And the even scarier thing is to think that if I had spent all those years in St. Michael, I, too, might have ended up like Jerry. This is not to badmouth St. Michael. It's a nice place, but like villages in the Bush it endures winters that are long and cold and dark and isolating. It's easy to let a nightcap become more than just a nightcap until you can no longer stop it from being more than a nightcap.

It cost the life of one of the best Alaskans ever knew. What was it Hemingway wrote in "A Farewell to Arms?" "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially." Jerry was the very good.

I knew what was coming here. I knew that Jerry didn't have long to live. It still hurts. I can't imagine how hard it is for his family. I can only wish them strength, the kind of strength that was inside the Jerry Austin I knew on the trail back when. That's the Jerry I will always remember. People like that are destined to live forever. They might fade into the mist for a time, but they always come back.

Jerry, to me, will always be that guy teasing Susan in Leonard's cabin. I hope he's clear of his addictions now on the other side where begins the last great adventure any of us know. I can envision him there settling in with Susan, Joe, Herbie Naykopuk and Andy, the kind of lead dog Jerry always wanted but Rick was the one blessed to meet.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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