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Phoenix-like Copper Basin 300 sled dog race comes back from dead

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

Sometimes Mother Nature taketh away, and sometimes she giveth back.

A year ago, the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race was floundering in bitter cold and deep snow with some dog mushers unhappy about the trail saying they were done with the classic competition. What followed was chaos:

• The cancellation of the 2012 race because there really was no trail;

• Resignations from most of the race's board members; and

• The fall 2012 announcement there would be no 2013 race.

Pleas from mushers, some of them prospective Iditarod Sled Dog Race rookies in need of pre-Iditarod qualifying races, led to the race's eventual reinstatement. But as of little more than a week ago, there were fewer than a dozen teams entered.

Cue the warm weather and winds in an already snow-short year. That weather killed the Susitna Valley's Knik 200 in which 46 teams had planned to race Jan. 4 and 5 on the heels of the scrapping of the Sheep Mountain 150 a few weeks earlier. All of a sudden, a lot of mushers were looking for someplace else to run. Cooper Basin turned out to be the place, about the only place.

By the time the race starts at 10 a.m. Saturday in Glennallen, race manager Zack Steer expects there will be a full field of 40 teams. There were 37 signed up as of Friday morning. Snow cover isn't ideal on the course from Glennallen north and east to Chistochina, then north to Paxson in the Alaska Range before turning southwest toward Lake Louise on a loop back to Glennallen, but it is adequate.

"Last year, we had too much snow and this year not enough,'' Steer said. "We're thin, but I'd say there's the minimum that we need. I was out on the course the other day. Everything's very localized.''

Near Paxson, he said, there's a couple feet of snow, which is near ideal. Near Chistochina, there are windblown stretches of trail with almost no snow, which is the opposite.

But then the variety offered by the Copper Basin trail has always been its biggest attraction. Mushers agree it is the best Iditarod training race in the state given the course's ability to challenge teams with mountains, open water, cold, wind, ice and more.

"This race has a reputation for being a tough race,'' Steer said.

Sometimes, perhaps too tough, as was the case last year. And 2012 was not the first time the Copper Basin 300 was cancelled due to weather. Extreme cold has stopped it in the past and looked for a time like it might threaten again this year. Much of December was bitterly cold across the Interior of the state, but the worst of that now appears to be over.

The weekend forecast for the Copper River Basin calls for daytime temperatures in the 20s and overnight lows near zero. Steer said he'll happily take that over minus-40 degrees. The weather could make it almost pleasant for spectators. Significant parts of the race course are near the Richardson and Glenn highways, making the race one of the few long-distance, sled-dog events in the state easily viewed from the roadside.

For those interested in watching, Steer promised, "a good mix of mushers.''  They include former Copper Basin champs Allen Moore from Two Rivers, John Schandelmeier from Delta, and Jake Berkowitz from Big Lake along with former runnerup Canadian Gerry Willomitzer and 2012 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champ Hugh Neff from Tok. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com