Courtesy Ray Gaskin
Chuck Schaffer, Inupiaq Native Alaskan, feeds his dogs in Anchorage the day the Iditarod Sled Dog race began.

A Musher’s Tale of Triumph: How An Inupiaq Alaskan Survived the Iditarod

Ray Gaskin

Chuck Schaeffer, one of four Native Americans who entered the 2015 Iditarod, sipped a cup of what he called “cowboy coffee” at his kitchen table near Willow, Alaska and patiently answered dozens of questions. It was the day before the Iditarod Sleddog race, and Schaeffer was talking to press, as well as a few visitors.

Outside the sun was shining and it was 35 degrees. Snow had been scarce lately, and it had hampered training plans for many of the 78 mushers entered in the race. It had also forced changes in the route. “The earth’s axis is shifting,” he said in a soft-spoken voice. “That’s why there’s a change in weather patterns.” 

Schaeffer, an Inupiaq Native Alaskan, was about to tackle the 1,000 mile sled marathon to Nome for the first time in 24 years. In his two previous tries he failed to finish. In 1985, he was knocked out on a technicality, and in 1991 he scratched because of illness.

He sold Herbie, a prized dog he bred and raised to Jeff King, who went on to win three Iditarods with him. Schaeffer said Herbie sired other dogs that helped Lance Mackey win multiple Iditarod crowns.

In the intervening years, Schaeffer did a lot of commercial fishing and carpentry work, but never lost the desire to compete again in the “Great Race.” Now he’s 60. If he was ever going to complete the Iditarod he had to get moving. “This time I’m ready to finish this thing,” he said in a calm but resolute manner.   

Schaeffer’s fellow Native Alaskans in the 2015 race were John Baker, also of Inupiaq heritage, Richie Diehl, a Native Athabascan, and Pete Kaiser, of Yupik ancestry. Baker was the first Inupiaq musher to win the Iditarod.

“I’ve lost most of it,” Schaeffer said of his Native Inupiaq language. “I was raised in the B.I.A. system and English was stressed.” But he has continued to embrace many of the customs he learned as a child.  

“My mom put seal oil in our ears to cure ear problems,” he said. “Old Eskimos used it for healing purposes. And it’s also good for dogs. I put a teaspoon in each bucket of their food and mix it in. The Inupiat people have used it for generations. It helps keep a dog’s fur soft and shiny.”


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