Next week a handful of adventurers will take the first step to do on liquid water what has been done so successfully in Alaska on the frozen variety.
Following in the footsteps of such established ultramarathons as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Yukon Quest, the Iron Dog and the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the new Alaskan Wet Dog Race is envisioned as a nearly 2,000-mile jet ski journey from the Port of Anchorage, down Cook Inlet and around part of Kodiak before visiting both sides of the Alaska Peninsula and returning to Anchorage about three weeks later.
A half-dozen racers will test the course, hopscotching between 23 towns and villages on their Bombardier Sea Doos. They'll pass through the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay and Lake Iliamna, then hook up with Williams Transportation Co. for a 15-mile road portage from Iliamna to Williamsport before shooting back up Cook Inlet. They'll skirt sensitive wildlife areas such as Izembek National Wildlife Refuge by going at least 3 miles offshore.
"We have this fantastic opportunity to go places and see things that primarily only commercial fishing boats get to experience," said race founder John Lang of Wasilla, who's been planning the race for six years.
When the racers leave the Port of Anchorage next Tuesday, the one least familiar with personal watercraft -- or jet skis, as they're commonly called -- will coincidentally be the racer most familiar with ultramarathons.
Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, fresh off a fourth-place finish in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in February and 18th in the Iditarod a month later, will join five other drivers to test the course, the checkpoints, the equipment and the safety precautions.
"It's so cool," said Buser, whose Iditarod resume extends back to 1980 and who did the first Iditaski race in 1983. "I'm sort of into adventure races.
"John Lang is the organizer, and he contacted me years ago when he had the idea. Of course, I thought he was nuts.
"There's always those dreamers out there, and you've got to sort them out. I really thought John had the organizational skills and foresight.
"And any time a race with a $2 million purse is mentioned, your ears perk up."
Especially if, like Buser, you have two children in college, including one at expensive Rochester Polytechnic Institute in New York.
A multimillion-dollar purse is one of several big numbers organizers are talking about for the 2011 race. There are others, such as:
• A $25,000 entry fee, about six times that of the established Iditarod. It includes such things as fuel, a float coat and a dry suit.
• A goal of 500 race teams.
Whether those big ideas come to pass or become unworkable remains to be seen.
First comes the trial run, and Buser is only going partway. Prior commitments will force him to fly home when the group reaches Kodiak.
While lacking much jet ski experience, Buser said he's seen plenty of miserable weather -- and not just in the Iditarod.
"I've commercial fished for years, so I've spent some time on the ocean when it's bad. Those small boats are really more safe on the open water. They can bob up and down with the waves. We'll take it slow for safety's sake."
A 35-foot support vessel, the Homer-based Sea Wolf with Memory Makers Charters, will meet the racers in Anchor Point and accompany them.
The U.S. Coast Guard will be watching.
"We don't think there are any risks that are extraordinary beyond what typical mariners encounter," said Lt. John Backus, waterways management division chief of the U.S. Coast Guard in Anchorage.
Backus, who has been in discussions with Lang about the race for more than a year, was satisfied that the organizers were staying near shore much of the way, wearing dry suits, carrying communication devices and extra fuel.
"I'm very excited about his passion for the race," Backus said of Lang.
To proceed in 2011, the race will need a marine event permit from the Coast Guard.
As any viewer of Discovery Channel's popular series "Deadliest Catch" knows, miserable weather is common in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, but Backus said the small, maneuverable personal watercraft offer some advantages.
"Swamping is not going to happen, which is always possible with a big boat," he said. "Even if it flips over, it's going to say afloat.
"I think they're taking a lot of measures to limit risks."
In the trial run, racers' urge to stretch safety margins for a chance at victory vanishes too.
"We will not ride if our support boat can't go," said Lang, who is one of two racers who are also EMTs. "We're not going to put any of our lives at risk.
"Once a person has experience in any kind of rough water, they'll learn that a personal watercraft is much safer to be on than a big boat. You take less of a beating, and you usually don't get seasick.
"You're more like a bobber in the ocean."
Racer Gina Poths of Anchorage said her biggest concern is crossing Shelikof Strait, some 35 miles of open water between the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island.
"That's going to be the scary part," said Poths, who's been contacting communities that will be checkpoints along the route. "Honestly though, my fear is that it's going to be foggy. I feel much safer on my PWC than on a boat. On my watercraft, if I flip over it doesn't sink -- and I'm dressed to go in water."
And Poths has seen bad weather before. Once, while she was approaching Fire Island a few years ago, the wind started roaring down Turnagain Arm, with waves coming from three different directions.
"It took us forever just to cross those three miles," she said.
There's little doubt that Shelikof Strait -- not to mention several other spots along the route -- can deliver worse.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
Wet Dog trial run
Wet Dog race Racers plan to leave the Port of Anchorage at 2 p.m. May 19. No admission charge. On the web: Learn more about the race, post comments and take a survey. wetdograce.com
• JOHN LANG, expedition leader, came to Alaska in 1993 to work on a construction project and stayed. His personal watercraft business offers trips to Prince William Sound.
• MARTIN BUSER is a four-time Iditarod champion from Big Lake.
• PETR BUCINSKY of Anchorage is a violin maker who owns Petr’s Violin Shop. He’s been jet skiing more than 25 years. He’s also an avid snowmachiner and scuba diver.
• GINA POTHS of Anchorage is a police dispatcher and one of the cofounders of the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska. She’s been riding about 20 years.
• RON PAYE of Wasilla is in the business of communications and security. He’s been riding more than 20 years and is a founding member of the Alaska watercraft club.
• RALPH PEREZ of Los Angeles is the only rider from the Lower 48. A retired Army lieutenant colonel now in law enforcement, Perez is a member of the PWC Jet Ski Race Team. Perez recently raced from Dana Point, Calif., to Catalina Island.