The on-again, off-again, on-again Copper Basin 300 sled-dog race will go on as planned this weekend -- with a new race director, at least one new checkpoint and a near-capacity field of mushers eager to race.
Thirty-seven mushers, including past champions Allen Moore, Jake Berkowitz and John Schandelmeier, are signed up for the 300-mile race that begins at 10 a.m. Saturday in Glennallen.
The field filled up fast once it became clear the race would happen. While a number of mid-distance races have been canceled this winter because of poor trail conditions, the Copper Basin pulled the plug -- temporarily, it turned out -- for a different reason.
In early October, the Copper Basin announced on its Facebook page there would be no race this year because all but one member of its board of directors had resigned after last year's race, which was canceled on the second day because of impassable trails.
A few weeks later, it announced the race would happen after all because volunteer help had emerged. Not long after that, it announced that Zack Steer would be the race director, a move that brought instant credibility -- Steer is the director of the Sheep Mountain 150.
"They've got a board and they've got some new blood, some really motivated folks," Steer said Thursday. "They're not all dog mushers, but they're really excited to put on an event.
"They kinda begged me to help them out. They asked me to volunteer, and after the Sheep Mountain race got canceled, I had the time to help. I live 70 miles away, but it's still my back yard."
The Copper Basin 300 originated in 1990 to give the area's lodges an economic boost in the winter -- the lodges served as checkpoints and were able to rent rooms and sell meals to people associated with the race. This year, Lake Louise Lodge replaces Wolverine Lodge as the race's Lake Louise checkpoint because the Wolverine isn't open this winter.
"That's indicative of the economy," Steer said. "There used to be four winter lodges (at Lake Louise) and now it's down to one. It's not as bustling as it used to be, so this race is pretty important."
It's important for mushers too. A number of racers use the Copper Basin 300 as a qualifying event for the Iditarod and others use it to get their teams ready for the longer Iditarod and Yukon Quest races. With so many cancellations this winter because of a lack of snow -- the Sheep Mountain 150, the Knik 200 and Don Bowers Memorial 200/300 among them -- mushers are running out of opportunities to race.
That's why, despite the initial uncertainty, the Copper Basin nearly reached its 40-racer limit, Steer said.
"Number one, it tells me mushers are itching to race," he said. "This is the first big mid-distance race they've had a chance to run," he said. "Number two, it tells me they've got confidence in the Copper Basin 300 and are willing to give it another chance."
Last year's race was halted on the second day because heavy snow made part of the trail impassable. All but one board member resigned in the aftermath, but Steer said the race has a history of resiliency.
"This race has burned and built a lot of bridges over its 20-year history," he said. "I don't think there's a person in Copper Basin history who hasn't been pissed off at this race, but the fact is, come January, here it is."
From Glennallen, the race heads to Chistochina on a stretch of windswept trail with thin snow cover. Mushers travel to Paxson, Sourdough, Lake Louise and Tolsona before returning to the finish line at Old Paths Baptist Church in Glennallen. Steer expects a Monday morning finish.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG