How much do you know about Alaska? In the age of the internet where we use social media and pop culture as frames of reference, you might know a few of the following:
- Jewel (the singer) was raised in Homer, Alaska.
- Alaska is a common vacation destination typically via cruise ships that sail up the inside passage.
- The tallest mountain in North America is Mt. McKinley, located in Alaska.
- There are no less than five “reality” shows based in Alaska: Escaping Alaska on TLC, Battle on the Bay on Animal Planet, Alaska: The Last Frontier on Discovery Channel, Living Alaska and now Saving Alaska on HGTV
Here are some things you might not know.
- Mt. McKinley is the former name of the tallest mountain in North America with Denali finally being restored as the official name.
- Jewel’s family is featured in Alaska: The Last Frontier (she was, incidentally, born in Utah).
- Alaska is a huge state – in fact, it’s landmass is equivalent to 1/3 of the continental United States.
- For many years, Alaska has had the highest per capita suicide rate in the country.
Now that’s a statistic that you won’t read in any tourism brochure. Why is it so high? There are many factors cited including small, rural communities that are tight-knit yet isolated. People can feel lost, ashamed, and unsure of where to go or how to get help.
But there is encouragement. Recently, Alaska’s suicide rates have dropped to fourth in the nation. While the number is still high, it’s likely that programs like The Frank Attla Youth Program are making a difference.
When I attended the Purina Better with Pets Summit in November, I had the privilege of listening to the keynote speaker, Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, a Senior Researcher at Nestle Purina. From the time he was 5 years old, Dr. Reynolds wanted to be a veterinarian. After achieving his D.V.M., he went on to study nutrition which has led him to his current role a Director of the Nestle Purina research facility in Salcha, Alaska, where he evaluates the impact of nutrition on performance in sled dogs.
But what’s the link between dogs and suicide in Alaska? That’s what Dr. Reynolds shared with us at the Summit in a way that made me see Alaska in a new way.
He spoke to us about the small town of Huslia, Alaska (pop. 275) which was brought to fame by George “Huslia Hustler” Attla, a sprint mushing champion who overcame amazing odds in his path to success. But perhaps his greatest legacy is the youth mushing program he started in Huslia in honor of his late son, Frank Attla.
In a place where the future may look bleak, George Attla gave the youth of his village a reason to be proud and to strive for greatness. And the effects were far-reaching.
Attla’s grandniece, Angela Gonzalez, said her great-uncle was well loved in the village, where he was known to everyone as “Grandpa George.”
Gonzalez said Attla was always available to give advice or guidance and wasn’t shy about sharing his knowledge. When he started a youth mushing program, Gonzalez said the effects were far reaching, helping to keep village youngsters on a positive path.
“Maybe he didn’t put it in those words, about how the mushing program prevents suicides, you know,” said Gonzalez. “But it’s just something that was there, and people knew it. Because their kids are excited about dog mushing, excited about being outside and excited about being outside with Grandpa George.”
Here’s a 10 minute overview of how Dr. Reynolds is supporting this program and ensuring that the importance of dogs remains a strong part of the youth culture in Huslia.
This post is sponsored by Purina as part of my attendance at the Purina Better With Pets Summit. The topic and content are entirely my own, as are my opinions.