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'Racing Beringia' plots an international path toward Iditarod

Suzanna Caldwell
One of Mikhail Telpin's Chukotka huskies at his dog lot in Willow. His dogs are very different from normal Iditarod dogs, with thicker hair and a more stout build. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom with one of Mikhail Telpin's huge Chukotka huskies at their kennel in Willow. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom at his kennel in Willow. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
One of Mikhail Telpin's Chukotka huskies at his dog lot in Willow. His dogs are very different from normal Iditarod dogs, with thicker hair and a more stout build. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Chukotka musher Mikhail Telpin and his handler look through a book about the Nadezhda dog sled race, at their Willow kennel. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Chukotka musher Mikhail Telpin at his Willow kennel. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A handler with one of Mikhail Telpin's Chukotka huskies, at his kennel in Willow. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
One of Mikhail Telpin's Chukotka huskies at his dog lot in Willow. His dogs are very different from normal Iditarod dogs, with thicker hair and a more stout build. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
One of Mikhail Telpin's Chukotka huskies at his dog lot in Willow. His dogs are very different from normal Iditarod dogs, with thicker hair and a more stout build. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom with some of Mikhail Telpin's huge Chukotka huskies at their kennel in Willow. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

It seems like the setup for a bad joke with a uniquely Arctic twist: A Danish woman drives a dog team across the frozen Chukotka landscape. Woman meets a Russian musher, who, worried about her safety, drives his own team of champion huskies to follow her. Danish woman and Russian musher collaborate with a Norwegian musher and all three decide to move to Willow, Alaska -- one of Alaska's unofficial mushing capitals -- to train for three grueling long distance sled dog races on two continents with three breeds of sled dogs that couldn't be further from each other.

Despite an almost implausible set up, this is no joke. This is the team behind Racing Beringia, a small, close knit crew of two mushers and an educator, looking not only to compete in three of the world's longest and most challenging sled dog races, but to tell a larger story. One that goes back thousands of years, involving international cooperation, science, history and even mathematics.

That's because Racing Beringia is an education experience. What happens on and off the trail is compiled and compressed into lesson plans for students across the globe.

The set-up seems simple enough. Two racers -- Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Mikhail Telpin -- compete in three long-distance sled dog races -- two in Alaska (the Yukon Quest and Iditarod) and one in Russia (the Nadezhda) -- over a two-year period.

The project is the brainchild of Mille Porsild, an educator and longtime adventure enthusiast. Porsild, with her team of thick coated, 100-pound freight dogs, has traveled across the Arctic -- from Scandinavia to Greenland, Canada and Russia, along the way creating a free learning program educators around the world can apply in their classrooms.

The goal with Racing Beringia is to connect learners across the world to established learning concepts through events happening in society today -- namely through the high-stakes, ultimate challenge of dog sled racing.

Defining differences

Using differences to highlight learning is a key component of the program, starting with the mushers themselves.

Take for example the teams: Ulsom, 25, a native of Roros, Norway, who brought 20 of his Alaska huskies over from Norway to train last winter. His approach is that of “Team Norway,” similar to the two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie, as Ulsom works with a training partner in Norway while he trains in Willow. Most of Ulsom's 20 or so huskies are the thin coated, smaller mixed husky breeds -- clearly of Northern ancestry, but with plenty of other breeds mixed in.

Telpin, 59, is old school. A marine mammal hunter in his native Yanrakynnot, Chukotka -- population 450 -- Telpin mainly uses the Chukchi dogs to transport him across the icy, barren Chukotka coast to hunt walrus, seals and Minke whales. The dogs are big and muscular, with broad paws and coats so thick veterinarians had a hard time getting the ECG machines to get a reading. 

Ulsom and Porsild speak English; Telpin speaks Russian. Communication between the three is a series of hand gestures and shared common phrases.

"It's a very human way of communicating," Porsild said.

Despite the differences, both men are accomplished mushers. Telpin has won the Nadezhda hope race three times. Ulsom, in his second running of the same race [what race?] in 2012, placed first and set the speed record. As a rookie in the 2012 Yukon Quest he placed an impressive sixth out of 19.

But the differences are not to be discounted. Both men have very different styles of dog racing. Ulsom's approach is based in the European tradition, which is similar to Alaska dog racing. Before completing the 1,000-mile Quest in 2012, the longest race Ulsom had ever participated in was 500 miles.

He's also undergone a transition from come-and-go dog race training to a competitive, full-time professional mushing schedule.

In Europe, it's almost unheard of to be a full-time dog driver. "It's not necessarily better, it's just different," he said.

For Telpin, things are very different. Mushers in Chukotka mush with pull sleds that sit low to the ground, keeping racers out of the vicious winds pummeling Russia's Arctic coast. Instead of a snow hook or drag brake, mushers drive Oosiks into the hard pack snow to stop their teams.

There have been some lessons. Telpin moved slowly in the first few days of the 2012 Yukon Quest. He wasn't used to racing in trees. Or hills. He said the transition from a sit-down sled to a stand-up left him with sore legs.

Despite the slow start, Telpin picked up the race's red lantern -- the traditional prize for the last place finisher of a dog sled race. But even more impressive were Telpin's dogs. The same nine he started with -- the race rules stipulate a maximum of 14 and minimum of six -- all crossed the finish line. He was awarded the Quest's “Challenge of the North” award for his efforts -- an award given to a musher that exemplifies a spirit of perseverance.

Serious competitors

While Telpin might seem like a shoe-in for the Iditarod's red lantern, Porsild said not to count on it. Telpin is a competitor at heart. Porsild said he often asks about his “back of the pack” competitors. At his Willow home Sunday, he poured over former race guides, familiarizing himself with the mushers.

And once Telpin hits the coast, it will be a home-coming of sorts, similar to the icy coast of Chukotka.

“It's his home-field, that's his element,” said Porsild.

The Iditarod means the end of the Racing Beringia season, but it's not the end of adventuring for the three. Porsild has been working with other dog drivers to develop a “mushing exchange” program between Chukotka and Alaska. The goal is to promote the region, sometimes maligned because of challenges in getting government approval to visit the autonomous region, which was closed for 70 years under Soviet rule.

“It's good more people are learning about the area,” Porsild said. “So they know these people exist.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com