Kotzebue musher reacts with class after receiving notorious Fur Rondy punch
March 4th, 2011 | Alex DeMarban
For Kotzebue musher Luke Sampson, the world championship sprint races at Fur Rondezvous have been laced with misfortune.
But he's upbeat and he won't give up racing - he loves running dogs.
In 2005, the last time he competed at Fur Rondy, Sampson scratched after a moose attacked his team on the trail near Tudor Road.
He intended to return in 2008. But he canceled plans after his wife, Ruthie, died.
This year, he scratched due to sick dogs. Not to mention, he was on the receiving end of the notorious punch and curse thrown by reigning champ Blayne Streeper, who was disqualified by race officials for the outburst.
Sampson, 60, said he's got no hard feelings against Streeper. He has a lot of respect for Blayne and the Streeper family.
Sampson, along with his own family, came to Anchorage to represent the community of Kotzebue and his sponsors. With the eyes of the world on the race, he wants to set a good example for the fans, especially children.
"There's no personal issue," he said. "I have nothing against anyone, and that's the way we should be."
"When you're in a dog race, you sign forms that you will conduct yourself in a sportsmanlike way. And we try to do that," he said of himself and fellow mushers.
The incident was something that "just happened."
"It wasn't planned," he said. "I do hope we can all learn from this."
Sampson told me this two days after he'd been punched, on Monday, outside the Courtyard Marriot in Anchorage where he and family were staying.
Not long before I interviewed him, one of the 19 dogs Sampson had shipped to Anchorage - courtesy of Lynden Air Cargo - had disabled his dog truck by chewing through the brake line. The truck was in the shop.
The dogs were tied in the sun to a fence behind the hotel. Two of Sampson's boys, Charlie and Clifford, fed them white hunks of beef fat.
Mushing is Sampson family tradition.
Sampson's parent's kept 60-some sled-dogs in Noorvik. Each team had a different role. They gathered wood. They hunted. They pulled travelers.
Now Sampson has his own dogs. Most importantly, they've kept the family together, especially after Ruthie passed. Caring for the dogs is a group effort, and tough work when it's 30 below, but everyone chips in.
Some day, Sampson will pass the team on to his own kids. Or nieces and nephews, whoever wants them.
The musher had high hopes for this year's race. His team is swift and young with the right amount of experience. Most of his dogs are 3 years old.
But many of them caught a bug that caused vomiting and diarrhea as they ran. After Day 2 of the three-day race, Sampson scratched.
"I wasn't going to win the race anyways, so it was best to leave them alone and rest them and try to get their health back," he said.
The team was tired on Saturday as they moved up the hill along Cordova Street near 15th Avenue. As Streeper approached, Sampson tried to get out of the way as quickly as possible, he said.
Passing, Streeper punched Sampson in the shoulder and shouted at him.
In a written statement apologizing to Sampson and his fans, Streeper said he'd hollered: "Luke, trail, Luke!"
Sampson didn't hear him. Streeper, passing Sampson, shouted, "Luke, Pay Fu— ng attention!" according to the statement. Sampson posed a safety risk to other mushers, Streeper said.
A video published by a reader on the Anchorage Daily News web site shows Streeper punchhing Sampson as he passed.
On the video, it sounds like Streeper shouted "Hey, F—you!"
Sampson never made out what Streeper shouted, he said. He had his head phones on and he didn't hear.
At any rate, Streeper's written statement said he regretted cursing.
Sampson said he didn't dwell on the incident. He mentioned it once, to one of his sons after the race. He didn't talk about it again until the race marshal called, seeking details, he said.
Streeper called Sampson twice, to personally apologize and to let Sampson know he'd been disqualified.
"I know he was not happy, but I probably wouldn't be too if it was me," said Sampson. "But you got to understand we have no control. There are people who are responsible for this race - and sponsors put money into this race - and they have to adhere by the rules and live by the rules."
Sampson's looking ahead to his more racing, including back home in the Kotzebue region. He hopes to try again at Fur Rondy as soon as possible.
"I'm happy to be here and I'll come back," he said.
Alex DeMarban can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org