Foremost, his family reported in his obituary, he said the Sinner’s Prayer and “welcomed the Lord into his heart” on February 8.
Two days later, in response to lack of snow, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race committee decided to move the official start of the race from Anchorage to Fairbanks for only the second time in the race’s 43-year history. The race committee adjusted the course to make up lost mileage. The result: The midway point this year is Huslia, Attla’s hometown. As mushers and teams pass through this Koyukon Athabascan city of 275 people, they will undoubtedly remember Attla’s place in Iditarod history; he raced in the first Iditarod in 1973, placing fourth.
On February 15, Attla passed away peacefully at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage after a brief battle with cancer surrounded by family and friends. He was 81. As he passed, his grandnephew, Joe Bifelt, was readying for the Fur Rendezvous Sled Dog Race. Bifelt will race his granduncle’s team—all who watch will undoubtedly remember Attla’s record 10 Fur Rendezvous championships.
And so the legacy continues, in more ways than one.
“It’s sad to see these elders passing away,” said Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Yupiit Nation and a prominent musher. “He was a mentor and a friend. It was a huge honor to know him and I cherish the knowledge he shared with me.”
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race website called Attla “an icon, a true spirit of dog mushing.” In many ways, he personified Alaska itself, exhibiting the determination, hard work, perseverance, and self-discipline required to thrive in often harsh circumstances.
According to his family, he was born August 8, 1933 to Eliza and George Attla Sr., at a fish camp just below Koyukuk on the Yukon River. The younger Attla was raised in a subsistence lifestyle and spent the majority of his time at fish camp, cabins and spring camp.
Here’s where the true grit comes in.
During his youth, he underwent nearly 10 years of treatment for tuberculosis, spending long periods away from his family. Tuberculosis bacteria usually attack the lungs, but can attack any part of the body. In Attla’s case, TB left with him a bad knee. Yet he overcame that physical hurdle to become one of the most famous mushers in the world.
Attla had limited formal education, but authored one book, Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs, 1974, and contributed to another, Mush! A Beginner’s Manual of Sled Dog Training, 1992.
To young Alaska Natives, “He’s a fine example of how an Alaska Native can succeed and become an all-time champion, that if you get your mind focused on succeeding and work hard at it, good things will happen,” Williams said.
Attla was also humble. He was the subject of a movie (“Spirit of the Wind,” 1979) and of a book (George Attla: The Legend of the Sled Dog Trail, 1993). But Chuck Schaeffer, Inupiaq, of Kotzebue said Attla was approachable and friendly to all, always willing to share what he knew about dogs.
Attla coached young mushers at the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing program, which he founded and named after his son. He advised and loaned dogs to young mushers. He talked about building community collaboration for healthy, happy youth at the Alaska Federation of Natives Elders and Youth Conference.
Amanda Attla told Iditarod education director Diane Johnson that her father was not just a great musher, he was a great dad. “He was always there, he was always pushing us to be a better person and to not ever give up because there is always hope,” she said.
The Huslia Hustler
Dogs had been a part of the lives of Attla’s people since before memory. “He came by dog mushing naturally because of where he was raised and because his parents knew more about dog mushing than he believed he’d ever know in his own lifetime,” Johnson wrote on the Iditarod website. “George enjoyed dog mushing. It was his way of life and driving a dog team and racing dogs was what he really enjoyed doing.”
Attla won his first of 10 Fur Rendezvous sled dog races in 1958, at the age of 24. In the ensuing years—with grit and determination and his knowledge of dogs—he would win nine Tok Race of Champions titles, eight North American Open Championships, eight Koyukuk River Championships, and 10 International Sled Dog Association unlimited class medals.
Attla’s successes took excitement about mushing to new levels. Herbie Nayokpuk and Emmitt Peters were known respectively as the Huslia Hustler, the Shishmaref Cannonball, and the Yukon Fox, and those nicknames, and well as their accomplishments, made mushing a storied sport.
Attla never stopped setting goals, never stopped trying to reach new heights. In 2011, at age 77—with one bad knee and one bad eye—he won his eighth Koyukuk River Championship.
“George always said that he was taught that there wasn’t anything that could not be overcome,” the Iditarod’s Johnson wrote. His example inspired others “to keep working at their goals and to do their best. George believed that everyone could be a winner in life if only they always worked at improving themselves.”
Schaeffer said he wasn’t yet a competitive musher when he met Attla for the first time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, during the Arctic Circle Championship race in Kotzebue. Attla seemed larger than life.
“I was a little intimidated by him,” Schaeffer said. During a subsequent race, he and Attla became close friends. Schaeffer bought a sled from Attla and, later, one of Attla’s huskies.
“I bred a nice team out of that dog,” said Schaeffer, whose mushing career includes second- and third-place finishes in the 1991 and 1992 Kuskokwim 300, and fifth-place finishes in the 2011 and 2012 Kobuk 400. The 2015 Iditarod will be his third. He said the highlight of the race will be mushing through Attla’s hometown.
Dogs Were “As Tough As Nails”
As would be expected, Attla’s dogs were sought after for breeding.
Williams, a prominent musher, bred his Akiak huskies with Attla’s Huslia huskies. “His dogs were tough as nails,” Williams said.
The Akiak huskies were larger, about 65 to 70 pounds, whereas the Huslia huskies were similar in build but leaner and “a little smaller—50 to 55 pounds,” Williams said.
The offspring were “just the right size, with good feet, good fur and a good appetite,” Williams said. He ran some of those dogs in his first Kuskowim 300.
“My youngest dog was only seven months old and I came in seventh. That was something,” Williams said. “With those dogs, we won sprint races for 10 to 15 years.”
Williams entered his first Iditarod in 1992 with Attla’s encouragement. Williams is now a veteran of 15 Iditarods and was three times that race’s Most Inspirational Musher. Over the years, Attla periodically sent Williams’s dogs to try out and had high hopes for Williams’s son, Mike Jr., who has finished 13th, 11th, and eighth in three of five Iditarods.
“He wanted Mike Jr. to do well in the Iditarod,” Williams said. “That was a great conversation we would have [about Mike Jr.]. We would talk once a month.”
The elder Williams continued to get encouragement from Attla as well. Attla knew about Williams’s forthcoming book, Racing Toward Recovery: The Extraordinary Story of Alaska Musher Mike Williams Sr., co-written by journalist Lew Freedman and published by Alaska Northwest Books. In the book, scheduled for release in May, Williams writes that mushing is not as much about racing as it is keeping alive an important part of Alaska Native culture. He also writes about mushing to promote sobriety.
“He was glad I was telling my story,” Williams said. “He wanted young people to be free of substance abuse, and he felt education was an important part of the process.”
Funeral in Huslia
According to his obituary, Attla is survived by his partner, Kathy Turco; brothers, Robert Attla, Alfred Attla (Helen) and Barney Attla (Ragine); sisters, Rose Ambrose, Marie Yaska and Madeline Williams (Bill); children, Gary Attla, Phyllis Attla, Marilyn Van Hatten (Mike), Eliza Tiulana (Charles), George Attla III, Amanda Attla and Sheylynn Attla; 19 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren; and numerous nephews and nieces.
A gathering was February 16 and service February 17 at the David Salmon Tribal Hall in Fairbanks. A final service and burial are scheduled on February 19 in Huslia.