Three life-long friends, joined together by dog mushing, are in the midst of a massive project set to pay homage to the history of the sport while showcasing a dying craft.
Brothers Rod and Alan Perry along with Cliff Sisson have spent hundreds of hours over the past four months crammed inside Sisson’s workshop in Kasilof, a space just large enough to hold their creation, a freight dog sled. It is 16 feet long and made entirely out of solid white oak. The men are working around the clock to complete the sled in time for the ceremonial start of Iditarod XLII on March 1 in downtown Anchorage where thousands of spectators gather to see the racers off.
The project is the brainchild of Rod Perry, 71, one of 22 finishers in the first Iditarod Dog Sled Race in 1973. Between the brothers and Sisson, whose families have known each other since 1926 and grew up together in Oregon, the group competed in seven Iditarod races in the first seven years. Sisson was the last to race in 1979 and the three men went their separate ways until an archaic sled design brought them back together.
Perry, of Chugiak, is a wood sled artisan who has built 12 hickory dog sleds. He said his latest sled is unlike any other he has built, a replica of the Wells Fargo “Gold Train” freight sled that hauled gold out of Nome to Anchorage from 1910-1918.
“To me this is much more than three guys building a sled,” he said. “It’s a re-enactment of that most gloriously romantic use of the Iditarod Trail of hauling out the gold.”
Perry came up with the idea in 2011 when he led Iditarod mushers out of Anchorage for the centennial commemoration of the building of the Iditarod Trail. Perry said he was asked to run the ceremonial start after Dan Seavey, another musher from the first race, bowed out following the sudden death of his dog handler three days prior to the race. Although Perry no longer owned a dog team and had not been involved much with the race since the late 1970s, he accepted.
During the 15-mile stretch from downtown to the Campbell Airstrip, he said he noticed how much the race had changed. The dogs had modern harnesses and wear jerseys with a sponsor’s logo while the sleds are light and made of high tech polymers plastics, race specific equipment that could not be duplicated out of wood, he said. While the race does a good job of drawing attention to the trails, he said, the crowds do not have a good understanding of the history of the route.
“Without the Iditarod gold rush, there would not be an Iditarod Trail and we would not have the Iditarod race today,” he said. “It’s not just a neat thing to do but also of some historical importance.”
In 2009, Perry released the first of two volumes on the history of the Iditarod Trail. His book, “Trailbreakers: Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod,” chronicles the gold rush era when a renowned Black Hills stagecoach driver, Bob Griffis, took a contract with Wells Fargo to haul gold from the Miner’s and Merchant’s Bank of Iditarod to Seward bound for bank vaults in San Francisco. For eight years, several tons of gold worth millions of dollars was run, via dog sled, out of the Alaska wilderness.
Perry said on one trip, Griffis packed 3,400 pounds of gold out with 46 huskies, which took 45 days going six miles a day in high snow through the rugged winter terrain. With no open trail or roadhouses in between at the time, freight mushers had to take everything from camp supplies to dog feed to get all the way through or they would die.
Today, sled dog racers can travel the nearly 600 mile stretch from Nome to Iditarod in three or four days, Perry said. The fastest recorded time in the 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail sled dog race is 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds by John Baker in 2011. The difference between then and now is like comparing an 18-wheeler to a Ferrari, he said.
By the time Perry got home after the ceremonial start in 2011, he put together what he calls the show before the show: two freight sleds, one completed and one under construction and a demonstration at the starting line of who traveled the trail via dog sled in the early 20th Century Alaska.
Perry said he would explain to the crowd about the trail users from a trapper, mail carrier, a miner, a famous Eskimo driver in Iditarod lore called “Split the Wind,” and the gold freighter Griffis, played by Perry. The presenters will dress in period costume and the freight sled would be filled with Wells Fargo replica strongboxes. He said the tutorial would be educational as well as entertaining.
“People think Wells Fargo is a new company to Alaska, my goodness they ran gold out of Alaska on dog sleds before Anchorage,” he said. “The image of the stage coach in their logo is one of the most famous brands in the world.”
