‘You never train a dog to stop,’ says George—who doesn’t know how himself
Hike!” yells George Attla. “Gee! Haw! Get up!” His 16 straining dogs know the translation: go right, left and run-run-run. They leave 32 sled teams in a cloud of snow. “You never train a dog to stop,” George huffs after the race. “A good team will run until they pass out.”
Despite some admitted handicaps—”I can’t bend my right leg, I’m blind in one eye and I’ve had so many operations on my stomach it looks like the map of Alaska”—Attla, 44, is the state’s all-time sled-dog-racing champion. A native of Huslia (pop. 160) and a full-blooded Athabascan Indian, Attla captured the Kentucky Derby of sled dog races—the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship—for the seventh time last month. His winning team covered the 75-mile course at an average speed of nearly 15 mph over three days of racing. He has also won the North American race five times and the Alaska State Championship three.
When he’s not skidding across the tundra, Attla is a trainer and breeder of sled dogs. He keeps 60 of them on his six-and-a-half-acre homestead 14 miles southeast of Fairbanks. His “Indian dawg,” a mix of Siberian husky, Irish setter and Targhee hound, weighs 40 to 45 pounds. (The racing sled, with driver aboard, weighs about 200.) “A purebred, like the Siberian, is stubborn and not fast enough,” explains Attla. “Hounds, like Irish setters, don’t have minds strong enough to be able to give you everything.” For his lead dog, Trot, Attla paid $2,750, believed to be a record price. “With a dog like that, you can’t let someone else get her or they’ll beat you,” he explains.
It costs $7,000 a year to feed his kennel a daily combination of Kasco commercial dog food, horse meat and fish (old-timers call their dogs “fish-burners”). “I have to win to break even,” he says. He has pocketed $15,-000 so far this winter, with a top purse of $4,800 at Anchorage.
George’s birthplace, Huslia, is known for its dogs. “They were like the family car,” he says, “used for transportation years ago, then racing.” He is the son of a fur trapper who spoke only Athabascan. “When I first came out of the woods I couldn’t speak a word of English,” recalls Attla. He says he taught himself to read and write.
Because of a childhood illness his knee was fused, making it impossible for him to compete in foot or snow-shoe races. (Glaucoma in one eye and the surgery—most recently an appendectomy—came later.) “I had a chip on my shoulder and wanted to prove I could win something,” he recalls. At 24 he did, borrowing a friend’s team. His racing technique is to ride the sled on his stiff right leg and push with his left.
During the summer Attla works as a fisherman or captains a riverboat on the Yukon. But in October he starts running his dogs, seven miles a day at first, then up to 40. Just before Christmas he and son Gary, 20, load the team onto a truck and hit the circuit.
Attla designs harnesses and sleds that bear his name, has written Everything I Know about Racing and Training Sled Dogs and is now appearing in a film, Catch the Wind, about his life and Indian heritage. “I do believe I’m the best,” says Attla, who has the age advantage over the only man with more championships, Roland Lombard, 66, of Massachusetts.
George is less lucky in his personal life. Last December his second wife and their daughter walked out (but returned two weeks ago). His first marriage ended in divorce, leaving him with custody of four of their five children. “I have good kids,” Attla says, “but I wish I could be as firm with them as I am with the dogs.”