Burmeister wins 2 race awards

March 23, 2009 

Except for the half-dozen mushers still trudging toward Nome, the racing was over and tales of the trail held sway Sunday night at the Iditarod Finishers Banquet in Nome.

Fast teams were feted. But so were the brave, the spirited and most caring of the 67 mushers who pointed 16-dog teams toward Nome starting two weeks ago.

And nobody heard their name called more than Aaron Burmeister of Nenana.

Burmeister not only put together his best race in a career that extends back to 1994, but he was also the only musher to capture more than one award -- earning both the Sportsmanship and Spirit of Alaska awards.

Thank the troubles of John Baker of Kotzebue and his runaway dog team for the former.

Heading into the final Yukon River checkpoint of Kaltag before dawn some 700 miles into the race, Burmeister faced minus-30 cold and strong headwinds. Struggling to stay awake, he began to doze.

"Half asleep, I looked up ... and saw a big hulk in front of my team," he said at the banquet Sunday night. "I thought it was a moose. I unzipped my sled bag and grabbed my .44. That big hulk stood up, and it was John Baker.

"He was bending over catching his breath because he'd been chasing his dogs."

Exhausted from the effort, Baker collapsed into Burmeister's sled while the sled owner jogged beside to keep the team moving.

"Through the ice fog and the blowing snow I eventually saw a bunch of eyes looking back at us -- maybe an hour or two later," Burmeister said.

It was Baker's team. Some dogs were bedded down; others milled about.

Without Burmeister's help, Baker might never have finished third -- if at all. And it probably also slowed Burmeister -- who finished less than 40 minutes out of fourth place after 1,000 miles on the trail.

Nevertheless, seventh was far better than Burmeister's previous best, a 13th-place finish in 2007.

It was so good, in fact, he may take a break from the race and spend more time with 8-month-old son Hunter.

"Mandy and I have been married 12 years," he said earlier on the trail. "Our life is busy, between working six months a year and traveling for work and racing dogs all winter. It might be time to take a little bit of a break and enjoy being a dad.

"There's more things I'd like to do and experience.

"I grew up racing and I'll never be out of dogs. But I may take a couple years off competitive racing. (This year's Iditarod has been) a very emotional ride. Every dog but one has been raised in my kennel. I've dedicated my life to raising this team."

Iditarod award winners

Spirit of Alaska -- Burmeister won a framed mask and $500 credit for travel or freight for his perseverance on the trail.

Nome Kennel Club Fastest Time from Safety to Nome -- Ramey Smyth of Willow, a mushing kicker if ever there was one, won this $500 award for a record seventh time. He covered the final 22 miles in two hours and 27 minutes; the record is just under two hours. With a strong second half, Smyth ended up ninth, his second consecutive top-10 finish.

Most Improved Musher -- Dallas Seavey of Seward jumped from 41st in 2008 to sixth this year.

Rookie of the Year -- Chad Lindner, son of veteran Fairbanks musher Sonny Lindner, earned $1,500 and a trophy for his 30th-place finish. Don't expect him to be back. Lindner, a new lawyer, is joining a Boston legal firm.

ExxonMobil 37th Iditarod -- A gold coin valued at $2,500 went to Harry Alexie of Bethel for being the 37th finisher in the 37th Iditarod.

Sportsmanship -- Burmeister took home $1,000 in Fred Meyer gift cards for helping Baker on the Yukon River.

Most Inspirational Musher -- Trent Herbst from Ketchum, Idaho, formerly of Homer, won a trophy and $1,000 worth of gas for teaching his students about the Iditarod. Herbst couldn't receive the award in person Sunday night. He was still guiding his dog team to Nome. On Monday, he left White Mountain at 7:05 a.m.

Golden Stethoscope -- Dr. Denny Albert of Denali Park was voted the most helpful veterinarian on the trail by members of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club.

Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian -- In winning his third consecutive title, Lance Mackey of Fairbanks also brought home the prized lead crystal cup on an illuminated wooden base and two round-trip tickets to anywhere Alaska Airlines flies. Mackey finished with 15 of his starting 16 dogs in harness.

Lolly Medley Golden Harness -- Kuling, a 9-year-old, led Fairbanks musher Jessie Royer's team to an eighth-place finish. Kuling has been Royer's lead dog for all seven of her Iditarods.

Herbie Nayokpuk Memorial -- Sonny Lindner of Fairbanks was judged the musher most closely reflecting the upbeat attitude of the late, great Shishmaref Cannonball. Lindner earned a free freight allotment on Northern Air Cargo, $1,049 cash and a trophy.

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