INTERVIEW: CHARLIE CHAMPAINE REMEMBERS AN EARLY ANCHORAGE FUR RONDY WIN

Charlie Champaine was standing on the side of Cordova Street, in 1978, when he saw his 1st Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship.He was twenty nine. He watched the teams fly down Cordova hill, mushers’ pants legs flapping in the breeze as the teams sped down the street. The impression of the teams speeding one way, and an hour later coming back at almost the same speed hooked him. He knew right then that he was destined to be a part of it. Charlie went on to run the race 10 times, winning at 4 of those attempts. His racing career culminated in 1991, when he went undefeated at every open class race he entered: Rondy, Open North American Championships (ONAC), Exxon Open, and multiple village races. That was his last year of serious racing.In 1979, Charlie, who previously only had experience with freighting Malamutes, had rounded up a team of his own and entered the race. “I had to bleed from my ears and my nose” to come in 10th place, out of 33 teams, the last paying place. He beat Earl Norris. Lester Erhart placed ninth. “If I had more race experience, and knew a little more about what I was doing I could have come in 9th,” Charlie explains.“That tenth place finish really got my attention and from then on I knew it was something I wanted to do and I was going to give it all my energy.”Prior to that race, Charlie had bred a female leader and raised a litter of puppies. Those dogs ran the Rondy when they were two years old, in 1980. His best finish in that race was second on day two. That year Dick Brunk won the race. They cancelled the third day, it was one of those not-so-great race years down there. “I think Harris Dunlap placed second. In 1981, I remember that year vividly, that is the year I came in second, I got beaten by experience. George Attla gave me a steep learning curve, it was a hard lesson to learn. Let’s just say that after the race, I found myself pedaling my office chair around the office trying to make up that 20 seconds. I didn’t have the confidence or the experience needed to win. That comes with any sport,” Charlie tells me. “I also lost an Open North American by 7 seconds, though the North American never really meant as much to me. By that time I had learned from the 20 second loss in the Rondy, to exert 100% of my effort all the time. Losing the North American by 7 seconds, that was fine, I was ok with it because at the end of the race I didn’t have 7 seconds left in me. He just beat me. In the Rondy, I had 20 seconds, but he still beat me.”Why is the Rondy so special?When I became interested in sled dog racing in the 70’s, sprint racing was huge, they gave away vehicles as prizes. The Rondy just represented the greatest accomplishment in the sport in terms of rearing dogs, maintaining their structural integrity, and training ability. Compared to the Open North American, where you run down 2nd Street and you hit the Chena River, in the Rondy you run most of the race on main roads, which pose a unique set of challenges. They have to bring in snow to run the race on the roads, 6 inches of snow on hard pavement. You physically cannot stop your team, if something goes awry, you have to deal with it somehow, someway. I have hooked parking meters, snow fencing, the bumpers of cars with my ice hook to stop my team.Every year you were faced with the same challenges and the more successful you were at overcoming the challenges, the more successful you were in the sport. I have been down to the Rondy just about every year, I walk down the avenue and I get a feeling inside me, it feels good. The feeling on the street has changed over the years, it used to be televised live, and broadcast on radio around Alaska and out to the villages like Galena, Noorvik, Kotsebue, it would involve the whole state. The city of Anchorage was wonderful, and it still is, which is great. The whole city comes down and is a part of the festivities.It is like back east with their big open class race – Laconia. The race involves the whole city, one thing we all have going against us now is the whole global warming trend. We are not really getting that much snow in Anchorage anymore. In 1981, the year that I placed second, there was so little snow that they spray painted the corners of the trail. There was a significant amount of work needed to get through Anchorage,.We had to actually cross Tudor Road, what is now the native hospital, used to be a big paving company back in the 80’s. We ran straight through their parking lot, amongst all the spectators. There was a 90 degree turn spray painted in the middle of the parking lot. My team blew the turn and ran dead ahead. I had to shutdown on the ice, with a 16-dog team. I was thinking “Oh my, what am I going to do?” Suddenly, and bless his heart, Daryl Eversman came out of the woods and said, “Don’t worry Charlie, I’ve got you,” he knew my lead dogs by name and lead me back diagonally to where I was supposed to be. I was firmly in second place, but I didn’t have a winning attitude because I thought I wasn’t one of the big guns. But here I was in second place and I was tickled pink to be that high in the roster. I was second behind George Attla. I was thinking, “Charlie, you dummy, do you know how close this race is?” I was running down 5th Avenue, feeling like I was breaking the course record, but couldn’t see George in front of me. I turned onto Cordova Street, you can see for a long way, still no sign of George. I was losing by twenty seconds total, I was twenty seconds ahead of Marvin Kokrine, who was twenty seconds ahead of Harvey Drake, so we were all twenty seconds apart. Pretty cool, eh!So there I was going down Cordova Street, and I look to the left, and I see George Attla coming out of 11th Avenue, which isn’t part of the race course. He wasn’t alone. He had a guy standing