Kasilof resident begins work on freight sleds to be used in 2004 trek

Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2002

Dick Blakeslee is doing his part to make sure people don't forget the history of the Iditarod Trail -- or those who built the sleds used along the 1,000-mile trail between Seward and Nome.

Eight freight sleds, which will be used on a proposed educational and cultural run from Seward to Nome on the Iditarod National Millennium Trail in 2004, are being built by Blakeslee, a 62-year-old retired Navy chief who learned dog sled building from master builder Chuck Raymond.

"All the credit goes to Chuck," Blakeslee said Friday.

"He figured everything out. I just learned to do what he did."

Blakeslee said Raymond began building the hickory dog sleds in 1940 and has had several entered in the famous Iditarod race.

In 1996, one year after Blakeslee and his wife, Jane, moved to Kasilof from Oregon, he asked Raymond if he would teach him how to build a dog sled.

"I was an assistant scoutmaster here and one of the competitions our troop had was to build a sled," Blakeslee said.

"Becky Perry (a long-time Kasilof resident) said she knew a sled maker and introduced me to Chuck.

"He said he'd teach me."

Prior to that, Blakeslee had no particular interest in wood working or cabinet making.

"I didn't have a clue," he said about what dog sled building entailed.

"And Chuck was real ornery. He'd call me 'Kid.' And every time I'd mess something up he'd yell at me and I'd say, 'See, you give me a lunch break and I come back and you have to teach me everything all over again,'" Blakeslee said with a laugh.

"We got along fine," he said. "I could listen to his stories forever."

At the time, Blakeslee was 56 years old and Raymond was 82. Raymond died at age 87 in August 2001.

"He was a master sled builder," Blakeslee said.

"To this day, when I go to a race or somewhere, people look at my sled and tell me, 'That's a Chuck Raymond sled.'

"I agree. I tell them that's what it is," he said.

In addition to the freight sleds he is currently building, Blakeslee builds racing sleds that sell for $1,000 and small, prototype sleds used for decoration that sell for $250.

All the sleds are made of hickory and strapped together with moose hide.

"Most people use softer woods, but I only use hickory," Blakeslee said.

The trick to getting hickory to bend just as he wants it for the runners, the hand bar, the hand rails and the brush bow -- the very front of the sled -- is to add a cup of urea to the water when boiling the wood.

"Everything about these things is Raymond's doing," Blakeslee said.

Each of the eight freight sleds will take three weeks to build.

"After I cut the pieces out on the table saw, it's all hand work," he said.

Each piece of the sled must be hand filed and sanded and fit into place.

He also uses a hand method for cutting strips of moose hide used to bind the individual parts together.

In addition to building dog sleds, Blakeslee has been involved in sled dog race events including the Tustumena 200, run near his home. Until two years ago, he was board president for that event.

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