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Billy O: A tale of tragedy and perseverance

In this week’s edition of Remember This we look back at the story of Billy Orazietti and his dogs
Billy Orazietti crop - SSMPL
In September 1997, a statue and plaque were dedicated to the memory of Billy Orazietti. Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archive photo

William Henry Orazietti and his twin brother Robert (Bobby) were born October 13, 1943 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.  

Billy grew up in his family home at 172 Spring Street, the son of Attilio and Anna Orazietti. Billy and Bobby along with their brother Joe and their three sisters have said they didn’t have a lot of money when they were growing up but there was always room for friends and family in their home. Dogs became a part of their family and Billy developed a special connection to the animals that found a home with the Orazietti family. 

The family owned a small furniture and appliance store called Orazietti Furniture and the children all took turns working in the store. Billy would eventually become the Maytag repairman for the city. Billy played hockey for the Junior Greyhounds. Unfortunately, Billy’s father died suddenly on February 14, 1959 and this would have a significant impact on 15-year-old Billy’s life. At the age of 16, he decided to move to the family camp at Pointe aux Pins with his dogs because he was looking for solitude.   

Orazietti was a national-calibre body builder in the early 1960s, becoming Mr. Canada for both the Junior and Senior levels. He added more dogs but found it difficult to keep control of them when he was trying to exercise them.  He came up with the idea of tying their leashes to bicycle handlebars and later toboggans and letting them pull him along. He decided to get a dog sled and harness the dogs to the sled, soon realizing that he could enter his dogs into dog sled races. He trained with his dogs and by 1975 he felt that he was ready to enter races.  

Slowly he trained his dogs to achieve more and more success, eventually working towards the goal of entering the 1,165-mile Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska in 1992. Orazietti didn’t finish the Iditarod race. According to The Last Race by Luigi Mangone, “he eventually lost his way and returned to Anchorage to return home to Sault Ste. Marie. He promised himself that he would return someday to compete again…”   

Unfortunately, Orazietti was not able to keep that promise.

In 1994, a race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula led to a horrible accident — one of the worst dog sled racing accidents in the Upper Peninsula’s 200-year history. Orazietti, an experienced and well-liked musher, became disoriented on the ice over Little Bay de Noc. After straying off course, Orazietti’s dogs ran off the ice into open water. He managed to free two of his nine dogs from their harnesses, but ultimately the cold water took the lives of Billy and seven of his dogs.

According to an Associated Press article written on February 20, 1994, “Orazietti’s body was found in 10 feet of water in Little Bay De Noc on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, said Thomas Guy, chief judge of the Upper Peninsula 200 Sled Dog Championship. A resident had reported hearing cries for help.”

“Orazietti was about four miles off the marked course, Guy said. Ice on the bay off Lake Michigan may have been weakened by above normal temperatures, officials said.”

 Police in the nearby town of Gladstone said Orazietti apparently tried to free his dogs, but was only able to unhook the bindings that held two of them. The freed dogs were found wandering on the ice nearby. In honour of Billy, his 1994 bib number, 11, was retired from the race.

In September 1997, a statue and plaque were dedicated to the memory of Billy Orazietti. The plaque at the memorial reads, “Billy "O" was a well-known citizen, musher and legend in this area. Over the years he entered many dog sled races, including the 1992 Alaskan Iditarod, not to win, but to compete for himself and his dogs. Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, October 13, 1943, Bill met his untimely death February 19, 1994, doing what he loved best. Bill went through the ice in Little Bay De Noc in Escanaba, Michigan, attempting to save his 9 beloved dogs. He managed to save 2 before he succumbed to the icy waters of Lake Michigan.”