Lena Charley Of Chistochina: Sweetheart Of Alaska's Trails

  Lena Charley at Summit Lake checkpoint on the Copper Basin 300 (Journal file photo)  COPPER RIVER COUNTRY JOURNAL Separating The Men From ...

 

Lena Charley at Summit Lake checkpoint on the Copper Basin 300 (Journal file photo) 

COPPER RIVER COUNTRY JOURNAL

Separating The Men From The Mushers

Lena Charley, the matriarch of Cheesh'na, or Chistochina, is a strong and vibrant woman. The Copper River Country Journal wrote a story about her in the winter of 1987. This was back when the best known dog race in the Copper Valley had been the Copper River Classic – not the Copper Basin 300. Lena is proficient at a lot of things. Today, she's probably best known for her cultural impact, her historical narratives and her traditional artistry. But back in 1987, most people knew her as a dogmusher who had run multiple races all over Alaska including the Fur Rondy and Women's Championship Race.

Chistochina. 

That's where you move on into the upper reaches of Copper River Country... and where you separate the men from the mushers.

Lena Charley of Chistochina is busy taking care of her lot of 27 sled dogs. She is a striking, vigorous woman; the Katharine Hepburn of Alaskan mushers. Beautiful face, beautiful smile. And crazy about dogs.

Lena and her dogs go way back. She was born in Chistochina, and when she was a child, her family used dogs for packing. The dogs carried bundles on their backs. She's been running dogs in a dogteam for the past 30 years, and has a crew of children who are also mushers. 

For years in the early 1980's, Lena Charley was the Sweetheart of the Copper River Valley.  Every spring, the huge purse from the Copper River Classic Sled Dog Race lured famed mushers to the Ahtna Lodge. The Classic had the third highest purse in the state, and attracted the big guys – like George Attla, Earl Norris, Carl Huntington and a slew of Canadian and Lower 48 mushers. 

It was quite an event, and Copper River people turned out in force to watch. And to cheer on the hometown favorite: Lena Charley.

Aside from the dazzling smile, what is it that makes Lena such a great lady?

One quality she has is an ability to work. Many people know Lena Charley from her summer work, flagging on highway construction projects. During particularly busy summers, she sometimes works a man-sized day... then goes home to process a heroic batch of salmon.

She's also stubborn, in the true Alaskan way. Last year the Chistochina dogmusher weathered a thousand miles of wind, blowing snow, 40-below weather and bad trails on the Yukon Quest. She wound up in 20th place.

This was in spite of the fact that she was severely injured soon after the race began. Another musher's dogs ran into the back of her leg with their neckline, and hit a muscle. 

"I didn't know it was seriously hurt until half-way to Eagle," she said. "I didn't feel it. Then my leg all swelled up."

Doctors checked her along the way, and told her to take it easy. So she did. For Lena Charley, "taking it easy" meant mushing only four hours at a time, then resting for three to five hours before starting again.

She lost weight. Her dogs got sick. Her leg grew numb. But the 56-year old grandmother arrived in Whitehorse – having traveled alone on a sled all the way from Fairbanks – in only 14 days. Thirteen other mushers scratched, but not Lena Charley. She went home. And promptly caught the flu.

Lena Charley isn't racing in the Quest this year. She's been cutting back. She didn't work last summer. But, in late January, when she was interviewed for this story, she had just gone up to Tok to race – and then mushed on out along the 20-mile long Chistochina Trail for a jaunt.

And she's satisfied that she's recovered from her Quest injury. She walks with a bold, confident stride. "It's getting better. Really better." 

To make sure, she tested herself with a 20-mile "walk". 

"I made it pretty good," she said.

This is an ongoing, original series of interviews and photographs from the Copper River Country Journal, celebrating Native Heritage Month, November 2020.


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