Few people have ever heard the details of the closest finish in K300 race history.
Stories from the early years of the Kuskokwim 300 are often shared at social gatherings, but few ever make it into print. One such tale, the 1983 finish, needs to be recorded while some of the participants can still recall the details. I was one of the participants, and it’s a story I have rarely told.
The 1983 race boasted a field of mushing stars, but none more famous than George Attla, the Huslia Hustler. A movie of his life, “Sprit of the Wind” had won many awards and played to a packed house at Swanson’s Theatre, now a relic of Bethel history. Attla flew to Bethel to help open the new Alaska Commercial Company store, and was a legitimate hero, mainly because of his many championships in sprint racing. But he was also a distance musher, having finished the first Iditarod, and the 1982 K-300, in second place.
So when he came back in 1983, there was no question he came to win. The first half of the race was typical, with teams running and resting on their own schedules. My team looked good on the way up river, and the highlight to that point in the race was passing defending champion Jerry Austin on the way into Aniak. I ran a veteran team, with a 10 year old leader named Funny, my ace in the hole for the home stretch. Funny had been injured much of the fall, and only made the team in the last week after having several weeks off with a sore shoulder. He spent much of that time inside our house, and the night before the race woke me up at about 2 am sitting on the end of the bed looking at me, as if to remind me that he was ready. He had been loose in the yard during his recovery, and only stopped limping the week of the race. He had two short training runs between Dec 1st and the race.
Funny rode in the sled to Tuluksak because of his age, injury, and lack of speed. His head stuck out of the bag, and he watched the many trucks pass us with little interest. When I put him in the team, he managed a few barks and jumps, despite his age. I was using a few borrowed dogs as well, including a couple from John Riley.
After Aniak the trail looped back around Whitefish Lake before turning back onto the Kuskokwim River at Kalskag. The trail was not perfect, and most of the front runners had to park for a few hours in the dark near Whitefish because blowing snow had covered the trail making it it difficult to follow the sparse markers. I spent the down time parked near young Ron Kaiser, and up - and- coming Bethel racer.
When the crowd of teams left the camp on the open tundra near Whitefish, I still had Funny back in the team, but shortly before Kalskag I needed to move him into lead. I had hoped to wait longer to use him there, but I was actually short of reliable leaders so I moved him to lead where he stayed for the remaining 100 miles of racing. Immediately I noticed an improvement. The old guy knew where he was and his nose was pointed home. I quickly moved into a group of teams leading the pack. They included Attla, Joe Garnie, and Clarence Towarek. In those days, the pace was less frantic than now, and most of the teams took a good break in Kalskag. Heading down river, Garnie, Towarek and myself were behind Attla, and that continued as we passed through Tuluksak. I recall he had about a 15 or 20 minute lead out of Tuluksak, Towarek was in second, and Garnie and I were about even for third. I pulled away from Garnie as we left Tuluksak, and the team was looking strong on the home stretch. I was closer to both teams ahead of me at Akiak, and starting to sense that I could catch them.
I never did see Towarek’s team again. He lost the trail somewhere between Akiak and Kwethluk, and ended up behind me at the finish line. I was moving well when I came upon Attla stopped in Kuskokuak Slough, unable to move forward untiI I passed him. His team followed me into Kwethluk, and I saw no tracks in front of me. That was confirmed when we checked into Kwethluk, as I left in first place. Fifteen miles to Bethel at about 4 am, and it was getting interesting.
That year we used the back trail from Kwethluk, which I had never used. The trail wound through swamps and trees a few miles off the river. There were many forks, and Attla and I exchanged the lead several times as one or the other would get off the trail momentarily on the confusing forks. Through it all it was obvious to me I had the slightly stronger team, mainly because of that old leader, who by now was limping on a sore shoulder but obviously determined to get home as fast as possible. He was running single lead, and it was a sight I have never forgotten. We would drop behind a ways because we took the wrong fork , but when the trails merged that old warrior would close the gap in short order and we would pass when the other team took the wrong fork. As I write this, I can recall the strength in the gait of that old leader. He was trotting, and his gait was very smooth and steady. Funny was a heavily built dog, with a broad back and a big head. He looked like a bull dozer in front of the team.
