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Musher finds dreams and history in his love of the land

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

BARROW (AP) -- For dog musher John Tidwell III, history is found in the creaks and groans of his hand-built basket sled.

The sounds are barely audible as he mushes, like whispers from the men who went before him.

Like his eager lead dog straining at the line, Tidwell is antsy to tell the stories of those early mushers.

''Well, back in the old days,'' he often says.

He said it again recently while working on his newest sled, a 14-foot throwback to the long sleds of old, and another story was off and running.

As he clamped together pieces of hickory, he said that men would mush hundreds of miles across northern Alaska hauling 2,000 pounds of mail.

One of those mushers carried an extra weight for a while then ended up marrying the package, Tidwell said. Jacob Kignak and his wife, Betty, still live in Atqasuk.

Happy to tell stories, Tidwell is just as ecstatic to hear them.

''I take people mushing who have lived here all their lives but have never been mushing,'' he said. ''They say, 'My grandfather used to do this.'

''I think they feel something deep within them awaken with living this tradition.''

A correctional officer at the police department, Tidwell often takes Barrow newcomers out on his sled.

After dreaming of mushing when he was a boy growing up in Seattle, he started a mushing tour business in 1994 with a North Slope Borough small business loan.

Begun with his father, who has since been injured and now operates a vehicle-based tour operation, the business provides Outsiders with a closer look at the area around the nation's morthernmost community.

''Many people don't realize that Barrow only looks flat, but it really isn't. There are folds and contours and little river valleys, and I show people that,'' he said.

According to Tidwell, his clients ''learn that they can truly learn to love the land.''

He has discovered that the land and the sea ice have a purity so deep that he can barely express it. It's a world so silent, he said, ''You can literally hear the bark of a fox.''

It's a world where icebergs are the size of huge office buildings, and where everything -- dogs, clients' faces, the snow -- can be tinted blue when sunlight goes through a nearby ice ridge.

It is also a world that helps him cope with work-related stresses.

''It is more gorgeous than words can describe,'' he said.

And yet he tries anyway. He described how he uses the stars and the northern lights as nighttime guides, and how he communicates with the land in a way that isn't possible with mechanized transport.

But as he verbalized the way wavy fields of multi-year sea ice look when they meet the smooth expanses of new ice, his voice trailed away as if he was remembering the scene.

Then a story interrupted his recollection.

Back in the old days, he said, subsistence users tried to find that wavy ice for the fresh drinking water it provides.

And another story is trotting off because for Tidwell, it's hard to separate the ice, the land, and mushing from the history and dreams they hold.

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