The field of 24 teams in the 2012 World Championship Sled Dog Race, which starts today in downtown Anchorage, includes eight mushers competing in the Fur Rendezvous race for the first time.
"It's a good field," said Arleigh Reynolds of Salcha, the second-place finisher in the last two races. "A quarter of them are Canadians and half are from out of state. This is great."
A British Columbian, Blayne Streeper, has dominated the competition over the past decade, winning five races in six years before he was disqualified after allegedly hitting another musher during the final stretch of the three-day event in 2011. He isn't competing this year.
But the rookie crop from Canada has caught the attention of Alaskan mushers who expect serious challenges from racers like Rob Peebles of West Lock, Alberta, a member of a prominent mushing family there.
The Canadians are looking forward to getting their dogs on Anchorage's serious snowpack. The season total as of Wednesday night, 108.7 inches, is nearly double that of a normal year.
"It's one of the worst winters in memory back home," said Kevin Cook of Preeceville, Saskatchewan.
"Even now it's too warm," said Guy Girard of Saint-Thomas de Joliette, Quebec. Girard told about driving six hours north of his home to get to a place where he could run his dogs, then getting up before dawn to complete the training before 8:30 a.m. "After that, it's too warm and too humid."
Girard, whose mushing experience goes back 30 years, has been in Alaska before, but not in competition. "I met Joe Redington and a lot of mushers," he said. "The nice thing about not having your dogs is that you have lots of time to visit people."
But sledding through the Alaska scenery has been pure pleasure, he said. "We don't have these kinds of tracks back east. In my best dreams I could not imagine trails like the one where I've been training."
For Marie-Anick Alie, snow and cold have not been a problem. She has lived in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, north of the Arctic Circle, for the past 15 years.
The popularity of mushing in Anchorage surprised her. "It's such a welcoming community. Everyone is proud of the mushers and the races are so well organized," she said.
But getting here wasn't easy. She and her companions, Charles Villeneuve and Catherne Filion (Filion is the friend who took her for her first dog sled rides) had to drive a one-ton pickup with a trailer and 32 dogs over two river-ice crossings on the Dempster Highway before reaching Dawson, then Whitehorse and Anchorage.
Other Canadians include veterans Don Cousins of Crooked Creek, Alberta and Brent Beck of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Brent's uncle, Danny Beck of Knik, is also in the list of this year's Rondy rookies.
Michael Tetzner, who lives near Hamburg, Germany, flew with 28 dogs from Europe to Calgary, Alberta, then drove the rest of the way.
Tetzner is competing in his fourth Rondy race. In a previous year, he was unable to finish because of an incident with a moose.
He has an international reputation and a big fan base in Germany. "Some people have told me that they've visited Anchorage after seeing the videos of me mushing here," he said.
He prefers sprint runs to long-distance races because, "I like speed," he said. "And I really like the way they work the trail here. It's always in perfect condition."
Ron Wordon of Mexico, New York, agreed. "I've never raced on trails like these. They said they were in bad shape on Wednesday, but I thought it was pristine compared to what I'm used to."
Wordon, who owns a pet supply store, and Jon Bunderson, a policeman from Soda Springs, Idaho, are the two Lower 48 rookies in the running this year.
Wordon has been working up his dogs endurance after a dry winter in his Catskills home. "We usually have 400 inches of snow. This year, we have none and have had none."
The race is a dream come true for him Wordon said. "Three dreams actually: Coming to Alaska, running my dogs here and racing in the Rondy. I really wasn't thinking about the Rondy until I got here. I signed up two days ago."
Wordon brought his 31 dogs across the continent to Bellingham, Wash., where he caught the ferry to Whittier. Aside from a brief stop in Juneau, it was a brutal trip for man and canine. The ferry's car decks were warmer than anticipated, presenting a dehydration problem. Marine Highway officials made special provisions for him to tend to them. To make things tougher, he has no handlers but has been caring for the team single-handedly.
But it's been worth it, he said. He plans to stay until April.
"I've never really had a vacation. It's been a lifetime of work to pay for this and now I'm having the time of my life," he said. "When you have Mount McKinley in the background while racing dogs -- I'm just speechless."
The first race in the three day series starts at noon today at Fourth Avenue and D Street.
The mushers will leave in two minute intervals in this order, starting at noon :
1. Brent Beck, Yellowknife, NWT
2. Ken Chezik, Fife Lake, Mich.
3. Jack Berry, Homer, Alaska
4. Mari Wood, Willow, Alaska
5. Jeff Conn, Ester, Alaska
6. Don Cousins, Crooked Creek, Alberta
7. Michael Tetzner, Hamburg, Germany
8. Arleigh Reynolds, Salcha, Alaska
9. Greg Taylor, Fairbanks, Alaska
10. Randy DeKuiper, Fremont, Mich.
11. Bill Kornmuller, Willow, Alaska
12. Will Kornmuller, Willow, Alaska
13. Marvin Kokrine, North Pole, Alaska
14. Egil Ellis, Willow, Alaska (winner 2005, 2011)
15. Nathan Sterling, Willow, Alaska
16. John Erhart, Tanana, Alaska
17. Jon Bunderson (r), Soda Springs, Idaho
18. Greg Selletin (r), Willow, Alaska
19. Rob Peebles (r), West Lock, Alberta
20. Kevin Cook (r), Preeceville, Saskatchewan
21. Danny Beck (r), Knik, Alaska
22. Guy Girard (r), Saint-Thomas de Joliette, Quebec
23. Marie-Anick Alie (r), Inuvik, NWT
24. Ron Wordon (r), Mexico, NY (r) indicates rookie