Young mushers are nipping at veterans' heels

Anchorage Daily NewsMarch 3, 2012 

Jake Berkowitz talks with others before starting his run through Anchorage.

MARC LESTER / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

Josh Cadzow is a 24-year-old Athabascan from Fort Yukon racing his first Iditarod, and he's got a ready answer when asked if John Baker, the defending champion who is also an Alaska Native, inspires him.

Baker has already won an Iditarod championship, Cadzow said, almost with a shrug.

"He did his goal. Now it's my goal," he said.

There is respect in his voice, but no awe. Cadzow is part of a group of 25-and-under mushers staking its claim in a sport dominated by racers with AARP cards.

To call them up-and-coming is to ignore recent history. Some have already arrived:

• Dallas Seavey of Willow, who turns 25 Sunday, won the 2011 Yukon Quest;

• Pete Kaiser of Bethel, 24, won last month's Paul Johnson 450 and last April's Kobuk 440;

• Rohn Buser, 22, of Big Lake, won January's Kusko 300;

• Jake Berkowitz, 25, of Big Lake, won last winter's Copper Basin 300, this winter's Knik 200 and placed fourth in last month's Quest.

• Cadzow last month won his second Yukon Quest 300 -- the 300-mile companion race to the 1,000-mile Quest -- and in 2010 was the rookie of the year in both the longer Quest and the Copper Basin 300.

"Here we are," Kaiser said. "We are the young ones, and we are competing at the same level (as the veterans).

"But I'd hate to say any of the older guys are any less tough. There's some pretty tough old dudes out there."

Sled-dog racing is the rare sport where age seldom matters. Sonny Lindner, 63, challenged in last month's Quest. Only the foolish or uninformed would discount him or five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson, 61, or any of the many 50-somethings whose names and resumes many Alaskans know by heart -- Jeff King, Martin Buser, Mitch Seavey, DeeDee Jonrowe and even Baker, whose last birthday, his 50th, qualifies him for an AARP card.

And yet ...

"I think the older guys are getting a little nervous," Berkowitz said. "All the knowledge they've gleaned we have now, because they've been generous with their knowledge.

"And I think the aspect of racing is different for us -- we've grown up in a generation of high school and college sports. We're ruthless."

Jonrowe, 58, isn't yet ready to pass the torch, though she can glimpse the future and is gratified by what she sees.

"A sport's healthy when you've got the strong, interested, gifted and committed-to-the-lifestyle (mushers)," she said. "I'm not nervous. Yeah, they're running up our backs and yeah, they're beating us sometimes.

"They have the advantage of learning from our experience and research, so they're coming on a little faster than maybe Rick and Sonny and I did."

Sled-dog racing is a more sophisticated, more scientific, endeavor than it was even 20 years ago. But as Dallas Seavey points out, his isn't the first generation to learn from those who came before.

"Go back as far as you want. Before Swenson there was George Attla and Ironman Johnson," he said. "Tell me you can't learn from those guys."

Seavey learned from one of the best -- dad Mitch, the 2004 Iditarod champion and the 2008 All-Alaska Sweepstakes winner.

"They've got a lot of tricks up their sleeves," Dallas said of the veterans. "What we bring is maybe a fresh look. You've gotta study the old guys and reapply it. Take the best of Rick, Jeff, Martin, (Robert) Sorlie and apply that, and now you've got a chance."

Rohn Buser readily admits that everything he knows about mushing dogs he learned from his dad, four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser. This is his first Iditarod since 2008, when he was 18, and he can see how he has matured since then.

"In 2008 when I was training, I'd be listening to music all the time. 'Oh, I don't want to get bored.' Now I hardly listen to music at all because I get in the zone," he said.

The youngest of the young guns, Buser, who placed 37th in 2008, said he'd like to do well enough this time to contend for the Most Improved award.

Kaiser, who placed eighth in last year's Iditarod, said he hopes to be back in the top 15. He's added a world of experience in the last year, plus the confidence that comes with winning two major races.

Seavey signaled his intent as he drove his team down Fourth Avenue, punching both arms triumphantly in the air after waving to the crowd.

Berkowitz is eager to see how he'll do with dogs of his own after running puppy teams for other mushers in his previous two Iditarods. "I'm not looking to run a puppy schedule," he said, meaning he's looking to race.

Cadzow, who will turn 25 on Friday, is looking at the big picture.

"For the next 10 or 15 years, I'm committed to this," he said. "I've been planning for this Iditarod the last three or four years but I didn't want to go into it green so I did the Quest."

He said he's motivated by his Native heritage, by the people from his village and by his dogs.

"Village dogs, they call it. Libby Riddles came by and told me, 'At least somebody's got some real dogs.' It made me feel good," he said. "Most are Fort Yukon bred. They're tough dogs. They'll work till they die for you. Big hearts."

Along with Kaiser and 26-year-old Mike Williams Jr., Cadzow is one of three young men from rural Alaska running the Iditarod, which in some years has had no mushers in that demographic. Williams, an impressive 13th last year, intended to go to college in Oregon this spring but changed tracks when his dad developed pneumonia and needed someone to drive his dog team to Nome.

"We're all in it to support our Native backgrounds, and we're all doing good," Cadzow said.

"Somebody's gotta start mushing," he added. "All the old guys are getting old."


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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