KNIK -- Thirty-two mushers faced harrowing trail conditions at Saturday's start of the Knik 200-Joe Redington Sr. Memorial Sled Dog Race.
Within the first eight miles, they encountered obstacles more suitable for cross-country runners or backcountry skiers, not canines sporting cotton booties for their paws.
"I hear it's dirt and rocks in the first part, then deep snow," said Sterling's Mitch Seavey, champion of the 2004 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. "I don't have the right runner's plastic for dirt and rocks."
Though rookie Jim Lindau has trained weekly with neighbor Kelly Griffin on this stretch of gnarly terrain, the thought of racing on it didn't amuse the Knik musher.
"I'm real nervous about the first part," he said. "There's not much snow -- a lot of dirt and moguls. You're in the trees and there's no way to stop."
But life could be worse.
Just ask Gene Smith, a survivor of cancer and two potentially fatal neck injuries. He recently purchased a winter home in Knik that's 500 feet from the Iditarod Trail, the same trail used for the Knik 200.
Smith, 64, is a rodeo cowboy turned musher who's racing for the first time in more than a year since he broke the top bone in his cervical vertebrae.
On Oct. 11, 2006, Smith was standing on the top rung of a 12-foot ladder while painting his summer home in Omak, Wash. But Smith lost his balance, slipped off the ladder and hit a clothesline, which broke some ribs and twirled his body halfway around for an upside down landing on a sidewalk.
"Two days later I was sitting at home doing nothing, watching TV," he said. "I should have been training for Nome."
Smith had been signed up for the 2007 Iditarod, qualifying after placing 21st in the Knik 200 and sixth in the Klondike 300 in 2006. But he never made it to the start line.
Confined to a neck brace for nearly five weeks, he couldn't train his team, much less race 1,100 miles along some of the most unforgiving land that Alaska has to offer.
Smith broke part of his vertebrae in three places, an injury he said can paralyze or kill a person.
So how is he alive?
"I've broken it before," he said with a smile. "So I know how to break a neck."
At age 17, Smith broke the fourth cervical vertebrae down his neck when he was a bareback bronc rider in Washington. Grasping a tuft of the gelding's mane, the horse spun one way, but Smith went another way and bit the dust.
"I live hard -- not afraid to die," he said while slipping a pair of warm booties on his black and white lead dog aptly named Panda.
But breaking his neck years ago was just the start of his recent health problems.
Days after signing up for the this year's Iditarod in July, Smith visited an Anchorage doctor for a physical. He needed it to complete his pilots' licence so he could fly the float plane he had recently bought.
But the routine checkup turned serious. Smith was diagnosed with prostate cancer and would need surgery immediately.
He flew back to Washington for the procedure and was laid up -- but not for long. Five weeks later he hunted caribou with one of his buddies.
"Buying that float plane saved his life," said Jim Vance, a good friend of Smith's who was his dog handler Saturday.
Vance lives near Smith's sheep ranch in Washington and is here on vacation. Other than helping his friend, Vance looked forward to the Knik 200 start, watching Iditarod veterans and rookies prepare for the race named after the late Joe Redington Sr., the "Father of the Iditarod."
SEVEN MILES OF HELL
The race that dates back to the 1980's, when it was called Don's Iditarod 200, drew Seavey here for the first time.
"It's a good training run," he said. "You gotta be mushing somewhere."
He has spent most of the winter training dogs at Lake Louise, waiting for trail conditions to improve near Sterling.
"We try to get into (different) conditions," he said.
The 14-year Iditarod veteran saw all sorts this weekend.
Other than the seven-mile stretch of hell, as Ray Redington Jr. of Wasilla put it, the mile of bare ground to the Burma Road crossing and the ice boulders on the Yentna and Susitna rivers, it's a nicely groomed snowmachine trail.
PACING IS PIVOTAL
A new Knik 200 champion will be crowned this year as reigning winner Jeff King didn't come to defend his title.
Watch for either Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt, a runner up in last year's Iditarod, Sheep Mountain's Zack Steer (third), Two Rivers' Ken Anderson (seventh) or Seavey (ninth) to be the first to make their way onto Knik Lake this morning.
"I didn't come up here strictly to win the race, but we won't be lollygagging," Gebhardt said. "We'll be competitive."
Anderson, 35, described his 2004 Knik 200 debut as "bad," but he is determined to learn from his mistakes this year.
"I learned what not to do," he said. "It's a tricky race -- fast and furious. It's just taxing on the team."
It's about 90 beeline miles to the New Skwentna Roadhouse, where there's a mandatory six-hour layover.
He said a lot of teams falter before the halfway point.
"You can't get caught up into racing in the first half and just build up for the second half," he said. "It's only 200 miles, but you can really bang up your team."
Smith said he didn't have to race this weekend, considering he's already qualified for the Iditarod in March with his 2006 races, which are good for two years. But he couldn't pass the Knik 200 up, with a healthy neck and only driving his rusted green 1970 Ford truck a mile to the start line.
"(The truck is) on it's fifth motor," Smith laughed.
And come March, he expects to race dogs to Nome on his third life.
Find Kevin Klott online at adn.com/contact/kklott or call 257-4335.
Leaders at of 9 p.m. Saturday
Ryan Redington, 6:11 p.m.
Dan Kaduce, 6:45 p.m.
Zack Steer, 6:52 p.m.
Sebastian Schnuelle, 6:57 p.m.
Mike Santos, 6:59 p.m.
Gene Smith, 7:05 p.m.
Aaron Burmeister, 7:09 p.m.
Matt Hayashida, 7:12 p.m.
Paul Gebhardt, 7:12 p.m.
Ken Anderson, 7:19 p.m.
Devan Currier, 7:20 p.m.
Ray Redington Jr., 7:31 p.m.
Jake Lysyshyn, 7:45 p.m.
Sandro Holzinger, 7:59 p.m.
By KEVIN KLOTT