Every Iditarod musher leaves full of hope

March 8, 2009 

UPDATE: By 11:20 p.m. 23 mushers had reached the Skwenta checkpoint and Rayme Smyth had left there at 10:08 p.m. heading for Finger Lake.

WILLOW -- Nuclear physicist Rob Loveman bumbled his way toward the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race here Sunday.

Where experienced Alaska mushers like Jeff King and five-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers were all speed and efficiency in preparing their dogs for the 1,000-mile trail ahead, the Iditarod rookie from Seeley Lake, Mont., was the opposite.

Wrestling with a canine shoehorn, which seemed more hindrance than help, Loveman took minutes per dog to wrestle on fabric booties that help protect against abrasions on soft snow trails. In the time it took him to do one dog, Swenson or four-time champ King from Denali park could deftly bootie most of a team of 16.

Loveman recognized his ineptness. He doesn't expect to win the Iditarod. He doesn't even expect to beat the only other physicist in the race, 61-year-old Eric Rogers from Eagle River. Rogers is a two-time Iditarod veteran, finishing 68th both times.

Rogers is at least guaranteed a better place this year. There are only 67 teams entered in the 2009 Iditarod. Still, he has aspirations. He thinks his dogs might be capable of finishing in the top half.

Loveman has no competitive dreams. He just hopes to get to Nome. There were plenty of people on hand to offer him encouragement and hand slaps as he, like the others, ran a gantlet of tailgate parties along the trail for tens of miles north into ever wilder country.

By dark, the 52-year-old musher was largely all alone out where the wolves howl, with plenty of time to contemplate his handicaps.

He's running purebred Siberian huskies, which are not exactly known for their speed or work ethic. He has never been up the trail before, so he doesn't really know what hurdles he is likely to encounter. And, he's doing the race on an artificial hip implanted less than a year ago.

Asked if he thought he was ready for a 1,000-mile jaunt across Alaska on a trail that has smashed and broken even highly experienced mushers, his answer was simple:

"Well, here I am. I think of this like finals week. I am defining myself as ready.''

Whether he really is or not will be known at the end of a simple pass-fail test. Make it Nome, and you pass. Find yourself stopped short, and you fail.

Swenson, 56, knows more than anyone about success and failure in the Iditarod. The dominant force in the race in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he slumped as the late Susan Butcher rose to power. The two fought epic duels to the finish through the last of the '80s, but somehow Swenson always came out the loser.

Then came the legendary race of '91. Butcher led the competition out into a storm in the Topkok Hills between White Mountain and Nome on the Bering Sea coast. She had an hour lead. She looked to have the strongest team. But fate held a wild card.

Butcher and her team disappeared into a white, swirling hell. Swenson and his team found her there. For a time, the two veteran mushers helped each other work north through a maelstrom Swenson later compared to being stuck in the draft of a semi going down the highway at 60 mph.

Eventually, the two separated. Butcher turned back. She met former Iditarod champ Joe Runyan from Nenana and perennial contender Tim Osmar from Clam Gulch along the way and told them it was too dangerous to go on. All three thought Swenson might well die.

He was willing to take that gamble. He was, he said afterward, on a kamikaze mission. His marriage was falling apart. His reputation as the best in the Iditarod was tarnished. And he was just plain tired of hearing about "Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod.''

"(The weather) was as bad as I've ever seen it anywhere," he said. "There were times I couldn't see my leaders. There were times when you couldn't even see the ground."

Swenson went to the front of the team, tied himself to the lead dogs and started hunting for scratches of old snowmobile tracks on the tundra. He found just enough to guide him ever so slowly toward Nome. The team followed. They shocked everyone with their arrival out of the storm.

It was Swenson's last victory. He hasn't really come close since, but he still has hopes of becoming the only musher to win a race in every decade of the Iditarod's existence. It being 2009, this is the last chance this decade. He has a fine looking dog team with which to make a try.

"I want to win this thing so I can quit,'' he said.

With a little luck it could happen. Nobody knows better than Sebastian Schnuelle from Whithorse, Yukon Territory, who came over to see Swenson off before preparing his own team to leave. Schnuelle is running his fifth Iditarod fresh off a miracle victory in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

The lasting euphoria of that win less than two weeks ago was written in the grin that never left Schnuelle's face. He seemed to almost float above the snow when he walked the dog yard.

Schnuelle won the Quest in a fashion reminiscent of Swenson's '91 Iditarod victory, except the German immigrant to Canada came from even farther back when a storm ravaged the race leaders. Schnuelle said that when he realized he'd unexpectedly caught them "it felt like Christmas.''

He passed them and kept going to win.

"It felt good,'' he said. "It felt good. I'm definitely going to be more confident here.''

Still, he added, he was not so confident to dare offer Rick Swenson advice.

"I hope I'm going to see him out there and get some advice from him,'' Schnuelle said.

Time will tell. Trail conditions do not look good for a big man like Swenson. Even on Willow Lake, where the trail began between lines of spectators stretching out of sight into the woods beyond, the snow was soft and inches deep. At Long Lake to the south as the race route worked its way toward the Susitna River, conditions were much the same, and the report is that it is like this for much of the way to Nome.

Soft, snowy trail favors little people and long-legged dogs. King is among the little people at 5-feet, 6-inches and about 135 pounds. He said he didn't think his dogs are particularly long legged, but he agreed the conditions give him an edge.

Always an innovator, he was trying to further maximize that with an extra long sled. The longer the sled runners, he noted, the more float they provide over the snow. And the higher the sled floats, the less drag.

"I'm glad I've got a long rig,'' King said.

He had it outfitted with a seat and a dog box. If the team did hit good, firm trail, he said, he'd let dogs take turns riding with him on the sled. It makes no sense, King said, for mushers to stand on the brake behind 16 dogs when they could reduce the size of the team, let some dogs rest and get off the brake.

King hauled dogs last year on the way to a second-place finish. He might have won if Lance Mackey hadn't caught him napping in the village of the Elim on the Bering Coast.

In what was the defining moment of the 2008 Iditarod, Mackey sneaked out of Elim while King was asleep and grabbed just enough of a lead to hang on for a second-straight victory. King, who badly wants a Swenson-tying fifth victory, is unlikely to be caught napping this year.

But winning isn't as easy as just staying awake. King and Mackey are sure to face stiff competition in this race from former champs Mitch Seavey from Sterling and Martin Buser from Big Lake, another four-time winner, plus a host of established contenders: Ed Iten and Jon Baker from Kotzebue; Norwegian Bjornar Andersen; Ramey Smyth from Willow and his brother, Cim, from Big Lake; Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof; Ken Anderson from Fairbanks; DeeDee Jonrowe from Willow; and Hans Gatt from Whitehorse. Not to mention that if history is any precedent, there will be one dog team that surprises everyone, possibly even the driver, by running with the leaders for much of the race.

Swenson, maybe? Ryan or Ray Redington Jr., grandsons of race-founder Joe? Hugh Neff from Skagway, who usually takes his team out too fast only to fade? He went out that way in the Quest this year, too; only he didn't fade. In fact, if not for a two-hour penalty assessed for leaving the trail, he would have bested Schnuelle in Fairbanks. Neff could be in the hunt in this Iditarod, and Schnuelle can't be overlooked. He finished a personal best 10th in the Iditarod last year, and that new confidence cannot be underestimated.

Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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