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Some like to use GPS, others disdain the technology

Kyle Hopkins

RAINY PASS -- Ray Redington Jr. of Wasilla walked from the windowless, green shack where mushers sleep at this remote lodge to take a peek at his dogs.

Redington couldn't sleep with bush planes rattling the plywood walls as dozens of tourists landed on adjacent Puntilla Lake. But at least the nine-time Iditarod finisher knew he and his dog team were on pace.

"I'm keeping my speed always under 10 (miles per hour)," Redington said, gesturing at the global positioning system unit strapped to the forearm of his parka.

For the first time this year, mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are allowed to bring personal GPS units on the trail. Race organizers have long tracked sleds by satellite, but it was against the rules for mushers to use similar gadgets to monitor their own speed and location.

Until now.

Several Iditarod mushers at the sunny lakeside checkpoint said the units have few drawbacks and help competitors pace themselves -- or avoid getting lost. But four-time defending champion Lance Mackey seems disgusted by the change.

Mackey -- first to arrive at Rainy Pass Monday morning and first to leave the next checkpoint of Rohn later on -- scoffed at the idea of bringing the gadgets on the trail.

"I think it's kind of funny that all of a sudden they need a GPS to figure out how fast they're going and what their dogs are capable of doing," Mackey said. "What have they been doing this whole time?"

Fans flanked the champion's team, camera phones trained on Mackey as he walked along the gangline. The dogs cast long shadows in the snow.

"Maybe they'll be paying attention to their GPS and how fast they're going and where they're at (rather than) their dog team," Mackey said of his challengers.

Sebastian Schnuelle, who finished second in last month's Yukon Quest, said he's one of the mushers who has urged Iditarod directors to allow the GPS units. He's used one during the 1,000-mile Quest for years, he said.

"I've always been one of the ones whining that we can't (use it.) I find it very helpful," Schnuelle said.

It's easy for a musher to misjudge his speed and go too fast, Schnuelle said as he sorted through the plastic bags and burlap sacks surrounding his sled.

"I think I'm only doing 6 mph, but in reality I'm doing much quicker down the hill."

The faster the dogs go -- the more they lope -- the likelier it is they'll they get hurt, he said.

Redington, grandson of Iditarod co-founder Joe Redington, said he used the GPS on the first day of the Iditarod to assure himself he was sticking to his plan -- even as other teams passed him.

"I know I'm not going too slow -- them guys are going too fast," Redington said1

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Kotzebue musher John Baker also welcomed the change.

Baker was a threat to win last year's race until he got confused outside of Cripple and wasted hours in the throes of indecision, suspecting he'd lost the trail.

Had Baker carried a GPS last year, "It would have changed the race," he said last week.

Mackey's stepson, Cain Carter, arrived Tuesday afternoon at Rainy Pass in 22nd place. He was happy to see his famous father was still there.

"I guess you could say I'm running with the big boys," the 19-year-old said.

Like Mackey, Carter is not using a GPS, he said. He follows trail markers to know where he's going and would be tempted too look at the unit too often if he had one in the sled.

"It just tells you way too much," he said.

Reach Kyle Hopkins at khopkins@adn.com.


By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com
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