'Cannonball' musher, 77, dies

Iditarod competitor from Shishmaref known for never giving up

Posted: Tuesday, December 05, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Herbie Nayokpuk never strayed far from his lifelong home on a remote island at the edge of the Bering Strait north of Nome, but his fame spread around the globe.

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A dog musher from youth on, he was known to Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race fans all over the world as "The Shishmaref Cannonball," a nickname blending his home village of Shishmaref with his straight-ahead style in both dog mushing and life: always smiling, always happy, charging into the new day with the enthusiasm of a puppy.

Nayokpuk, 77, died Saturday afternoon at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, surrounded by family members. He suffered a massive stroke at his home in mid-November then lapsed into a coma.

He ran the Iditarod 11 times before retiring. His best finish was second in 1980.

The stroke was a replay of one that felled him after a sixth-place finish in the 1988 Iditarod.

That time, feeling a little numb on the left side, as he described it, Nayokpuk decided he'd best get on an airplane and fly to Anchorage to see a doctor. Three days after the race finish, he was admitted to Providence Hospital where he stayed for a month with his wife, Elizabeth.

When finally allowed to go home, he promised to be back in downtown Anchorage for the start of many more Iditarods.

"We old men, we never quit," he said.

"If there was a trophy for courage," Anchorage Times reporter Bill Kossen once wrote, "Nayokpuk would have won it with ease."

Kossen covered the 1980 Iditarod race. Going into that competition, Nayokpuk was only a few months removed from open heart surgery. Doctors had done a triple bypass. The musher barely acknowledged it.

"I was kind of weak at first, but I got my strength back," he told Kossen in Nikolai, about a third of the way into the race. Nayokpuk by then had fallen behind the race leaders after his team got lost.

By the Bering Sea coast, though, Nayokpuk had caught up. At Shaktoolik, with Arctic winds howling and blowing snow making it hard to see, the first dozen teams in the race decided to hole up and wait out the storm. Nayokpuk, instead, made a bold bid for victory. It almost worked.

Later he was sure he would have made it across the wind-blasted ice of Norton Bay to the next checkpoint at Koyuk if he'd just left two hours earlier.

But it didn't work out that way. The blowing snow got so bad that neither Nayokpuk nor his dogs, whose eyes he paused to clean of snow repeatedly, could see. Finally, the dogs curled up and were quickly drifted into snug, nature-made snow caves. Nayokpuk huddled in his sled bag and shivered through what he would call the coldest night of his life.

The dawn of a new day found him forced to turn back to Shaktoolik. He thought about dropping out of the race there, but with the dogs still willing, he pressed on to an eventual 11th-place finish.

"He cared more for the dogs than he did about winning, and I think that is the highest compliment another dog driver can pay," said old trail mate Joe May, the winner of that race.

When Nayokpuk ran his final race eight years later, he finished sixth, less than two minutes behind then 70-year-old Redington. Looking at the seemingly ageless musher who'd led for much of the race before slipping at the end, it must have been easy for Nayokpuk, then 56, to believe he'd have a lot more chances at Iditarod victory.

But it was just not to be. He was never quite the same after his postrace stroke. The numbness on his left side really never went away. It did not keep him from his real job as an artist - he was a respected Inupiaq ivory carver who specialized in bracelets with intricate scrimshaw - but pretty much put an end to his racing.

In 1992 he told a reporter: "I don't want people thinking I'm retired. I'm too young to be retired ... I want to be the Eskimo colonel (Norman Vaughan)."

But for even the toughest musher, the trail has to end sometime. Nayokpuk probably saw it coming clearer than most. Before his last stroke, he left orders with his family that if he lapsed into a coma he was not to be put on life support. Even after they accommodated those wishes, however, he hung on for days.

"It's a big blow to all of us," said friend and Iditarod champ Libby Riddles on Sunday. "I always feel like we lose such a big chunk of our history when one of these old-timers passes away. But he's left his mark too. He made so many people really proud of him. I mean what a cool guy."



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