Courtesy Terrie Hanke
Dora Esai

Iditarod 2015: Lack of Snow Forces Route Changes; Pioneers Honored

Richard Walker
3/9/15

In addition to the fact that it involves a traditional form of travel on ancestral routes, two other features of the 2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are reminders of the connection between Alaska Native peoples and mushing.

The 2015 Iditarod started with an honoring of the late Philip Esai, Athabascan, who with his wife Dora volunteered in every Iditarod. Esai passed away on May 21, 2014, and the Iditarod Trail Committee posthumously named him honorary musher of Iditarod XLIII.

And the route of this year’s race, adjusted because of the lack of snow on portions of the usual route, will pass through Huslia, the hometown of the late Hall of Fame musher George Attla Jr. Attla, Athabascan, passed away on Feb. 15. He was 81.

Attla mushed in the first Iditarod, placing fourth, but was most known as a sprint musher, winning 10 Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship races, nine Tok Race of Champions titles, eight North American Open Championships, eight Koyukuk River Championships, and 10 International Sled Dog Association unlimited class medals. He was the subject of the movie, “Spirit of the Wind,” and he authored a book on training and racing sled dogs.

Esai was remembered at the pre-race mushers’ banquet at Dena’ina Center in Anchorage on March 5. And on March 7, Dora Esai wore honorary bib No. 1 for her husband, and rode with 2015 Junior Iditarod champion Kevin Harper in the Iditarod’s ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage.

Esai worked on the original trail from Rohn to McGrath and, in the early years of the Iditarod, he and his wife housed mushers at their cabin along the banks of the Kuskokwim River at Big River. “There was no room in the cabin because mushers were sleeping everywhere,” their daughter, Marty, said in an Iditarod press release.

The Esai family cooked beaver, moose steaks, pots of moose stew, and an occasional lynx fry for mushers, and the coffee pot was always on for anyone traveling the trail, the Iditarod press office reported.

Over the years, Esai reopened trails, searched for lost mushers and lost dogs, and greeted and fed mushers at a bison camp near Nikolai on the Farewell Burn trail. According to the Iditarod press office, Esai once stayed up for 48 hours to make sure his duties were complete.Race director Mark Nordman said, “His laughter, hardworking spirit and good cheer during the Iditarod race will be greatly missed.”

RELATED: Road to Iditarod: Mushers Expect the Unexpected At Every Turn

RELATED: Road to Iditarod: Rural Native Mushers Dwindling Because of Funding

The Iditarod’s restart, on March 9, was moved from Willow to Fairbanks, 300 miles north, because of lack of snow.

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