Miniature dog sleds from Nikiski bring touch of Alaska to the world

Carried away

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2002

Silently tucked between yipping and howling dogs who eagerly tug at their harnesses and warmly clothed mushers whose shouted commands give the animals direction, sits a third member of this well-known team: the sled.

Without fame or glory, award or ribbon, it links dog and human together, making possible the designated task. Hauling meat from a winter hunt. Supplying medicine to a dying people. Crossing the finish line of a world-famous race. Exploring the Arctic's wide open spaces.

Its simple and graceful design is tangible evidence that such experiences are possible in a complicated and fast-paced world.

For Bruce and Nancy Aitken of Nikiski and their business partner, J. Pat Kennedy, constructing sleds isn't a dream. It's a way of life. Out of their workshop come hundreds of miniature sleds, perfectly fitted to whatever dream is destined to be carried in the red oak design.

Kennedy was introduced to sled-making during the 15 years he spent as a school administrator and teacher on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.

"And at night I'd use the scraps from real sleds to do little miniatures," he said. He continued building the little sleds after moving to the Kenai Peninsula in 1988.

The Aitken family left their Oregon home and came to Alaska in 1991, after changes in the logging industry impacted their employment. Nancy is a former security guard and Bruce unloaded logging trucks. They met Kennedy when they moved into Nikiski Village, a mobile home neighborhood that Kennedy owned.

At first, Nancy and Bruce helped with maintenance at Nikiski Village. And when work was slow, they helped in Kennedy's shop. Although used to working with wood of much larger dimension, they discovered they had a knack for assembling the 12-, 16- and 24-inch sleds.

 

Bruce and Nancy Aitken have turned construction of the sleds into an activity they enjoy together in the Alaska Sled Shed's Nikiski workshop.

Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

True to traditional design, no metal was used in the construction. All the pieces were held together with tiny wooden pegs. The only iron in the product was an "iron-clad guarantee" that they would replace the sled if a customer was unsatisfied.

Power tools were few in those days, which turned some of the tasks into painful chores.

"I used to think my arms were going to fall off," Nancy said of the sanding that was required to remove the rough edges from each piece.

Painful though it was, all the work and attention to detail paid off.

"We had so much business that I hired Bruce and Nancy to help and it's just snowballed ever since," Kennedy said.

Originally, the sleds were made of birch. But when Kennedy started making them with red oak, he found their popularity went up.

"I think people just like the color of it," he said.

As a result, Kennedy, who is temporarily in Missouri, selects red oak from a Missouri mill.

 

After the Aitkens' business partner, J. Pat Kennedy, cuts and shapes the separate piece of the sleds, Bruce and Nancy divide the actual construction into assembly line-like steps. Initially, true to traditional design, no metal was used in the construction. All the pieces were held together with tiny wooden pegs, and power tools were scarce. "I used to think my arms were going to fall off," Nancy said. In this photo Nancy begins by perfectly aligning the pieces in a "jig" and drilling holes for and inserting the wooden pegs that keep the sleds together.

"I pick out the best wood that I can find, cut it to dimension and ship it up (to Nikiski) because half of it ends up in sawdust and it's a lot cheaper to do it this way than ship the whole thing up there and process it," he said.

The wood he selects is still green, rather than kiln dried, which makes it easier to steam and bend to shape.

"It's so green that when I start sawing, it spits water at me," Kennedy said.

Selling the sleds through Alaska Sled Shed, a business in which Kennedy and the Aitkens are now partners, wasn't something Kennedy planned when he began making the sleds on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.

"It just kind of developed," he said.

Although sales have been down lately, they generally sell between 500 and 600 sleds a year.

From those first models made with scraps, the current versions have slid their way into some 80 gift shops in Alaska and across the United States, while others have found foreign homes.

Participating in the Wholesale Alaskan Gift Show in Anchorage this weekend offers an opportunity to meet with retailers from across the country. Featured at the show are "Made in Alaska" products, a designation the sleds proudly bear.

 

Bruce attaches cross pieces that turn two halves into a whole sled.

