ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Herbie Nayokpuk, a legendary Iditarod pioneer and one of the best-loved and most natural dog mushers in the sport, died Saturday surrounded by family at the Alaska Native Medical Center. Nayokpuk had suffered a huge stroke in mid-November at his home in Shishmaref, which left him comatose as his family gathered from across the state and nation.
Nayokpuk, 77, had been ill before. He had a stroke in 1988 and had
undergone two triple heart bypasses, bouncing back from one such
operation to race in yet another Iditarod – and race well, as he always
did. But this time, it was different. As word spread about Nayokpuk’s
worsening condition, his family was inundated with cards and e-mails
from friends, acquaintances and people who never met “The Shishmaref
Cannonball,” but who had been inspired by him. Plainly Nayokpuk’s
influence spread far wider than his home village.
“He was a respected role model for Inuit and Inupiaq people,” said his son-in-law, Charles Newberg. “It was how he lived his life and how he treated other people. He treated everyone as he would treat his own family. And he was taking care of his family until he had the stroke.”
Nayokpuk set standards on the trail, both as a competitor and as a person. His highest finish was second in 1980, but Nayokpuk rarely fell out of the top 10 in 11 races.
“He’s an icon,” said Chas St. George, Iditarod spokesman. “He’s just a phenomenal elder. He’s a lot more than just an Iditarod trailbreaker, the way he was. I mean, Herbie set an example and set the bar really high for a number of mushers in communities that are off the road system to say, ‘You can do this, and do it well.’
“But he’s a lot more than just a musher,” St. George said. “One of the things that’s most impressive about Herbie is he bridged the generation gaps. Everybody enjoyed not just his stories but what he had to teach. Susan (Butcher) bonded with Herbie right away. The reason was his ability to reach across generations and really communicate.”
Butcher, another legend in the sport, also passed away this year. The three-time champion died in August from leukemia at age 51.
The current champion, Jeff King, was a 25-year-old rookie when Nayokpuk was about 50 and in his prime. King still recalls one of the most amazing moments in his early career, which involves Nayokpuk. Nayokpuk valued traditions, and wore sealskin pants when he was racing, “and it wasn’t for show,” King pointed out.
King recalls reaching Skwentna, just 100 miles into the Iditarod, and fetching his overloaded drop bags so he could take care of his dogs. Nayokpuk, meanwhile, was also grabbing just a single drop bag. The bag was long and narrow. “This man who would go on to third place, he slid out a skinned seal – the entire carcass,” King said. Nayokpuk would slice chunks to feed his team, and then trim a few choice cuts to eat himself. It took him all of 20 minutes. “Meanwhile, I’m still sorting through my bags,” King said.
Ever interested in traditions, Nayokpuk, his relatives and friends also once crafted runners out of walrus ivory, just as his ancestors had done. He sent the resulting ivory-runner sled up to Shaktoolik, and tried it out in a race. Maybe those runners needed more sanding or the snow wasn’t right, but the ivory didn’t perform as well as he’d hoped. But that gumption typified Nayokpuk’s energy and love of tradition, Newberg said.
Another tradition that was an integral part of Nayokpuk was his love of trading and his kindness to strangers. His friendliness may have cost him a few positions. “When the Iditarod started, Herbie had everything in his sled but the kitchen sink,” recalled Newberg, who helped get Nayokpuk ready to race for several years. “He’d pull into a village on the Yukon, and trade something for something else. We’d hear the comment so many times, ‘Herbie if you would just stop visiting in every village when you get there – you don’t have to shake everybody’s hand – you could win this race.’”
After Nayokpuk’s first stroke forced him to retire from racing in 1988, after an impressive sixth-place finish, it didn’t prevent him from enjoying the race that was such an integral part of his life. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were often at the start and usually at the finish in Nome. Nayokpuk was known for always having a few pieces of carved ivory from his home in Shishmaref for trade.
A memorial service is to be held in Anchorage, at the start of the Iditarod trail, on Dec. 6 at the Anchorage Baptist Temple (a time had yet to be determined). There will be another service the evening of Dec. 7 in Nome, at the end of the Iditarod trail, with a final funeral service to be held in Shishmaref on Dec. 8, weather permitting.
Anyone who wants to send the family a card, or share a memory, can e-mail: email@example.com. An account for donations also has been set up at any Wells Fargo bank branch to help defray travel and living expenses for the family during their stay in Anchorage. It is called the “Herbert Nayokpuk Donation Account # 2526636556.”
One of the messages that streamed in from all over the world was from friends in Unalakleet, the Ivanoff family. It read: “I am writing to you from Unalakleet where my Mom used to feed you Eskimo Food as soon as you got off the Iditarod trail and finished feeding your dogs. I remember the one race where you fell asleep in the hot bath tub and I had to wake you up. You jokingly told me I saved your life because of that. I almost believed you until I figured out that our tub was barely big enough to hold you. Another time, I remember you eating herring eggs on kelp which made a loud crunching sound and everyone being very quiet while you were eating and you said, ‘Boy, these are loud,’ making everyone laugh. You had a way with that, Herbie. These are great memories we have together. As for our own relationship, I sure appreciate the fact that you always, always give me a big bear hug and kiss when I see you. You treat me so good. I just wanted to say thank you. It is an honor to know you and to be touched by your kindness, love and friendship.”