George Attla, the “Huslia Hustler” whose mushing achievements made him an Alaska rock star during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, died Sunday at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.
He was 81, and beloved across the state.
“May my Dad rest in peace,” Amanda Attla wrote on her Facebook page Sunday evening. “He’s at his happy hunting grounds. There’s a party goin on up there. Right after he passed the biggest shooting star came down. He made it. My mom told me so.”
Attla, an Athabascan who lived in the Interior village of Huslia until his hospitalization with bone cancer last month, gained fame and legions of fans with a sprint mushing career that began in 1958 and ended in 2011.
Over the course of those 54 years, he captured a record 10 Fur Rendezvous World Championship titles and eight North American Open Championship titles.
In an era before the Iditarod was created in 1974, sprint mushing was king in Alaska, and no one had a longer or more popular reign than Attla.
He captivated fans with his underdog story — childhood tuberculosis left him with a lame leg — his fierce competitive spirit and his intense yet respectful rivalry with Roland “Doc” Lombard.
When Lombard, an East Coast musher who for years was Attla’s chief nemesis, died in 1990, Attla reflected on the inevitable.
“The time gets the best of you,” he told the Anchorage Daily News. “You just hold it off as best you can.”
Attla held it off better than most.
He drove his last dog team a year ago, while helping a young Huslia musher named Trevor Henry prepare for the 2014 Arctic Winter Games. The dogs were coming off the Junior North American in Fairbanks two weekends earlier, and Attla “wanted to be sure the dogs were mentally ready to race again,” his partner Kathy Turco said recently.
“His last time on a sled was for youth, not himself,” she said.
In one of his final interviews, Attla earlier this month said he was building a cabin in Huslia last fall when the effects of the cancer made it impossible to continue the task.
“I got to where I couldn’t move anything,” he said.
Attla remained in Huslia through the New Year in order to watch the village’s annual holiday races. Among those racing was Joe Bifelt, a grand-nephew who picked up the sport as part of the Frank Attla Youth and Sled Dog Care Mushing Program offered to middle and high school students in Huslia. Attla and Turco helped start the program in honor of Attla’s son Frank, who died at age 21 in 2010.
Born in 1933 in Interior Alaska, Attla grew into a nearly mythical figure. His story was turned into a movie, “Spirit of the Wind,” which won the 1979 best picture award at the Sundance Film Festival.
The son of a famous Koyukuk River trapper, George Attla Sr., a young George Jr. contracted tuberculosis as a child and spent nearly a decade in and out of hospitals.
The disease left him with a fused knee and a permanently stiff leg, but that didn’t handicap Attla. He won his first major championship at the 1958 Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage at age 25. He won his last major title at the 1987 North American Open in Fairbanks at age 53.
Known and respected for his dog care and his instinctive ability to raise and race sled dogs, Attla in 1972 co-wrote “Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs,” which remains a must-read for many mushers. In it, he explained the philosophy that turned him into a champion.
“The dog never makes a mistake,” Attla wrote. “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.”
In 2007, Attla was inducted as an inaugural member of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. He was the first of five athletes to be introduced at the induction ceremony, and he earned a spontaneous, heartfelt standing ovation that lasted for minutes.
“That shows the love the people of Alaska have for you, George,” announcer Rick Mystrom said when the applause finally faded.
– by Beth Bragg in the Alaska Dispatch News