WASILLA - It takes a lot of work for Iditarod mushers to make it a thousand miles across the state. In addition to a speedy dog team, they’ve also got to have quality gear.
Creating world-class works of functional art is almost second nature for Bernie Willis.
“Sled building is not a matter of woodworking exclusively. It's a matter of understanding what kind of work the sled does,” said Willis.
But that wasn’t always the case. Bernie’s story starts 50 years ago.
“I still remember, it was Mrs. Sutton, and she read a book, Penuck, the Eskimo Sled Dog. And in that book was a very good line drawing of a dog sled, showing lots of detail,” recalled Willis.
Drawing inspiration from the sketch, the first sled he built at age 16 proved quite the learning experience, “I made nice ridged joints held together by glue. So the sled was absolutely non-functional. It looked good, got a good grade in the shop class, but it would have been a terrible sled on the trail.”
Less than a decade later, Bernie got the chance to field test his creation on the 1974 Iditarod trail.
“I made a very large sled, it was a 10-foot basket sled and it was too long for many corners on the trail. I had to cut trees to get around corners, I wasn't going to cut my sled.”
His experience that year and again in 1989 proved invaluable, and others took notice. He now makes sleds for some of the greatest mushers in the world, like DeeDee Jonrowe.
Jonrowe’s put about 5,000 miles on a sled Bernie’s modifying for her, and will add even more during her 30th trip to Nome this year. She says Bernie’s sleds provide the strength and flexibility she needs to take on the trails.
“Good quality craftsmanship, that's the thing – he pays attention to detail. He pays attention to detail as a pilot and he pays attention to detail as a sled builder. That's the kind of person whose equipment I need,” said Jonrowe.
Bernie still has an affinity for mushing and takes his six-dog team out for a few miles a week, but says the days of trekking a thousand miles through the Alaskan wilderness are behind him.
“Every once in a while I think about it, but probably not.”
And while Bernie may never again cross the finish line himself, he’ll have a hand in many mushers’ victories in Nome for years to come.
Bernie says he now averages about ten sleds a year, but one year made a record 47.
He says Lance Mackey was the first musher to win the Iditarod to win with one of his sleds.