Our Man In Jukkasjarvi

A secret agent working for Joe Redington and the global musher mafia conspiracy; undercover in Pomiechowek, Zakopane, Courmayeur, and the boiler room of the Anchorage Snowshoe Inn. (Maybe it was Gallivare, but the original Swedish Ice Hotel would be the perfect setting with all the elements needed sto stage a James Bond episode with comings and goings by helicopter, Kenth Fjelborg’s sled dog teams, Prince Albert of Monaco, shadowy Arab Nabobs, naked women with enticing bodies exposed on reindeer skins or found frozen solid in the booby-trapped sauna that emitted evaporating dry ice CO2 instead of steam, and villains meeting their just demise in the bandsaw that slices slabs of ice to create bowls and cups to send to Ice Bars in Tokyo and Paris perhaps smuggling contraband dissolved in the ice or hidden in the packaging.)

I like to imagine a book or film based on Larry Brayton’s exciting life. It would be a mixture of Out of Africa and Our Man in Havana. It starts like this:

“I once had a homestead in Alaska along the Steese highway in the Caribou Hills at the foot of the White Mountains. On a cold winter morning I could look across the pooled ice fog in Fairbanks and beyond the Chena and Tanana River basin to the high peaks and rooster comb ridges of the Dalton Range, and farther to the right the familiar profile of McKinley. The view extended for hundreds of miles and what felt like thousands of years.”

The extinct woolly mammoths found buried in the permafrost along the Tanana River and Larry Brayton would have enjoyed the same view, wandering about, hunting and foraging, bellowing and trumpeting their exuberance to resonate in that pristine primeval valley.

In the movie version Meryl Streep could play his Russian ex-Soviet ex-wife.

Larry is a film maker himself. Larry, when will you produce your own story on film? His last film was Pickpocket, Scam Dog of the North… right? Or something like that. Earlier he made two Iditarod films, Hotfoot and Iditarod the Movie. Before that he was a cameraman in big-time Hollywood productions. More recently he put together a DVD combining footage from those two Iditarod films he made plus highlights about the life of his friend Joe Redington. I believe Larry was a soldier in the US Army in Europe during the Second World War and traveled or studied there under the GI Bill after the war.

Any error will be corrected after reaching Larry’s computer in Knik, his current hideout.

To be honest, I did not remember seeing him along the trail filming the 1974 Iditarod when I met him again 14 years later in Europe.

My race preparations were delayed and disrupted because former Green Beret Vietnam veteran, dog musher Chicago Marathon director, bad-ass Bob Bright changed his plans and presumed I was going to bail out too, so I arrived in Milan Malpensa from Chicago with 13 dogs on an Alitalia flight with little time to drive to Val D’Aosta for the race start. But first there was a problem with the Italian customs official insisting the dogs would be impounded over the weekend until Monday because of import fees and there were no veterinary health inspectors on duty. Not by accident, Maurizio Pagliano, the horse broker hired to facilitate the Alpirod border crossing formalities, showed up with a folder full of papers and an attitude, then after a minute of shouting and threats we were clear to go. I know now that this had started off as a customs shakedown, similar to what we encountered other times at the Italian border with the initial authorities saying our papers had irregularities. While waiting for more information several friendly subordinates come over to chat about the dogs and what we’re doing, then dropping the hint, do you have any souvenirs? That was a subtle solicitation…

Finally at race headquarters in Courmayeur below the entrance of the tunnel, I checked in, then heard: your old friend Joe Redington is waiting to see you! It was a cheerful thought after a tiring day, but Joe’s delight to see me had another motive. I knocked on the door to his hotel room to be greeted with enthusiasm by Joe, Vi, and Larry, crowded with their luggage, dog equipment, and Larry’s camera gear in a room with no floor space left to move without stepping over something. “We heard you did not have a handler. Here is your good friend Larry Brayton. Remember Larry from the Iditarod?” So Larry moved over to my room and to my Iveco dog transport van.

We had both spent months and years in Europe at different times. Larry spoke several languages, often two or three in the same sentence. I spoke English and French; the German I learned in school in France and the Spanish learned in school in the Philippines, long time forgotten, the languages that fell by the way. Larry had knowledge of many things beyond my youthful experience in Europe. Wine, beer, criminal activities, sin and corruption, how to get by comfortably on a limited budget. Beer is good for that since in his early European adventures water was not safe to drink. He was cautious and protective for my dogs and his priceless camera and equipment. He called the dogs toads for the way they sat on their haunches waiting for food or attention. In what he judged to be perilous locations he slept with the dogs in the van between the sky kennels to guard against “gypsies.”

After one Alpirod stage in the valley above Courmayeur we went for pranzo, lunch, in a small baita or refugio. Nice place, nice atmosphere; in the Italian shadow of Monte Bianco. Larry ordered spaghetti. Spaghetti was served. WTF! We should have left the Europeans to clean up the mess of their own damn wars. What kind of cheap rip-off is this? It was explained. If you want carbonara or al ragu or con speck, that is what you should order. Anyway, there was olive oil and a hand grater loaded with cheese pieces to dress the spaghetti. Larry is unforgiving. I wonder though, is it American or also in the south of Italy that spaghetti on the menu always includes sauce? I brought home several of those grattugie and do like to eat spaghetti wet with oil and dried with cheese, though garlic is good too.

Subsequent years Larry leveraged his encounters with dog mushers Dodo Perri, whose wife owned a hotel in Courmayeur, and Taisto Thorneus from Kiruna, to spend more time with them in Europe before and after the Alpirod. When Alpirod dinner tickets were limited and he did not qualify under the handler provisions, he would give himself immediate press credentials at the door by bringing out his large prehistoric wind-up spring action camera to pose musher and organizer friends for staged interviews, although usually there was no film in the camera. By 1991 he was recognized as part of the Alpirod as much as the stages we revisited and the scenery in Livigno or San Moritz and Dobbiaco. That year he received an award created for him, Best Hydrated Handler.

The Alpirod ended in 1995. Larry and I were touring on different circuits that did not intersect after that. What a surprise ten years later to arrive at the airport in Warsaw and Isa Szmurlo said, your old friend Larry is waiting to see you! He was there with Dodo.

Dodo was delegated to snap the photo since he was already upstaging us in the picture on the side of his dog truck. Larry was working undercover as a chef in the kitchen. In this photo: Isa Szmurlo, Laszlo Both, Drahos Istvan (no, not Muammar Gaddafi’s younger Hungarian brother), Gosca Szmurlo…

Sadly, Dodo died a few years later, victim of a swimming/diving accident on the Amalfi Coast. It was a Hemingway scene: retrieving a piece of diving equipment, his foremost thought must have been embarrassment to die in such a trivial way without heroism.

*Our Man in Havana is a book and a film based on the novel by Graham Greene. The plot comes across as a parody of the Ian Fleming James Bond spy novels of the same period. The main character is an English vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana paid by MI6 to gather intelligence on the many conspiracies in Cuba. His biggest scoop is a diagram of a vacuum cleaner he sends that is deduced to be a mysterious top secret nuclear device or missile installation.

**For the first time I have used tags on a blog posting. When I googled Larry Brayton and his movies I came up with nada, niente, meiyou… so I tagged them along with James Bond, Joe Redington, Graham Greene, Isak Dinesen. He deserves to be in such illustrious and eclectic company.

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One thought on “Our Man In Jukkasjarvi

  1. Pingback: Iditarod, The Hollywood Connection | Everything I Learned From My Sled Dogs And More!

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