Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Haines' last musher retires his sled

 

February 14, 2019

Standford gives his sled dog a pet. Courtesy of Jim Stanford.

It's quieter in the Chilkat Valley for Jim and Deb Stanford, the last of Haines' mushers.

A snowy field behind their house for the first time in decades sits empty. For 30 years the yard belonged to more than 60 barking and howling sled dogs. This winter, Stanford burned the dog houses, pulled the posts and chains that held his huskies and gave his last dog away to nearby neighbors. The only evidence of the animals are the holes they dug over the years, now small depressions in the snow.

"It's much quieter," Deb Stanford said. "I still walk out the door to get a stack of wood and I'll look over to the dog yard to say 'Hi' and there's nobody there. It kind of gets at your heart. They were there for 30 some years and now they're not. I miss saying hello to them."

Jim knew he'd need to stop letting his dogs birth puppies about seven years ago, he said. Last year he had six dogs left, more than enough to recreationally mush in the Kelsall Valley, among his favorite places to spend time in the wilderness with his team. But four of his dogs died of cancer, and he gave the others away.

"Just that fast. Here we are this year. I'm out of dogs. It's been hard, but I realize that, god, 30 years is enough," Stanford said. "I am getting older. I haven't even gone back to Kelsall this winter. Nope. It would be too emotional for me."

Stanford has spent recent winter nights recalling his mushing memories, which for him are associated with the love of wilderness and family. "I've got stories and visions in my head of trails," Stanford said. "I've run thousands of miles of trails all over the Yukon and Alaska with my dogs. I've got stories of being on a gorgeous trail with cold temperatures with the full moon and everything's purple. Oh my god."

His favorite story exemplifies the love and support he had from his wife and handler, Deb. Stanford was racing along the frozen Yukon River from Dawson City to Eagle on a trail that wound through ice blocks the size of houses. "It was crash bang time. I had a wooden sled. I get to 40 Mile, which is about halfway. I hit a block of ice and my sled just exploded," Stanford said. "I hurt my back. I couldn't keep going to Eagle, so I turned the team around."

Stanford's sled was so damaged he could only slide on one runner. Exhausted and in pain he balanced on the runner as he bounced off ice boulders through the early morning hours. At about 2 a.m. as the trail finally opened up, he saw a little light bobbing about 10 miles away.

"It was my wife. She'd come out on the river ice at Dawson City and was walking on the trail backwards waiting for me and trying to provide a little beacon," Stanford said. "I knew when I saw the light it was her. That's just the story of the whole thing: family."

"I was always waiting for Jim somewhere on the trail," Deb Stanford said. "I drove the truck, and I would be there waiting, but this time, it was kind of a bad situation. I'm the worrying wife. I'm always there standing and waiting."

Many recreational and racing mushers have come and gone in Haines including Dan and Chris Turner, Gail Gilbert, Dan Katzeek, Murray Clayton and Carlyle Stuart to name a few. More than 25 historical photos in Haines Sheldon Museum records from the 1900s through the 1940s show teams hitched to sleds in Klukwan and around town. The Iditarod and other popular races such as the Silver Sled race that Stanford mushed in every year began as an ode to Alaska's history of long-distance travel and shipping by dog-sled.

While mushing as a practical mode of transportation was less common in Southeast, museum records indicate it was more common in the Chilkat Valley. Among the few records detailing mushing in the museum's archives are pages typed by museum founder Elisabeth Hakkinen. "Most of our dogs are just dogs these days, but not so long ago, Haines had 'sled' dogs," Hakkinen wrote. "Most families in Klukwan had teams and visited Haines periodically during the winter, sometimes bringing moccasins, totems and baskets which they traded for food and other needed items to take home. A dog team always made the wintertime mail run between Haines and Klukwan until the mid-thirties."

More than 25 archival photos show images of people and sled-dogs in Klukwan, Haines and the upper valley. One photograph depicts town father Solomon Ripinsky and others who attended the first organizational meeting to plan the town of Haines. Standing amongst the people is a team of dogs and a dog sled.

In recent history, local mushers organized the Dalton Trail 30 sled-dog race for several years. In the early 1980s, sled-dog races were listed as events during the Winter Carnival that was paired with the ALCAN 200.

Stanford entered races for most of his career. He also went on "fun runs" in places such as Lake Laberge near Whitehorse. Unlike many racing mushers these days, the Stanford's kept their dogs, Tine, Night, Day, Lady, Lacy, Toom and Brownie to name a few, throughout the span of their lives. Their dogs were a part of the family.

Stanford was fond of Brownie, one of their first dogs, who never faltered on the trail. Deb described him as a "little lover sweetheart of a dog." Caring for the animals taught their children discipline, the value of hard work and how to cope with life's impermanence. Their son Cash, whose interest in mushing came from working with Dan and Chris Turner's dog team, witnessed one of their dogs die.

"He was crushed. It was hard for him," Deb Stanford said. "That's a good lesson in life. Not everything lives forever. You have to deal with the highs and lows, life and death. It's part of life. He was exposed to it right away."

Jim remembers when Brownie died, a dog he'd logged more than 20,000 miles on the trail with. "You could be 100 miles or 200 miles in the middle of nowhere," Stanford said. "The only thing you have are these dogs. People don't realize the bond you get with them."

Deb remembers Tine who was "a wild woman." They adopted her from Juneau because she had too much energy for a city home. On trips they had to keep her separated from the other dogs because she'd get them too riled. Once, just before a race, they sequestered her in the cab of the truck. "By the time we got back she had chopped up the molding off the one side, chewed through the seat belt, chewed a hole through the seat and taken a dump on the seat, all in about a minute in a half."

Stanford said he'll especially miss giving his annual springtime rides to kindergarteners on his sled. He said he'll teach anyone about mushing and taking care of dogs. If enough people take him up on the offer, perhaps the howls of sled dogs will cry again as they did in the 1930s when Fort Seward army companies kept more than 100 sled dogs in its kennels.

"Sometimes on a clear night they would start howling," Hakkinen wrote. "And they could be heard all over the valley."

Stanford hopes mushing will continue in Haines, but the expense of the lifestyle and the abundance of electronic entertainment, he says, prohibits young people from learning.

If he's right, it's likely the Chilkat Valley will remain mute from the patter of mittened paws and the slice of sled rails through the snow.

 
 

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