Man’s best friend

by Peter Twitchell

I remember the days of the Fur Rondy Festival weekend sled dog races in Anchorage back in the 50s when there were many local mushers and names of familiar people from rural Alaska. There was also a musher from the east coast named Dr. Roland Lombard. And notably George Attla from Huslia. In my opinion these were the dominant dog mushers who held my attention.

Dad had a Zenith cell pack battery operated radio which got the Anchorage broadcasts of the Fur Rondy dog mushing races by way of “White Alice” satellite dishes strung across Alaska.

Peter Jacob was always my favorite dog musher because he was from our local southwest Alaskan village of Bethel. He was a small man in stature, big in spirit, a jovial Yup’ik man whose eyes sparkled and laughed heartily whenever I told him that I was cheering him on to victory!

Anchorage’s Fur Rondy Festival Sled Dog races 25 mile race courses looped around Anchorage. Dad was glued to that radio set throughout the race every winter in the latter part of the 1950s and the early 1960s.

I remember dogsleds and big strong huskies were the only transportation long before snowmachines. People depended on these dogs to hunt, to fish, and gather wood. We took very good care of the dogs.

Mom and Dad had a 15 x 20 log building half of which was dedicated to dog food, which was mainly the backbones of the summer salmon which were smoked with cottonwood in the smokehouse with all the other flat slabs of salmon and salmon strips.

In the winter months the dogs would get a whole backbone. As spring approached we would give them half a backbone of the salmon. In the summer we cooked fresh salmon and occasionally added dog food to their dishes.

Growing up in the 1950s the Yup’iks in southwestern Alaska often spoke to the dogs in our native language and yelled commands like “gee” and “haw” and the leader would turn left or right. When Dad gave the command “come gee” and “come haw” the lead dog would make a 360˚ turn back.

When Dad yelled in a casual voice “tang ava-i kaviaq!” which means “look ahead at the fox!” the dog team’s ears and the leader would perk up, look ahead, and quicken their gallop. Dad had a white husky leader named Queenie.

I myself never owned a dog team and I’ve loved dogs all my life. They have been indeed Man’s Best Friend.