When we busted out of the woods and onto the wide expanse of the Kuskokwim, there were a number of fans cheering us on. One guy hollered there was overflow ahead. I was leading, and my team was used to overflow so I was not concerned. Attla, who trained on trails designed for sprinting, chose to skirt the overflow which seemed to be the long way around. I went right into the water but it soon got deep enough that I turned the team to the left and got out of the water behind Attla. We quickly caught up, but now Attla was driving his dogs and mine seemed content to ride along right behind. We had about 3 miles to the finish.
I needed to pass if I was going to win. Before the race, Bob Sept had delivered to me a signal whip, which I had never used but had heard about from other racers. It was suggested that by cracking the whip, a musher could get extra speed from his team. I tried it then as the lights of Bethel came into view. I was unable to make it crack, so then I tried slapping the ice with the whip. There was no reaction, and Funny was still comfortably tucked in behind Attla’s sled as we approached town. I packed the whip away after about two minutes.
That year the finish line was located on Bethel’s Front Street, in front of what is now Swanson’s Marina. The trail left the river near a big boat moored in the ice at what is now the downriver end of the city dock. There was a narrow chute between the boat and the bank, and that chute was full of overflow. The water went from the boat to the bank, about 6-8 feet across and about 2 feet deep in the middle. Both teams tried to turn into Brown Slough, but managed to make it to the boat and start up the bank. Attla was still right ahead of Funny, and when his dogs reached the deepest overflow, they stopped. Funny didn’t mind a little water, and was determined to get up the bank.I had run the trail to the finish a few days before the race. He tried to pass in the water. Funny was about 10 feet past Attla’s sled when one of his dogs leaped over my team trying to get out of the water. That stopped my team , about half way past Attla’s team. Attla was quick to respond. “Untangle them!” he hollered. He was thinking quickly, knowing that if I untangled the dogs, I would be off my sled when they were free, allowing Attla a chance to bolt for the finish.
There were at least two eyewitnesses to the incident in the water, Bob Nelson, a local builder at the time, and Doug Dorland, an attorney from my office. They were perched on the boat right above the teams. They watched as I splashed ahead in the water. I also had a plan. I grabbed Attla’s dog and pitched it over the line, at the same moment as I urged Funny ahead. He was standing in chest deep water, and needed little encouragement. Funny was off like a shot. I grabbed the sled as it flew by. When I emerged from the water, a moment later, I glanced back and Attla was still stalled.
We hit the street, and that old beast motored to the large crowd assembled at the finish line. I crossed the line just 18 seconds ahead of Attla, the closest finish in K300 history, and second closest ever in long distance racing. As I gave Funny a hug, Attla stormed up and said I cheated. He stated, “Boy, I think you broke every rule in the book.” My mother-in-law pointed at his face and said, “you’re just a sore loser.” Because I had helped write the race rules, I could think of no rule that was violated. Race marshal Ernie Baumgartner agreed. George complained about the use of the whip, which was not even mentioned in our rules at the time and had no bearing on the outcome.
Attla skipped the awards ceremony and was fined by race officials for doing so. He hired a lawyer to protest the fine, but the lawyer gave up after writing one letter. I remember clearly the argument raised in the letter. It was suggested Attla’s fine should be returned because the rules didn’t state that racers had to follow all of the rules. The controversy at the finish took a lot of the fun out of winning that race for me. But as years go by, the controversy has faded and the classic finish has emerged as one of my most cherished memories. I often travel that same stretch of river by dog team or snow machine. When I do, I never fail to recall that night, and that leader. When that happens, no matter how cold it is, I always feel a little warmer. Funny never finished another race. He was retired to roam the yard, and spent part of his time inside. He later lost a tooth, which I put on a chain and wore around my neck when racing. He is buried under our house.
As for Attla, he never raced another long distance race, but continued to race and win sprints for a few more years. Later that year, he raced the Fur Rondy which was televised from Anchorage. As he came down fourth avenue to the finish line, the camera showed a close up image of him cracking a long whip over his team. No one complained.
- Myron Angstman