In honor of Fur Rondy, I am reprising an old post about my favorite musher, George Attla.
I grew up on Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, Alaska. In those days, the Fur Rendezvous festival (Fur Rondy) was a really big deal. Everyone went downtown to see the carnival, blanket toss, and the fur auction. And the Open World Championship sled dog races were the highlight. It’s the sprint race of the sport, totaling seventy-five miles over three days. I recall seeing the start on 4th Avenue, and sometimes watching the dog teams go by on Cordova Street or the trail by Tudor Road. At that time, the races coincided with President’s Day, and for years, I thought we got the day off to watch the sled dog race, not understanding the day off school was for a national holiday.
We all followed the mushers like today’s kids follow their football or basketball stars. Two dog mushers were always at or near the top of the leader board: Dr. Roland Lombard and George Attla. Between 1958 and 1982, Attla won ten times, and Lombard eight. No trash talking here—they were gentlemen who had a friendly rivalry and showed deep respect for each other. They were both great role models, but I’m going to focus on Attla today.
George Attla, the Huslia Hustler, showed great strength and resilience in his life. He was from Huslia, a small Alaskan village, and contracted tuberculosis at a young age. He spent many years in Sitka for treatment, and left with a stiff leg, but he refused to let it slow him down. He became active in dog mushing in the 1950s, and made his mark in many races including the Anchorage ones. He also gave back to others. He wrote a book, Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs. He mentored young racers, created the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program, and was coaching his student Joe Bifelt for this year’s World Championship race when he succumbed to cancer. Attla died on February 15 of this year.
Attla saw some recognition during his lifetime. Governor Cowper proclaimed April 29, 1988, as “George Attla Day.” The movie Spirit of the Wind was about his life ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHWWJCvYO3o ) and Attla was inducted in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. But it’s too bad he didn’t get to see the dedication of the George Attla Mushing District Arch across 4th Avenue, or watch Joe Bifelt participate in the race he led for so long. The races were cancelled this year due to lack of snow.
I and many other Alaskans will miss George Attla. He was an amazing person. Thank you and God speed, Mr. Attla. May you win more races in the afterlife.