Monday, June 25, 2007

A Day in Teller, Alaska

Last Tuesday, I had a chance to travel to Teller, an Inupiat Village with a population of 290, along the west coast of the Seward Peninsula. Teller is a unique place in that it is accessible by a regional road. I drove the 72-miles from Nome along a narrow dirt road. It was a perfect day; sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky. Along the way I saw a bear, musk oxen, moose, ptarmigans, abandoned gold dredges, and lots of beautiful country. The drive went quickly even with the frequent stops to take pictures.

When I got to Teller, I had a chance to spend some time talking to the mayor, Joe Garnie. After our business was completed we hung around and started talking about dog sledding. It was obvious that Joe was knowledgeable in only the way a life time musher can be. When he told me he raced, I asked if he had ever done the Iditarod. He gave me a wry smile and said he had. Then I asked him how well he had done. He smiled again and said second place and third place. It then dawned on me; this was JOE GARNIE the legendary Iditarod musher. Libby Riddle raced his dogs to win the Iditarod back in 1985 when they were partners. The next year he placed second behind Susan Butcher with the same dogs. In fact he has placed in the top 25 all 15 times that he has raced. That is an amazing feat considering it is an honor to be able to even finish the race.

Joe is unique among Iditarod mushers in that he is a traditional Inupiat musher. Most of his training is just using his dogs to stay alive in the arctic. He wears traditional clothes. His kennel only has as many dogs has he can support from his subsistence hunting and fishing.

Joe claims dog sleds are the best transport in the arctic. He doesn’t use snow machines, preferring the traditional way. He says he starts traveling earlier in winter and continues longer through spring with his dog sled than anyone else can with a snow machine. He also claims to have never been stuck, broken down, or stopped by a hill he couldn’t climb with his teams. And I believe him.

Later that day, I watched as Joe finished clearing out his fishing net. He had hauled in a load of white fish, cod, herring, and a few dollies. Joe then explained that most of the fish would be dried and used as dog food, but the dollies would be saved for his personal use.

The dollies were going to be dried for a couple of hours until the pellicle forms then tossed into the freezer. The pellicle protects the meat and prevents freezer burn. I asked Joe how he eats them. His response was, “frozen.” I wasn’t sure if he was pulling my leg, but I later asked several other Inupiat friends and they all said it was true. In fact they all said it was their favorite way to eat fish. You just take it out of the freezer, sprinkle a little salt on it, and dip it into seal oil. After those rave reviews, I think I will have to add frozen fish in seal oil to my list of foods I have to try.


Angie M. said...

Oh wow, Joe Garnie has been around for years and he's a legend in and of himself. He and Libby were a formidable team all those years ago.

It's it amazing what history will pop up when you least expect it.

Anonymous said...

Joe had to drop out early this year, not due to warm weather as rumored, but to the problem with his dogfood not being sent to the stopping points along the trail. It ended up mysteriously at the Anchorage Post Office. ("Welcome to Alaska!") There was an attempt by a few to donate some money towards replacing what was lost, but it came nowhere near the estimated $5000 needed to maintain the dogs along the race trail.