The Copper Basin 300 sled dog race advertises itself as the toughest 300 miles in Alaska. That's quite an ambitious claim, and one that is open to question. However, the 2014 race committee has made a conscientious effort to bring the race back to its roots.
The Copper Basin was the brainchild of Ed and Shelly Peck from Lake Louise. The first race involved eight lodges situated along the trail. Over the years, several of the lodges either closed due to lack of business, or burned down.
Today, of the original checkpoints, only Tolsana Lake Resort remains Longtime owners Kurt and Julie Wilson still remain involved the race.
The race trail still runs through Tolsana. This year the lodge will be used twice in an effort to add mileage to the race. The original 300-mile distance had been reduced substantially as trail changes were made in response to the absent checkpoints.
Some parts of the Copper Basin 300 did not change. There is still the horrendous climb between Chistochina and Paxson. I have gone up that mountain behind big, confident dog teams barely having to kick. More often, I have climbed it gasping for breath, struggling to run behind a weaker team.
A new hill, shorter but just as steep, has been added near the Meiers Lake checkpoint. The open water crossing on the Gakona River is back for 2014. In the past, the 70-foot stretch of water was a gauge of a team's training progress.
In addition to open creeks, the Copper Basin 300 is known for overflow on the various lakes along the course. Deep snow and warm temperatures have made the possibility of major overflow a looming possibility this year. The trail crew has been out in force packing trail and detouring in an effort to avoid the worst of the situations.
Jamie Kemp heads the trail crew after doing the job for the first time last year. He's back with more recruits and has done a stellar job both in establishing a good trail base and encouraging volunteers to travel with him.
Volunteers have long been the foundation of the Copper Basin 300. Glennallen has always had ups and downs in enlisting help, but the number of helpers is again steadily climbing. The veterinary team, headed by Nina Hanson, is finally back at full strength and will stay busy with more than 40 teams competing.
It has never been a problem getting a full field for the race. Diverse trail conditions, unpredictable weather and ease of access to the race course make the Copper Basin 300 a favorite among mushers. Most teams use it to train for other, more important runs later in the season.
Many races have more substantial purses that pay farther down in the standings, making them attractive to the majority of dog yards. Glennallen's race has had difficulty raising funds for a purse over most of the race's history. Several years ago the purse climbed above $30,000, but recently it has been weak. Glennallen is a small community with a high cost of living and there is seldom much extra cash available. The residents do the best they can, and this season the purse has climbed to $15,000.
Whatever the purse, as long as the Copper Basin 300 continues to have a great core of volunteers, an excellent trail and the towns and villages extend their collective open arms to the mushing community, it will continue as one of Alaska's premier events.
Is the Copper Basin 300 the toughest trail in Alaska? Of course not. But to test your dogs and to have a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, there is no better race course available in the world.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson.