Bernie Willis runs his hands along the runners of a dog sled perched on a workshop table at his Arctic Arrow Farm in Wasilla, Alaska. He inspects the stanchions, the hardware and straps. In a few days, the sled will be traveling the punishing 1,049 mile trail between Anchorage to Nome. The sled needs to be ready for whatever the weather and trail conditions dish out – boulder-strewn mountain passes, jagged ice, deep snow, even bare ground. Mushers and dogs are depending on it.Building dog sleds to traverse the world’s longest sled dog race is both a science and an art, one that Willis has been practicing for more than forty years. This year, in the lineup of 69 Iditarod race mushers, at least seventeen of them – many of them top ten contenders – will be racing to Nome using sleds built by Willis. In all, he has crafted nearly 500 dog sleds over the years, some of the finest built in the world.
Willis knows what mushers need on the trail – he ran the Iditarod himself in 1974 and 1989. He started early, building his first sled at the age of 16 in his high school shop class in in Glendale, California.
“I was infatuated with Alaska,” Willis says. “I was introduced to Alaska in the third grade when Mrs. Sutton read Panuck: Eskimo Sled Dog by Frederick Machetanz to our class. I stole that book from the school library and didn’t return it for a year.”
Later on, Willis read an article by Raymond Thompson in Alaska Sportsman Magazine about building dog sleds. He took the idea to his high school shop class.
“It was a horrible sled. I didn’t understand that the joints had to be flexible. I made it with furniture joints. It was only good for a coffee-table-smooth trail,” he says. Today that sled is being used as a planter for flowers in the yard of one of his cousins in California.
In 1969, Willis with his wife, Jeannette, came to Alaska as missionaries. They lived in Gambell on St. Lawrence Island where Willis said Abraham Kaningok advanced his knowledge of dog mushing. Willis needed a sled, so he built one. As he began flying his airplane around Alaska as part of his work, everyone seemed to need a sled – and from the beginning, the Willis sleds were sought after.
“One time I came into Anchorage from Gambell and stopped in at the old Gary King Sporting Goods store,” Willis says. “There was a sled there that looked familiar, and on closer inspection, I saw that it was one I had built.”
He continued to refine the design with the guidance of Elders like Joe Sun from the Kobuk River region. Joe Sun grew up in an era when dog teams were the only form of transportation; in the 1960s, snow machines were quickly replacing the old ways of travel.
Over the years, Willis mixed the best of old and new technologies. Runners, for example, are crafted of carefully lathed strips of ash wood layered with carbon fiber to be both flexible and tough. The foot boards have a boot-size piece of mountain-bike tread for mushers to stand on. Willis’ attention to detail is why top mushers like Lance Mackey, Rick Swenson, Martin Buser, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Aaron Burmeister, and many others, use his sleds.
The entire Willis family has been involved in mushing and sled building over the years.
“One year we built forty-seven sleds,” Willis said. “The kids helped with piece work and varnishing. Jeannette swept the floor.”
Today Jeannette sews the canvass bags that hang in the sled’s cargo basket. An accomplished musher in her own right, she just retired after twenty years teaching dog mushing as a physical education course at the University of Alaska. Their son, Andy, is race manager for this year’s Iditarod. It’s always been one of many hobbies for the family – they all have other day jobs. Bernie is a retired airline pilot.
Bernie doesn’t put a signature on his sleds; he says it’s the design that gives them their unique identity. He’s thought about getting a stamp to mark them, but then shrugs. The signature of a sled is in the craftsmanship.
As dogs and mushers head down the trail for Iditarod 2014, a lot of Bernie’s sleds will be drawn behind dog teams racing to Nome. And if the spirit is in the craftsmanship, then a whole lot of Bernie will be heading down the trail too.