The Shishmaref Cannonball

By Mike Koskovich

In January of 1981, I was flying scheduled passenger and mail runs for Wien Air Alaska.  We served the bush villages out of Bethel, Nome and Kotzebue. My preference was to fly out of Nome, so I spent as much time there as possible.

I had flown some support for the Iditarod, going back to the mid to late 70's, so by 1981, was very familiar with many of the key players and more competitive mushers.  I was very pleased when the Wien station manager informed that we would be transporting Herbie Nayokpuk, as well as his wife and dog team with sled.

The schedule was flown with the DeHavilland Twin Otter, so we could easily get Herbie and his wife as well as the dog team with sled in the airplane. I further discovered that this was to be the first leg of a journey that would take the famous musher to Washington DC, where he would participate with his team in Ronald Reagan's inaugural parade. The delegation from Alaska also included: Joe Redington Sr., Dick Mackey and Col. Norman Vaughan. 

When we arrived in Shishmaref that January morning it was a typical cold blustery day with snow blowing across the runway.  As we taxied into the parking area Alex Weyouanna, the Wien agent, showed up on his snow machine with Herbie's wife on the back. Herbie arrived moments later driving the team of Alaskan Huskies.  In a few minutes we had offloaded the inbound passengers and mail, and re-configured the airplane cabin to accommodate the dog team.  I approached Herbie, and asked him how he wanted to load the dogs. He thoughtfully pondered that for a few seconds and replied: “well, maybe I'll just drive them in”, I wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly, but I nodded and said “that would be fine”. 

What happened next was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in many years around dogs and mushers.  Herbie spoke in the Inupiat Eskimo language, and as he did every head that was in harness turned to look at this gentle master of dog driving. When Herbie then gave the command, the two dogs in lead approached the airstair on the airplane, cautiously went up the steps and made a ninety degree turn to the left followed with identical moves by the rest of the team until they were all in the cabin, at which time we passed the sled in the door and with another command the whole team laid down. I was nothing less than astounded, and Herbie, like he so often did, was grinning from ear to ear!

It was a real privilege to be around Herbie Nayokpuk, and although he is gone from us now, he and his gentle manner and infectious grin are fondly remembered by all who knew him.