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Alaska's fastest dogs take center stage as the mushing season gets rolling

Suzanna Caldwell
Loren Holmes photo

With snow finally starting to stick in Anchorage, mushers across Alaska are getting ready for the upcoming sled-dog race season.

First up, a very non-traditional kind of race: delivering a barrel of Beaujolais Nouveau wine.

This year, Crush Wine Bistro and Cellar co-owner Chad Culley decided to celebrate the delivery of the wine -- an annual tradition that he fully admits is part marketing gimmick -- by having the wine delivered via sled dog team.

While dog sled might not be the fastest way to your wine (it takes about 10 days for the first Iditarod musher to race 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome,) at least Culley will have a speedy team with four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King delivering the wine to the Anchorage restaurant at midnight Wednesday, Nov. 14.

“I don't know if (delivering the wine via dog sled) has ever been done in the world,” Culley said.

And with that potential first, it's almost time for Alaska's mushing season to start. Mushers are already signing up as organizers proceed with plans for major races across the state. Here's a look at where they stand:

Sheep Mountain 150 - Dec. 15

Considered Alaska's sled-dog race opener, the race that starts at Sheep Mountain Lodge is already filled and set to go. Jeff King, last year's winner, is back. So is Aliy Zirkle, who led the last 50 miles of the 2011 race in blizzard conditions. King, in comeback fashion, passed Zirkle with only a mile to go. Also signed up: Four-time Iditarod and Yukon Quest champ Lance Mackey as well as fifth-place Iditarod finisher Pete Kaiser.

Top of the World 350 - Dec. 27

This year 2012 Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff and members of the Eagle Village community created a new race in memory of former village chief Isaac Juneby. The race, named after the nearby highway, will start in Tok with teams sticking together for a “fun” 160-mile run to Eagle Village. From there, following a potluck in memory of the late chief, the teams will turn around and race back to Tok via the closed-for-the-winter Taylor Highway.

Juneby died in Anchorage this past summer. The race -- unique in the “fun run element” -- is still expected to be a challenge with big-name mushers. Lance Mackey, Brent Sass, Dan Kaduce, Jake Berkowitz and Jeff King are among those signed up to run the inaugural race.

Knik 200 - Jan. 5

The father of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race -- Joe Redington Sr. -- gets honored in this race which takes place in practically his former backyard. The race starts and ends at Knik Lake about 15 miles outside of Wasilla and located just down the hill from Redington's former kennel.

The race, capped at 46 mushers, is already full. Jake Berkowitz is back to defend his title after a confusing 2012 finish, where Lance Mackey -- the first musher to make it to the finish chute -- was declared runner-up after confusion over whether he checked out of the Skwentna checkpoint properly.

Mackey is back this year, too, as is third-place finisher Ray Redington, Jr. -- Joe's grandson.

Copper Basin 300 - Jan. 12

The drama just keeps coming for the Copper Basin 300 race. After the race was canceled shortly after its start last year when heavy snow and high winds made the trail impassible, questions over whether it would be run this year were in doubt until just recently.

Last month a post on the race's Facebook page said the race was canceled for 2013. Last Tuesday, organizers added a new post saying the race is back on and scheduled for Jan. 12.

According to the race website, only two mushers have registered so far. An email request seeking additional information was not returned as of Friday.

Kuskokwim 300 - Jan. 18

So far only six mushers have signed up for the K300, but those names aren't ones to count out. Four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser and his son, last year's K300 champ Rohn, are both signed up. Former Yukon Quest champ and 2012 Iditarod runner-up Aliy Zirkle and her husband, Allen Moore, are both entered in the race, which travels 300 miles from Bethel along the Kuskokwim River to Aniak and back.

This year the notoriously well-paying race upped its purse even more -- from $100,000 to $110,000. The first place winner will take home $22,000 according to race manager Zach Fansler. (In comparison, the winner of the much- longer Yukon Quest takes home about $28,000.)

Despite the large purse, the field isn't expected to be much over 30 mushers. The race starts in Bethel, far from the Alaska road system. Still, expect to see some big names.

“We always seem to manage a competitive field,” Fansler said.

Tustumena 200 - Feb. 2

After a rough year that saw the purse cut in half and one element of the race done away, the T-200 is back to full strength.

Race director Tami Murray said the full purse is back and then some -- $25,000 for this year -- as is the T-100 race, which was canceled last year because of budget constraints.

Registration opens Thursday, with a 40-musher cap for the 200-mile race and 15 mushers for the 100-mile race. The race runs from Mile 112 Sterling Highway to Homer and back.

The race date has changed this time, too. For 27 years the race started the last week of January. Murray said the move was a direct result of feedback from mushers, who felt the last weekend in January was packed with other races. While Murray said it's a “bummer” the date coincides with the Yukon Quest, she doesn't expect it to have an impact on too many mushing schedules.

Yukon Quest - Feb. 2

So far, 22 mushers have signed up for the 30th running of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. While that number might be small, it's a stacked field that includes four-time champ Lance Mackey and 2012 champion Hugh Neff. Not to be discounted is last year's runner-up, Allen Moore, whom Neff edged by just 26 seconds.

Also in the mix are last year's rookie-of-the-year Jake Berkowitz and annual contender Brent Sass.

The race, which alternates starting points every year, begins in Whitehorse, Yukon, and finishes in Fairbanks. The Whitehorse-to-Fairbanks route is generally considered more challenging, with mushers faced with three steep climbs on the Alaska side -- including the daunting Eagle Summit. In 2011, several mushers stalled in their attempt to get over the 3,700-foot mountain. With only 130 miles to go, it radically changed the leaderboard, allowing Dallas Seavey to claim his first 1,000-mile race victory.

Iditarod 41 - March 2

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the granddaddy of mushing. So far, 58 mushers have signed up for the race's 41st running. Among them are defending champion Dallas Seavey, runner-up Aliy Zirkle and previous champs such as four-time winners Martin Buser, Jeff King, Lance Mackey, Mitch Seavey and John Baker.

The ceremonial start is set for March 2 in downtown Anchorage, with the official start in Willow scheduled for the next day.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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