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'Denali Doubles' sled dog race returns for 2013

Helen Hegener
Dallas Seavey and Benedikt Beisch depart from the start of the 2010 Denali Doubles race on one single sled. They said they took turns sleeping in the basket.
Carrie Skinner photo
Dan Kaduce and Jodi Bailey during the 2010 Denali Doubles race.
Tracey Peters photo
Dave DeCaro and Caroline Sheftel won the 2010 race.
Tracey Peters photo
Teams bed down on the river at the Maclaren Lodge checkpoint during the 2010 Denali Doubles race.
Carrie Skinner photo
A view of the 2010 Denali Doubles race start.
Jeff King photo

One of the most exciting sled dog races on the 2010 race calendar was four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King’s inaugural run of the Denali Doubles, with a first-place purse of $10,000 which drew a broad spectrum of mushers from across Alaska -- and even from beyond the state's borders. Reporter Mike Campbell put it succinctly in a 2010 article: “Leave it to Jeff King, the Benjamin Franklin of mushing, to come up with a new way to race dogs.”

Campbell explained his reasoning by listing Jeff’s singular contributions to the sport, such as the sit-down tail-dragger sled, hooking up dogs without necklines, and letting his dogs swim to build shoulder muscles. 2010 was also the year Jeff contributed in another way: He wrote a $50,000 check to the Iditarod “to bolster a slipping purse.”

The Denali Doubles, which did not run in 2011 or 2012, will once again be starting just east of Cantwell, on the Denali Highway, on Feb. 7, running to Paxson Lodge on the Richardson Highway and returning, with stops at designated checkpoints along the way, including Maclaren River Lodge and Alpine Creek Lodge. The race is expected to finish Feb. 9 or 10.

“The concept for the Denali Doubles is a big departure from most of today’s races, and there are very specific goals sought by us to create a race with ‘two sleds and two mushers’ per team," King explained. "First and foremost, is that it promotes the opportunity for small kennels/or non-mushers to combine with other kennels (small or large).  This makes for a whole new category of mushers – specifically less experienced mushers and/or mushers from small kennels."

The 2010 race drew a stellar list of veteran mushers, running with husbands, wives, kids, kennel partners, friends, and handlers. One of the rules stated that to enter the race, the lead musher must have placed in the top five at another race, or won the award as top rookie or best humanitarian. This resulted in an unusual mix of personalities and levels of experience on the race trail.

Among the mushers were Allen Moore, who shared a team with his daughter Bridgette Watkins, while Allen’s wife, Aliy Zirkle, teamed up with her friend Tamara Rose; Linwood Fiedler and his son mushed a team together; Sebastian Schnuelle ran with his friend Klaus Klein, from Australia; and Dallas Seavey teamed up with Mushing TV founder and veteran musher Benedikt Beisch. Husband-and-wife musher teams included Joseph and Colleen Robertia, Jim Lanier and Anna Bondarenko, and Dan Kaduce and Jodi Bailey; and Paul Gebhardt shared a sled with his handler, Kristy Berington.

The format of two mushers and one dogteam also resulted in an interesting array of sled configurations, as the rules allowed for a diversity of options, such as a  single sled, tandem sleds (drag sled), a gee pole sled, or a sled and an attached skier.

Rule No. 1 clearly stated: “At no time can a team be changed into two separate units.” Any additional configurations would need to be cleared with the Race Marshall prior to the start. Instead of running double sleds, Zoya DeNure and her Doubles partner Ania Chojnacka had a ‘double wide’ sled made for the race.

The teams were limited to 20 dogs, and King explains: “It is not by coincidence that the team size is 20 dogs, which is the same number of dogs that Iditarod will allow us to take to the start in Anchorage, and many Iditarod mushers are anxious to see the ‘whole outfit’ at one time.  This is a great format for that, and having two mushers allows a helping hand on the trail.”

Following the race

On Feb. 7, 2010, King posted some great photos of the trail on his blog, showing fresh snow over the asphalt of the Denali Highway, the Susitna River bridge, and a glaciated trail hazard to beware of. On Feb. 10, the day before the race, he posted an update showing the race tracking map, once again brandishing his sense of humor with tiny rubber duckies to represent the teams on the map. In this post he also shared photos of some of the terrific donations to the race, and some action shots of ping pong games.

On Feb. 12 an update from the Maclaren River Lodge checkpoint shared a couple of start photos and reported that the start had gone beautifully, taking only half an hour to get all 18 teams on the trail. And a wildlife report: “We spotted all kinds of wildlife on the way out: Caribou, Moose, Fox, Lynx and then a dreaded porcupine.”

The next post shared photos of the Maclaren River Lodge checkpoint, including a beautiful aerial view of the teams spread out on the river, and on Feb. 16 they posted the Final Standings of all the finishing teams. The 2010 Denali Doubles leaderboard is online, showing details of the checkpoint times, rest times, and dogs dropped.

First place went to local mushers Dave DeCaro and Caroline Sheftel. The second place finish went to Dan Kaduce and Jodi Bailey; and third was an exciting and very close race to the finish line with Cim Smyth and Mattie Schmidt just barely edging out Allen Moore and his daughter Bridgette Watkins.

SP Kennels, home of champion mushers Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore, fielded two teams in the 2010 Denali Doubles, and handler extraordinaire and webmaster MacGellan posted many excellent reports, photos, and videos of the SP Kennel’s Black and Red teams. Do a search on the SP Kennel website for Denali Doubles and the related posts will appear.

For the upcoming 2013 Denali Doubles veteran judge Will Peterson returns as Race Marshall, noting, “This is a great format for a dog race. Mushers seem to have a good time and Jeff does a good job of putting the whole thing together.”

Among the teams entering this year’s race, listed in order of sign-up: Meredith Mapes and Lacey Hart, Linwood Fiedler and an unnamed teammate, Jessica Hendricks and Ronya, Dave DeCaro and Ellen Donoghue, Jane Adkins and Dr. Jayne Hempstead, Cim Smyth and Corinne Zurflueh, Mitch Seavey and an unnamed teammate, and Wayne Curtis and Paul Klitzke.

For details and updates on this year’s race visit the Denali Doubles Facebook page.

Helen Hegener 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.