Tracking the teams

Every sled is equipped with a Global Positioning System

March 13, 2009 

Iditarod musher Ed Iten lists Kotzebue as his hometown, but only because it's the biggest population center near his remote ranch in Northwest Alaska.

The 56-year-old lives so far off the grid it's hard to imagine. He's a good day's hike from Kotzebue, a community of about 3,000. There isn't a stop light or Wal-Mart for hundreds of miles.

At his ranch, he raises Iditarod sled dogs and Icelandic horses with his wife and two teenagers. Their winter commute to town is by dogsled on a trail that traverses a wild and untamed land north of the Arctic Circle .

Born in Alaska, but raised in Minnesota, Iten returned north in 1973 because he wanted a secluded lifestyle. Time stands still, he said, when you live north of nowhere.

Now, if only he could stop the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from spying on him with a satellite tracking device as if he were some sort of radio-collared animal.

Every dogsled traveling from Anchorage to Nome in the Iditarod this year is equipped with a GPS tracker, and Iten is one a handful of mushers who doesn't like it.

Iditarod officials, however, say the tracking is great for race fans.

It tipped a lot of them off to race leader Lance Mackey getting lost Friday. He fell asleep and his team wandered onto the wrong trail between Shageluk and Anvik.

The Iditarod contends being able to monitor this makes the race more interesting, but there is also a profit motive.

Iditarod charges fans to download the GPS intel obtained from IonEarth tracking devices. Race officials decided to start doing that after a free test run last year with 16 sleds proved wildly popular.

Iten happened to be one of the mushers picked to help test the popularity of the 30-ounce transmitters bolted to the sleds.

"I didn't care for it at all," he said. "It's just a big-brother thing."

Much to Iten's dismay, however, the tracking devices turned out entertaining for Internet sled-dog junkies - especially when four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser's unit showed him zooming off the trail at 130 mph.

In reality, Buser had played a trick on the Idit-a-nation while serving his mandatory 24-hour layover in Cripple. As a joke, he handed his GPS to an Iditarod Air Force pilot bound back to McGrath.

Iten said the tracking devices took away some of the seclusion he enjoys on the trail.

"It took some personal pleasure away from being out there, doing your own thing - you weren't doing your own thing," he said. "Everybody was watching you."

But that's the whole idea behind the concept, said Iditarod public relations director Chas St. George. Having everyone know where the mushers are helps turn the Last Great Race into a fan-friendly event.

"For the longest time, people didn't know what was going on out there," he said. "It's allowing everybody to view the race like never before. It's the kind of relationship that benefits the musher and the viewer."

The race, meanwhile, collects $19.95 for each individual subscription, $39.95 for classrooms and $99.95 for schools.

Melissa Linton, the principal at K-Beach Elementary School in Soldotna, said it's worth the money.

"All the teachers are so psyched," she said. "The topography and geography makes a really fun school-wide project."

The units also put Linton's mind at ease. She's the wife of Kasilof musher Bruce Linton, who he carried an experimental tracker last year. Melissa was able to check his progress every night.

If he had a few miles to go until reaching a checkpoint and it was late, she'd tell the computer "Goodnight, Bruce," and it turn off the light. When she woke in the morning, she'd flip on the computer to see what progress he'd made.

She liked that a lot better than calling Iditarod headquarters every 15 minutes to check on her husband's status like she did during his 2007 rookie run.

She can check easily and often now, but she can't use what she discovers to help her husband on the trail. It's against race rules to use the GPS and a phone to try to evaluate and counter another musher's race strategy. The rule relies on the honor system, but no one expects that to be a significant problem.

"For someone like me, who will never be in the top 10, it's not critical," Bruce Linton. "But it is huge for people like my wife."


Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklott or 257-4335.

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