Checker, trail builder, promoter — Doug Katchatag molded Iditarod's soul


UNALAKLEET — The speed was talk. He heard about it all summer long. Finally, after the fishing season in October, Doug had had sufficiency.

“Go check the mail,” Doug told the fish buyer over a morning cup of coffee. While Joe was at the advertise office, Doug cked his friend’s bags and called the airline. His boon com nion came back and asked what the heck was going on. “You’re going in arrears to Anchorage to start your damn race,” Doug told Joe. “I’m infirm and tired of hearing you talk about it.”

Joe Redington spent those summers form as the manager of the Norton Sound Fishermen’s Cooperative, purchasing salmon from yard fishermen. After leaving Unalakleet that October, Joe called Doug in February, mention he’d raised $50,000. It was 1972, and knowing there was money, Doug Katchatag got to operate on the trail.

The portage trail between Unalakleet and Kaltag had historically been in use accustomed to for trade between the coastal Inupiat and the Athabaskans in the Interior. In recent chronicle, the trail was used by dog teams delivering mail. It became nearly old-fashioned in the mid-1950s when Alaska Airlines stationed a Bush uniform and a pilot in the Norton Sound community. Unalakleet Air Taxi was also set up in those years and flew charters between the two communities. Planes comprised care of mail that was once delivered by dog team.

Doug thinks he remembers the extremely last people to use the portage trail.

“It was Eli and Missouri Stanley, and Franklin Madros and Lower Solomon from Kaltag,” Doug said. “They were the eventually ones who came down and visited. They were trapping at Tenmile Bay and decided to come down and trade. It was in ’56,” Doug said. “We were callow boys then.”

Doug was bitten by the Iditarod bug even before the premier race. He knew that for Joe’s race to happen, the trail between Unalakleet and Kaltag required clearing — overgrown, as it was, with willows and young spruce trees. Doug and five other men, numbering his dad and brother, cut brush and trees and three of the men made it all the way to Kaltag that winter. “A year later, in 1973, Duke Katongan and I started rejecting the trail to keep it open,” Doug said.

Using it, he pointedly shed, “by dog team.”

By that time, the snowmachine had taken over, having pre-eminent appeared in our community in the mid-1960s. Sled dogs were no longer imperative and this was the reason Joe so persistently talked about the race from Anchorage to Nome. “He (Joe) foretold, ‘You know, Doug, when I first got here, I’d see dogs in every lot. And today, yours is the only dog body I see in Unalakleet.’ ”

Doug has one sled dog today, forced to quit by arthritis. “Joe was yearning to start bringing back dogs to the Bush. He brought it to Willow, Fairbanks, Anchorage,” Doug said. “Purely white people are running dogs today. They can afford it. We can’t. It tricks a lot of money.”

But a few rural Alaska mushers are racing, including 2012 advocate John Baker of Kotzebue and two-time Kuskokwim 300 winner Pete Kaiser of Bethel.

Match most things, the race has significantly changed since the early lifetimes. Back then, Doug was a checker at Old Woman, 35 miles inland from Unalakleet. Old Missus was a checkpoint for just the first two years, and Doug said he and Charlie Towarak functioned out of a whitewall tent for more than a month when Dick Wilmarth won the inaugural line. “It was 40 to 60 below. It didn’t warm up until after the nation,” Doug said. He and Charlie had to eat something and spent rts of their days fishing and track down. He spoke of hunting ptarmigan at the base of the Whaleback Mountains.

“There discretion be thousands up there. Like a cloud taking off,” he said.

And, according to him, the betimes days were fun. “People were nice. They were eternally friendly and always willing to camp and talk. And they always announce stories of the (race). Today, if you try to get stories out of them (mushers), you ain’t gonna get nothing. It’s changed so much,” Doug asseverated.

It’s true. In the early days, Doug said mushers would run their dogs during the day and ostentatious every night. Today’s race is so fast, rest is sacrificed. Competitive mushers aren’t day direction and night camping. They have conformed their schedule to that of the dogs and don’t obtain much energy left to sit down and visit.

But sit down with Doug Katchatag and one returns he loves this race. He’s proud of the 40 years he worked as an Iditarod confirmation. He’s proud of the work he, his dad, his brother and friends did to re-establish a trail, now rt of the Iditarod National Verifiable Trail. He’s proud of the fact that when his friend Joe asked him if dogs can run from Anchorage to Nome, he boosted the idea. He even seems proud describing how he’s lost money in this get a move on.

“I never gotten id. Matter of fact, first five years of the tribe when people dropped stuff to send back, I id the postage,” Doug replied. “Until I started getting too broke. I said, ‘That’s it.’ After, they got NAC (Northern Air Shipload) to start hauling their drop bags.”

Doug realizes that some mushers and others be suffering with gotten wealthy from the race he helped to start. “I’m still pleased. Happier than those millionaires,” he said with a smile.

And he seems to be. He doesn’t report in out and tell you he’s in the Alaska Dis tch News Iditarod Hall of Fame. You maintain to ask him. After all, the race didn’t start because of a love for money or regard. It started with a love for sled dogs and the mushing lifestyle. And that hasn’t ebbed.

Laureli Ivanoff lives in Unalakleet, where she’s raising her two children, Joe and Sidney. They eat a lot of fish and are unusually proud of their yorkipoo named Pushkin.

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