Wells Fargo, an Iditarod sponsor, has financed the construction of the freight sled. Work began early November with Sisson doing prep work building forms while Perry ordered the last 16-foot white oak piece from Edensaw Lumber in Port Townsend, Wash. It cost approximately $1,500. White oak is a strong hardwood commonly used in the construction of boats. With the length of the sled and weight of a canvas covered load, the frame needs to be sturdy, Perry said.
“When you do something so labor intensive it doesn’t make any sense not to get the best materials money can buy,” he said. “These poor guys, it’s a labor of love. If (Alan) were not my brother and Cliff and I did not go back many years they would have quit a long time ago. They must be down to $2 an hour, but they keep plugging along.”
At one point the three along with Sisson’s son Jeff, worked 21 hours straight during the wood bending process. To get the wood runners’ curved shape, two 16-foot pieces and other rail sections needed to be put in a steam box set at 200 degrees one at a time for an hour for each inch of the board’s thickness. Then the wood would be taken out and they have one minute to bend the wood to its desired shape and clamp it in place on metal bands.
“We work until we fall into bed,” Perry said. “The pressure is on to get this done. I don’t want to be labeled someone who failed to perform.”
Sisson said the work has been a marathon from starting the day at 5 a.m. and quitting around 10 p.m. with lunch breaks eating caribou burritos or beef stew. Each day has new challenges and more intricate steps than imaginable. However, always up for a project, he told Perry if something ever came up to let him know.
“If it wasn’t for this project he would be in Hawaii right now,” he said. “We got a deadline to meet before the beginning of the race. It has been a journey and a challenge but I thrive on jobs like this.”
Perry and company have received help along the way from the Kasilof mushing community. Dean Osmar, the 1984 Iditarod champion, has offered his dog team to run the sled. Ray Rowley, a local cabinet maker, custom cut all the stanchions, cross bends and mortises, which saved the group a lot of work, Perry said.
Perry said he drew the full-scale design on a piece of butcher paper and used it as a reference for measurements. At the front of the sled where it curves up to climb hills, a sliding rod was installed with a 3-foot long gee-pole which sticks out to help maneuver the sled.
As the race looms, the group still needs to complete a brake system, finish the lashing and back structure of the chariot and then turn it over and shoe the bottom with a metal toboggan to glide through the snow. One feature that has Perry, the driver, a little concerned are plow handles, which are good for handling the sled but can impale a driver if jolted forward while leaning to the side.
Perry said in the early days of the Iditarod race everyone built their own sleds and trained their own dogs. The race attracted people of all kinds from iron workers to fishermen who dog mushed on the side because the prize money was not enough to survive on, he said.
His memories of the inaugural Iditarod run in 1973 still makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Nobody knew what to expect on the trail or how to prepare for a 1,000-mile winter excursion, he said.
“Back then it was an adventure,” he said. “Today it is a pure race. It is tremendous the way the race has evolved, but nothing can compare to the first race.”
Perry placed 17th, crossing the finish line in Nome 30 days after the start, one of 22 who finished out of 34 mushers who started the race. He improved his place and time the following year and in 1977, the last year he raced, he placed 19th finishing in 17 days.
Perry said his dog team was a rag-tag bunch with more power than speed but his lead dog, Fat Albert, became a national celebrity.
A picture of Perry sitting in the snow with Fat Albert licking his face was picked up by the National Observer Magazine and set all records for reader response as the article ran for 12 straight weeks, he said.
“People around the country knew that dog’s name but couldn’t remember mine,” he said. “I could not have made it to Nome without that dog.”
Perry said his younger brother was the better of the two racers. Alan Perry, 67, who now lives in Kenai, raced in 1975, 1976 and 1978 with his best time the last year finishing 10th in 15 days. Sisson, who worked as pit crew for the Perry brothers, raced the Iditarod in 1979 using their dogs.
As the freight sled construction enters its final week before it arrives in Anchorage on Thursday, the trio of friends locked into brotherhood work around the clock to complete a historical undertaking. After 42 years since they first got together to form sled dog teams, through joyous interactions and frustrating outbursts, they have been through an enriching experience as they look revive a dying art and celebrate the long history of the Iditarod.
“The trail will never be as good as it was back in the pioneer days,” Rod Perry said. “It is a historic trail and should be traveled on in a historic manner.”
Dan Balmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.