As a general rule, snowmachines used in the Northwest Arctic are more of a tool for life than for sport. That doesn't mean Northwest Alaskan snowmachiners aren't able to ride with the fastest riders.
More than a handful will be out to prove they can race with the best this weekend when they compete in the 2013 Iron Dog race. More than five teams from Kotzebue, Nome and Barrow are among the 80 racers slated to participate in the 2,000-mile race from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks that begins on Feb. 17.
For at least one racer, Kotzebue's Jared (Barney) Walker, the race will serve as a starting point to what he hopes will be a lucrative racing career.
"This is going to be my first time to race the Iron Dog," said Walker during a pre-race meeting of teams. "I'm pretty psyched about it. It's going to be fun."
Walker's journey to the Iron Dog starting line was an unexpected one.
An injury to Frank (Cheeks) Ferreira's regular teammate, Tony Ferreira, forced the veteran rider from Noorvik to seek out a new partner. Ferreira approached Walker about running the race.
Walker said he jumped at the chance.
Once he agreed to run, Walker said he began training for the event, making runs near his home in Kotzebue where snow coverage allowed.
"It's been going alright," he said. "We've got some training in. Not as much as I would have liked. It's been kind of slow, but we're pretty much set."
Walker said he hoped to do well, but knows the experience he gains on the 2,000-mile trail this season will only make him better in the future.
"It is my first time so I'll be very well prepared for next year," he said.
Walker won't be the only Kotzebue racer competing in the race this year. He will be joined on the trail by several other northwest Alaska teams, including Kotzebue's Joseph Brantley and Selawik's Travis Ticket, Selawik's Norman "Cookie" Sheldon and Kotzebue's George "Radar" Lambert, Kiana's Brad Reich and Kotzebue's Chris Collins will also be competing, and Kotzebue's Dickey Moto Jr. and Nome's Christian Johnson racing the trail class, as well as two teams from Nome and a team with roots from Barrow, Jens Hopson and Ray Chvastasz.
Brantley said he and Ticket are excited about competing in the race despite the lack of snowfall this year that has made training tough.
"We can't wait to start," he said. "We're a little anxious."
Like many of the racers in the Kotzebue area, Brantley said he and Ticket tried to get as much time on their machines as possible by training on trails near Selawik and Noorvik.
It's been tough because there isn't a lot of snow," he said.
Moto will be making his rookie run in the Trail Class event.
Iron Dog fans will notice something different this year when the Pro Class race begins. Iron Dog legends Scott Davis and Todd Palin will be aboard new rides.
Davis, a seven-time winner, and Palin, who has won four times, announced they would be breaking a longtime relationship with Arctic Cat by competing on Ski-Doos this year.
"It's a whole new ball game for us riding Ski-Doos," said Palin's wife, Sarah. "After years on Polaris and then many, many years on Arctic Cats, now it is Ski-Doos so it is kind of like changing religions in our family."
Todd Palin said he and Davis have adjusted to their new rides, and feel optimistic about their chances.
"We've put a couple thousand miles on our practice sleds," he said. "We'll be ready."
A 20-year veteran of the Iron Dog race, Palin said he had some simple advice for this year's field, which is made up of about 40 rookies: Ease into the race
"You can't win it on the first day, but you can sure lose it."
This article was originally published by The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Contact The Arctic Sounder at editor(at)thearcticsounder.com