Akiak's red dogs find success in sled-dog racing

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2000

BETHEL - No one is sure when the first dogs showed up in Akiak. But there are some dog mushers who say that all the best sled dogs come from this tiny village 25 miles east of Bethel.

They are called red dogs, named so because of the color of their fur. Unlike the coloring found in most sled dogs, the Akiak dogs have hair almost strawberry blonde. When bred with a black dog, a glowing auburn coat results.

It is believed the lineage of the red dog in Akiak originated at least a millennium ago, possibly more.

Akiak musher Mike Williams, a veteran of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, said villagers have always taken pride in caring for their dogs and he is proud of those red dogs.

Those dogs are also known for pulling sled dog champions across finish lines.

Prominent Iditarod racers such as Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson have dogs with the Akiak bloodlines, Williams said.

``That bloodline is there, and it proves that Akiak has the best dogs in the world,'' Williams said. ``George Attla, Susan Butcher, Rick Swenson and Myron Angstman have all been interbreeding (Akiak dogs) for an even better breed. I really feel we need to keep the breed.''

Butcher has high praise for the red dogs of Akiak. She said she got one female, named Brownie, from the village and bred her.

``She was really a neat dog,'' Butcher said. ``The most amazing thing, she was 14 years old with her last litter.''

But, Butcher said, Brownie's best litter was her first. That's where Butcher got Sluggo.

``Sluggo, my main leader in my 1990 Iditarod victory, was a really good dog,'' Butcher said. ``A little inconsistent, (but) so tough though, absolutely incredible.''

Sluggo was bred extensively and he's in all of the Butcher canine lineage. She also studded him out to other mushers.

``We loved him - he was a pet,'' Butcher said. ``When he was 14 years old, he was worse than a 1-year-old, he was a bundle of energy all the time.''

The Iditarod isn't the only race won with the Akiak bloodline on the gangline. Swenson, Butcher and Angstman have all won the Kuskokwim 300, as well as other races.

Angstman said that over the years he has had a couple or three notable dogs that were red. He said he developed his breed using dogs from Akiak, Aniak and Swenson.

``They're a very strong breed and seem tireless,'' the Bethel lawyer and musher said. ``They're especially strong finishers, they have great long distance endurance. They've been very much a part of my team.''

With all their good, strong qualities, Akiak dogs are also noted for less admirable traits.

``They're cantankerous, difficult to train,'' Angstman said. ``They're a stubborn bunch. You can correct a Labrador and they'll do what you want. The red dogs look at you like this might be what you want me to do, but it's not what I want to do and not what I'm going to do.''

Butcher said she wouldn't go so far as to say they were cantankerous, but characterized them as ``odd-headed.''

``Lots of idiosyncrasies,'' she said. ``Very moody.''

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