Aside from the hundreds of sleds Bruce and Nancy build and whose pieces are neatly stacked in their workshop, there are several completed versions decorating their home. Holding a place of honor is the finished product of a Texas client. Against a wintry backdrop, the sled is heavily loaded with gifts and furs. The figure standing on the runners is a woodsy Santa Claus, poised to glide across the winter snow under the shimmering lights of the aurora borealis. Though the unmoving sled is captured within a specially built glass case, the words of A.H. Savage come to mind, from his 1942 book "Dogsled Apostles:"

"Sledding at night is a glorious experience. If the load is light, the musher might lie down on the sled and let the dogs run at will without calling to them. Filled with a seeming sense of their own responsibility, they would yip and howl at the moon like wolves, and literally fly over the snow in their glee."

Another sled has just completed its task of creating a Christmas atmosphere in the family's home, complete with poinsettias and tiny gift-wrapped presents. Yet another awaits its turn as a unique sort of Easter basket, stuffed with shiny green grass, toy eggs and a soft toy animal.

"We just build the sleds and then give ideas of what can be done with them," Nancy said. "They aren't meant to sit on a shelf and gather dust."

Marty Ragan, of Alaska Gift and Gallery in Kenai, said the sleds were being carried in the business when she bought it more than three years ago. She displays them with nothing in them or teamed with Natives dolls. In front of one of the larger versions, a soapstone dog awaits its command.

Mitch and Janine Seavey carry the sleds at IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours in Seward.

"They put a lot of detail into the sleds, which I like," said Janine Seavey. "There's other ones made by larger corporations from overseas, but they don't have the details, and I like the way these have pegs and twine to connect the pieces so they look more authentic."

When it comes to sleds, the Seaveys know what they're talking about. Mitch began mushing in 1963, when he was a youngster. He has raced in the Iditarod eight times, won the Copper Basin 300, just finished third in the Tustumena 200 and is heading for the Iditarod again in March.

 

The finished 12-, 16- and 24-inch sleds leave the Alaska Sled Shed empty, ready to be filled as the imagination dictates.

Being small in stature hasn't kept the sleds made by Kennedy and the Aitkens out of the Iditarod. According to Leslie Despotakis, owner of Bovey Trophies in Anchorage, one of the sleds has been mounted on a piece of white marble and transformed into the GCI Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award. An attached metal cup contains the gold coins that are awarded to the first musher to complete half of the 1,049-mile course. Four-time Iditarod winner Doug Swingley of Montana won the halfway award in 1992, 1995, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

"This is a pretty prestigious award," Despotakis said. "And it's very beautiful."

A Boy Scout troop in Anchorage once ordered several of the 12-inch models. They mounted them on remote-control cars and held their own version of dog sled races. The organizer of a party for a large Alaska company used 50 of the sleds as centerpieces. After she discovered how well they adapted to that use, she ordered more.

Trying their hand at larger versions, the Aitkens constructed a 4-foot model that has been shipped to Japan and an 8-foot sled that is now owned by a racing team. Their 5-foot version currently is being used as a prop for portraits at Grossl Photography in Soldotna.

Howling dogs and the famous mushers may claim the limelight, but the sled is the vehicle that carries the dream.

"I closed my eyes and began daydreaming. A smile spread across my face. Soon I would be standing on the runners of my dogsled, skimming across the Arctic snow under a huge blue sky sparking with cold," wrote Pam Flowers, author of "Alone Across the Arctic," as she prepared to begin her 15-month journey from Prudhoe Bay, across the top of Alaska and Canada to Repulse Bay on Canada's far eastern shore.

And over years, sled design has changed as new materials are matched with modern demands.

"Light basket or toboggan sleds have replaced long, bulky freight sleds used in the first few Iditarods. The team pulling less weight runs faster. Sled runners also have become more sophisticated over the years, moving from wood to laminates, fiberglass and aluminum, contributing to a lighter, stronger, faster sled," according to Alaska Geographic's "The Iditarod."

However, the Aitkens admit they are not particularly fans of sled dog races. And neither they nor Kennedy are considering changing their sled's design. They simply are taken with the sled. Its simplicity. Its attraction.

"Every place I go, I carry the sleds around in the car," Kennedy said of his sales approach. And when he needs a break from cutting, steaming and bending the red oak pieces, "I throw down the tools and go fishing."

For Nancy, the attraction is easily explained.

"I just like the product," she said.

McKibben Jackinsky is a free-lance writer who lives in Ninilchik.



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