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Alaska mushing revs up with season's first races

Helen Hegener
Moonlight-lit dog yard in Chicken, halfway point in the Top of the World 350.
Scott Chesney photo
Lance Mackey of Fox checks into Eagle Village during the Top of the World 350.
Scott Chesney photo
Cody Strathe's huskies.
Scott Chesney photo
Mike Ellis of Two Rivers.
Scott Chesney photo
An aerial view of the Eagle Village checkpoint.
Scott Chesney photo
Dot Shelley at the Alaska Excursions 120.
Barb Redington photo
Dan Kaduce of Chatanika.
Photo courtesy Scott Chesney

Race Updates: The Knik 200 Joe Redington Sr. Memorial in Knik, originally scheduled to begin Jan. 5, and the Don Bowers Memorial 100/200/300 in Willow, Jan. 18, have both been cancelled due to poor conditions.

Upcoming races still scheduled: The Copper Basin 300 in Glennallen, Jan. 12; the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel, Jan. 18; and the Northern Lights 300 in Big Lake, Jan. 25. The best way to enjoy a sled dog race is to be at the start or the finish, cheering on your favorite mushers and their intrepid sled dog teams!

The 2012/2013 mid-distance sled dog racing season got off to a rollicking good start in December as the first races brought surprises and excitement for mushing fans.There was a setback to the race plans of many mushers when a lack of snow once again led to the disappointing cancellation of the popular Sheep Mountain 150, which runs from Zack and Anjanette Steer’s Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway to Eureka Lodge and back. This early season race, which was open to 60 teams this year, has been plagued by low snowfalls in recent years; the 2007 and 2009 races were also cancelled due to poor snow conditions in the mountains.

The Alaska Excursions 120, which ran the same weekend of December 15-16, relocated their race to start and finish at Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake. Organizers shortened the race’s distance to 42 miles out and back, for a total distance of 84 miles, and the field of 26 mushers enjoyed a well-groomed trail with adequate snow cover.

The weather was cool, around zero on the first day of the two-day race, and the trail was hard and fast, as evidenced by the first day’s fastest musher -- and the race’s co-founder -- Ryan Redington, finishing with a speed of nearly 15 mph. On the second day of racing, James Wheeler eked out a faster time by about four minutes, but Ryan Redington finished with the fastest overall time by roughly three minutes, to claim the $3,000 purse for first place. Complete statistics can be found at the Alaska Excursions 120 web site.

Just before Christmas, on Dec. 22-23, the Aurora 50/50 was held at the Aurora Dog Mushers Club House in Big Lake, and it provided an exciting finish when Ryan Redington and four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King tied for first place. After two days of 50 miles each they each crossed the finish line with identical total times of 7 hours, 28 minutes, and 47 seconds -- what were the chances?

With a short break for Christmas the mushers were right back out on the trail again, this time in a new race organized just this year, the much-anticipated Top of the World 350. The race began Dec. 27 with a mass start out of Tok, after which the teams traveled together in a non-competitive fun run north along the Top of the World Highway to remote Eagle Village.

On December 28th, there was a potlatch and traditional dance at the Eagle Village Hall, featuring a ceremony memorializing the late Chief Isaac Juneby. Teams and mushers spent the night in Eagle Village, and on December 29th the race re-started, this time in earnest, running from Eagle back to Tok, with a 4 hour mandatory layover and time adjustments in Chicken.

Four-time Iditarod and Yukon Quest champion Lance Mackey made the fastest run back to Tok, followed by Gerry Willomitzer in second place, Jake Berkowitz in third, Joar Ulsom fourth, and Nicole Faille fifth. With a New Year’s Eve awards banquet and community potluck to round out the festivities, this new race set an exciting pace for the series of mid-distance races coming up in January.

This list was compiled by Helen Hegener, who is an author and a documentary filmmaker specializing in distance sled dog races and the men, women and dogs who run them. This post originally appeared on her website, Northern Light Media. It has been republished with permission. Race date changes or additions can be emailed to helenhegener(at)gmail.com