on his runners with him who looked like he just rolled out of bed. This guy was wearing pajama bottoms and a white t-shirt, like George picked him up off a porch somewhere. They came out of 11th Avenue and made a left-hand turn right in front of me. We were going to T-bone for sure if I kept going, but rather than be the nice guy and slow my team, I told my team to go straight ahead and they did. My leaders and swing dogs went over the top of his team, and then we got tangled up. Of course my leaders have their backs to the whole show. Every man and his dog comes out of the crowd and told me to, “Stay right there on your sled.” A dozen people were helping George, and I was like, “I could use a hand here,” but no, there wasn’t a soul helping me. They managed to pick up my mainline and got George to go under it and he got free. All this because he went the wrong way and we’ve got all the people helping George, not me. I’m all by myself because I’m the new guy from Johnson River and there is George Attla – God’s gift to the world of champions. We got going again and I thought, “Wait a minute – this means I’m winning the World Championships!” I passed him, he passed me, and I passed him again. That story is for another time when the recorder is not on! I learned my most valuable lesson on that day, but that story is not for now.Tell us about your great Rondy dog Bruce.Bruce was exceptional. He won the Fur Rendezvous in 1984. My friend Bobby Lee, who got me into the sport, and I shared a homestead out at Trapper Creek with his dad, who was into dogs and they lived right on the Tudor track. He gave me a five-dog team to run with and a sled. These dogs were tiny, compared to the big lazy dogs 90-pound Malamutes I was used to. These were slick coated little dogs, and not only did they have to pull me, but they had to pull Bobby, who was not a small man, and who was riding on the back of the sled until we got to the main trail. I got onto the Tudor track and he jumped off. It was one of those long sunny days with the sun low on the horizon and I am left with five dogs, by myself with no idea of where I am going. I ran around a several mile loop. After that, Bobby gave me a few dogs. Bruce was born under Bruce Mclain’s House in Delta Junction, where I was working for the state at the time. That litter of pups were the 2-year-olds that I ran in the ‘80 Rondy. Bobby and his dad were into exotic breeds to mix in with the sled dogs, and they had got a full registered Saluki hound. They had bred it down and I had a chance to breed to its offspring, so I got a quarter Saluki. The mother ran on my first Rendezvous team, still a strong enough outcropping of the sight-hound that she had blinding speed. I was a young naive guy, who knew little about breeding. They had no fur, their feet were soft, but we crossed those quarter crosses back to the huskies and it worked. It took a while, but it worked. These dogs, Bruce’s litter, they were tough. They had good coats, could withstand 40 below weather, had good feet, great appetites, but they did not consume water, they were like camels. They got water with their food but that was it, they were never thirsty. Bruce never had a bad day in his life. He never got hurt, his feet could go across burning embers. One of his littermates was a leader. Bruce, I believe, made it financially viable for me to do well because with his offspring and correct breeding I got dogs with all the criteria that makes a good sled dog: good attitude, good feet, good appetite. It didn’t hurt that they could idle along at 20 mph. It was great that I could sell the dogs that didn’t work for me. Dogs went to people like Dee Dee Jonrowe and Sonny Lindner. I read in the local paper recently that so many dogs are being turned over to the borough to deal with. The last few years I raised dogs, we had a very high success rate. The chance of a dog not making someone’s was almost non-existent. When you were training dogs for the Rondy, did you train your dogs gee/haw? Absolutely. We had to, before we had the luxury of closed circuit race tracks. If we didn’t we wouldn’t get anywhere! There were a lot of different training methods for that, but the best was just don’t go the same way twice. I used to train on the Macomb Plateau, off the Johnson River between Delta Junction and Tok. I tried taking a snow machine there a few years ago and we couldn’t get up it, but we could take the dogs up it. That is where we got our best training, gee/haw and hills. It was 30 miles wide, rolling hills and valleys, no trees. The dogs really got good at it, but if they didn’t take commands quickly and correctly the sled would rack against the rocks. We would have to gee and haw through the bushes to get down. It led down to a big giant area of open swampland. I used to use dogs to trap out there.Stanley Barney, who put in the trail in Anchorage at the time, would put in a little different trail at the bottom of a hill each year. Where the trail had gone one way, all of a sudden it goes another way and so many times I would blow past the turn for about 100 feet and find the trail again. The dogs remember every part of the trail. That is why it is so hard to make them go through culverts, the first time they don’t know what it is, the second they question it again and the third you have to scare them through. For the last quarter mile you can feel them thinking about it and then you see The Big Black Hole that will kill us. How did you feel after your first Rondy win?I had achieved my strongest personal goal. It was pretty special, I had to sign the whole cache of mail that went everywhere to celebrate the Rendezvous. I went and met the President with an Alaskan troop including Ted Stevens. The next time I won it was quite a let-down. Nothing is as special as the first time. End

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