Schnuelle wins the race for second

IDITAROD: German edges Baker in chase that began in Koyuk.

March 18, 2009 

WHITE MOUNTAIN -- While Lance Mackey was in Nome on Wednesday afternoon enjoying a third-straight victory in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the teams of Sebastian Schnuelle and John Baker were on the trail engaged in a dog fight for second that began back in the village of Koyuk.

Schnuelle pulled in there behind Mackey on Monday night and gave his team a long rest, thinking a storm raging across Norton Bay would seal the trail behind. And it did, for everyone but Baker.

The 13-year Iditarod veteran from Kotzebue trains in brutal coastal winds. Though four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park turned back at the edge of the Norton Bay ice and other teams decided to take shelter at a cabin in the lee of the last spit of land, the 46-year-old Baker kept going into a violent storm.

Cold and with one eye half-frozen shut, he eventually pulled into Koyuk three and a half hours behind Schnuelle, then cut rest in order to leave the checkpoint just minutes back.

By the village of Elim another 50 miles down the trail, Baker and the 38-year-old German now living in Whitehorse, Yukon, were running dead even.

Twice they passed each other before Schnuelle began to pull away. He built a 28-minute edge over the final dozen miles to the mandatory, eight-hour rest stop here and held it to the finish, though Baker's team put up a noble chase the whole way.

A Canadian immigrant born in Wuppertal, Germany, Schnuelle pocketed $65,000 for second, more than twice what he collected for winning the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race three weeks ago. His combined winnings of more than $91,000 about equaled the value of Mackey's Iditarod winnings of $69,000 and a new Dodge pickup truck.

Schnuelle had 13 Quest veteran dogs to thank.

"They're not the hardest workers," he said. "But they just save themselves. The dog which is 100 percent all the time will overdo it.

"When you don't push them mentally, things just click."

Baker took home $55,000 for third to match his previous best Iditarod finish back in 2002.

Though the tedious stretch of trail between here and Elim ultimately decided second place, the bold decisions both mushers made to cross dangerously windblown and frozen Norton Bay is what separated them from a pack of about a half dozen Mackey chasers.

When Schnuelle left Shaktoolik just before 10 a.m. Monday with only Mackey ahead, winds were reported to be blowing 50 mph across the ice of Norton Bay. Schnuelle knew that trying to cross would be a gamble, but he didn't know how big a gamble.

"I didn't know what I got myself into," he said. "If I would have, I don't think that I would have done it. The wind was so strong the whole gang would be blown sideways (at times)."

Fifteen miles out of Shaktoolik, the Brown Lake shelter cabin is the last place mushers can hunker down in bad weather. When Schnuelle passed the cabin, he thought to himself, "Oh my, I don't know if it's good to go. (But) if dogs are moving forward, keep them moving. Never stop."

With Finn in single lead, Schnuelle said the team eventually got across without major problems, although there were a couple stops when the team hit big drifts or got knocked back by head-on, 70 mph gusts of wind.

"If she would have sat down, that would have been the last of us," he said.

It was blowing so hard that when Schnuelle tried to snack the team enroute, the kibble he put down on the snow blew away. He decided to try chunks of meat instead.

"Give them a piece of meat, drop it and it was gone (in the wind),'' he added.

Several times he thought about turning back, but decided against it. Turning around, he said, makes it hard to get the dogs started again.

Behind Schnuelle, Nenana's Aaron Burmeister and Seward's Mitch Seavey pulled into the cabin and set up camp. Burmeister grew up in Nome. He knew how dangerous the weather.

"If you had exposed skin, it was frozen within seconds," he said. "Mitch and I brought food and straw for three days. We were well prepared."

King was not, Burmeister added, which is why the four-time champ decided to turn his team and go back to Shaktoolik. Before leaving he asked Baker, who was behind, if the latter was prepared to travel alone.

"(King) didn't feel that good about it," Baker said. "He wanted to make sure my safety and everything was good. We discussed that briefly and then there was a mighty roar of wind and off he went."

For Baker, it was just another day on the ice.

"Growing up with (the wind) makes ( it) a little easier," he said. "As long as we don't get too excited, thinking that it's harder than it really is, it's just a little wind.

"I wasn't planning to go on. I figured I'd go for another mile or two. A mile just turned into another mile and then 10 miles and then I was (in Koyuk)."

By then, he had a lead of about 40 miles on the teams of Burmeister and Seavey, who hunkered in the shelter cabin for 23 hours.

Meanwhile, 70 miles up the trail, Schnuelle and Baker were into Elim and enjoying some local hospitality.

"Let's go eat," Baker told Schnuelle after wrapping up dog chores in minus-10 degree cold. "The prettiest girl in town is cooking macaroni and cheese."

Inside a warm checkpoint, race communications volunteer Regan Garden and veterinarian John Clader were both cooking lunch.

"Sebastian, you want a burger?" asked Clader.

Baker was already devouring one.

"This is the greasiest burger I've ever had in ... where are we?" asked Baker.

"Elim," answered race judge Rich Bosela.

Schnuelle sat back, relaxed and announced his impending retirement. He did his last Quest this year, he said, and plans to make next year's Iditarod his last there.

The reason?

"Back to normal life - vacations, a job, money," Schnuelle said. "All the things I haven't had in the last few years."


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

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