Kindled octogenarians illuminate the mushing world

FAIRBANKS, Alaska A small sign at the start of Ray Mackler’s driveway reads, Star Line Sleds. Walking up to his house, just outside…

FAIRBANKS, Alaska

A small sign at the start of Ray Mackler’s driveway reads, Star Line Sleds.

Walking up to his house, just outside Fairbanks, Alaska, one is greeted by a cacophony of barking of dogs.

An elderly woman with white hair sticking out under her blue Iams cap was yelling something and gesturing forcefully.

But it was hard to hear 80-year-old Val Mackler over the chugging of the old Elan.

A five-dog gangline was stretched out in front of the tiny snowmachine and one old dog was already hooked up in lead.

Val was on her way back from the dog yard, another old dog in tow.

The rest of the stiff, scruffy sled dogs were barking excitedly, pacing the length of their chains.

It was clear Val didn’t want to be interrupted.

When all five dogs were hooked up, she jumped on the Elan and putted off, the creaky team trotting in front of her.

In his workshop beside the small dog yard, her husband Ray was hunched over a wooden sled runner.

Hard of hearing, he didn’t seem to notice the din of the dogs or the snowmachine.

Shuffling across the shop in a red-plaid shirt and thick, green suspenders, Ray was looking for his cordless drill.

“I can’t seem to remember where I put things,” the 86-year-old said softly, a twinkle in his eye.

Recovering from recent knee surgery, he should have had his feet up.

Instead, he was readying Saul Turner’s sled for this year’s Yukon Quest.

It was a sled Ray built for Frank Turner years ago and it has already weathered several Quests.

“At one time, one third of the mushers in the Quest were running my sleds,” he said. “But nobody uses wood much anymore.”

Ray started building sleds in 1987.

“Leroy Shank was my neighbour and he was going to run the Quest, so he asked me to build him a sled,” said Ray.

“I had done woodworking all my life, and whatever I needed, if I couldn’t buy it I would make it.”

So, Ray attempted his first sled.

“I made it to Leroy’s specifications, and copied his sled, but it was not much good,” he said.

“It was too heavy — I wanted to get something more flexible.”

While watching a race out to Chena Hot Springs, near his home, Ray spotted Iditarod musher Joe Runyon’s noodle sled.

“The whole thing was cast in polyethylene and undulated over the ground,” said Ray.

“But it was so flexible you couldn’t put anything in it.

“So I figured you need flexibility in the runners with a rigid bed.”

On his next sled, Ray put snowmachine springs between the sled runners and the bed.

“It’s Val’s training sled,” he said.

And she still uses it.

Ray began making light, flexible sprint sleds.

“Lots of the sleds I made in the ‘80s are still running,” he said.

“But everyone was breaking runners, and I had to find a way to fix that.”

On a trip back to St. Louis, Illinois, where Ray and Val lived for many years, he stopped in at an archery shop.

“I realized that the strength and flexibility of bow chimes was what I wanted in a runner,” he said.

So, informed by the bows he had seen in St. Louis, Ray designed his runners using unidirectional laminated fiberglass, layered between strips of white ash.

Now, with his sled design pretty well worked out, Ray had only one more concern. The steel springs he was using were noisy, unstable and made the sled ride too high.

During one of Fairbanks’ annual mushers’ symposiums, Iditarod champ Rick Swenson was admiring Ray’s sleds.

They were discussing the spring problem and Swenson asked Ray why he didn’t just use a segment of his strong, flexible runner material as a spring.

It was a good idea.

As Ray described the evolution of his sleds, he wandered through his shop pulling out runner forms, fingering the magical fiberglass and showing off his tough wooden springs.

“Try and break this,” he said offering Saul’s handler a segment of runner.

He couldn’t do it.

“It was a challenge to develop a better sled,” said Ray.

“People will argue with me about this, but I still think I make the best sleds for the money.”

But Ray doesn’t make any money. The cost of his sleds basically covers the materials.

“I do it for the pleasure of it,” he said.

But Ray is getting old.

“I have the parts for one more sled,” he said.

He is not sure if he will finish it.

When asked what he will do if he stops building sleds, he said, “I don’t know — die.”

However, Val has other plans for him.

“You can’t build another sled,” she told him.

She had just finished feeding her dogs and had joined Ray in the workshop.

“This summer he is building a dog barn, a dog box and there is this huge yard to take care of,” she said gesturing out the window.

Ray quietly returned to the runner he was fixing, a twinkle still in his eye.

Val is feisty, and it is obvious Ray adores her.

She had a good run with the dogs, but bemoaned the lack of snow.

If they don’t get more soon, Val might not be able to race this year.

Although 80 may seem a little old for dog racing, Val’s mushing career didn’t begin until her mid-60s.

“Leroy Shank gave me two dogs in ’86, and then another one and soon I had six,” she said.

She ran them until they got too old and then bought Bob Holden distance dogs.

They had run the Iditarod, the Quest and a distance race in Russia, all in the same season.

Holden was going to kill the older dogs, but Val wouldn’t hear of it.

“These dogs had run so many distance races, they deserved a happy old age,” she said.

“They needed a place where they could retire with dignity and be well looked after — I don’t function any other way with animals.”

But Val does hunt, she said, pointing out the window at a bunch of sheep and caribou racks nailed to their house.

One of their two sons was a wilderness guide and Val sometimes guided trips with him, cooking at the camp and taking tourists sheep hunting.

Val and Ray moved to Alaska in 1986 to live near their son, and fell in love with the state.

“I used to be able to leave on my training runs from here, before all the subdivisions were built,” said Val.

A teacher, she would come home after school and run her dogs in the moonlight.  “People talked about the horrible winters, but I never minded them,” she said.

And the Alaskan summers reminded her of New Zealand, her homeland.

Ray met Val at the Auckland zoo during the Second World War. She was at teacher’s college and he serving in the military.

They married and Ray moved to New Zealand where they lived for 14 years and had two sons.

“Ray wanted our sons to be American citizens, so we had to go live in the States for two years,” said Val.

They moved to St. Louis.

“It was a terrible culture shock for me and the boys,” she said.

When they moved to Alaska, Val kept teaching and Ray retired.

“I planned to make some furniture,” he said.

Instead Val started racing dogs and Ray perfected his Star Line Sleds.

“I learned about dog racing, cause it was part of the school curriculum up here,” said Val.

Mushers used to come to classrooms with their lead dogs and there was a whole Iditarod/Quest project for students.

“Now they don’t let animals in schools anymore,” she said.

Val is downsizing her dog yard, but pointed out a big dog she is fostering.

“I might end up keeping him too,” she said.

Holding out her hands, Val showed off her scars, earned stopping dogfights and living rough.

“The dogs are older now and not so excitable; there aren’t so many fights,” she said.

“Get Val to tell you how she stapled up her own hand,” Frank Turner said.

“Oh, shoot, that little thing,” Val said with a laugh.

She used to staple up wounds on her dogs and one day, cutting herself out on a run, she took the stapler to her hand.

“I thought, why go to the doctor and pay $100 for stitches, when I can just do it myself,” she said.

“On the dogs, if you put them in quick they don’t even feel it — so I just did the same thing.”

Val plans to keep on racing, and Ray, slowly shuffling around his shop, might just build that last sled.

It is already sold, if he does.