If he could have seen the end of the 2015 Yukon Quest, one has to imagine George Attla would have been pleased. The Alaska mushing legend didn’t get to see how the neck-and-neck battle between Allen Moore and Brent Sass played out, nor was he able to hang on to see one more running of Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous sprint races, where he made a name for himself many years ago. But in his lifetime, Mr. Attla touched generations of Alaskans both in the mushing community and across the state.
Mr. Attla died of cancer at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage on Sunday at age 81. For more than five decades prior, he built a reputation as one of the preeminent dog mushers of his or any generation. Mr. Attla chalked up an impressive haul of wins in the sprint races of his prime, before the rise of marquis distance mushing events like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. He registered 10 wins in Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous and eight in the Open North American Championships in Fairbanks. Mr. Attla came from Huslia — his fast times and signature big kick with his good leg earned him the epithet “the Huslia Hustler.”
Perhaps even more than his championships, however, Mr. Attla was known for his philosophy on dogs and mushing. Long before the emphasis on dog welfare today, he championed the notion that understanding dogs was key to mushing success. “The dog never makes a mistake,” he wrote in his 1972 mushing opus “Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs.” “He is just a dog and he does what he does because he is a dog and thinks like a dog. It is you that makes the mistake because you haven’t trained him to do what you want him to do when you want him to do it.”
That emphasis on race mistakes falling at the feet of the musher rather than the dogs is something almost taken for granted in the sport today, but in its time it was a much more radical notion. That the sport came around to Mr. Attla’s way of thinking is a testament to the worth of his ideas, especially as applied by those at mushing’s highest level.
As Mr. Moore and Mr. Sass raced neck-and-neck toward the Yukon Quest finish line on the Chena River late Monday, it was clear that Mr. Attla’s lessons — be they on dog philosophy, effort, determination or the value of passing a love of mushing on to future generations — have been well taught and well learned. Though the Huslia Hustler is no longer around to dispense wisdom on mushing and life firsthand, he will be well remembered by Alaskans for decades to come. He was a man who gave much of himself to his community, his sport and his state. The legacy of great races that follow — including this year’s Quest — bear witness to his contributions.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
Feb. 17, 2015