For some, hopping on their snowmachine for a quick trip to the store or to venture downriver is an everyday activity. But imagine riding your sled for days on end as fast as possible in subzero temperatures while facing gnarly trail and brutal weather. That's the Iron Dog long-distance race across Alaska.
Sounds like fun, right? Maybe.
Most riders enter for a shot at the big prize and to test their mettle against the elements. And for the most part, they know what to expect. For Kotzebue's father-son duo, Calvin Schaeffer and Gabriel Lie-Schaeffer, the goal is top five. And according to Schaeffer, they have a pretty good shot.
"My son is fast," Schaeffer said from Kotzebue last week. "Real fast."
With the eldest Schaeffer's experience and younger's unbridled passion for speed, they might just break away. "My son has ridden since he was old enough to push the throttle. He's faster than I was when I was that age. I'm pretty excited."
Schaeffer has finished the grueling 2,000-mile event from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks once, but he's better prepared physically this time around. And so far, the duo's test miles have gone off without a hitch. At least, nothing they can't fix.
The Schaeffers' journey to Iron Dog started last spring with the ordering of custom sleds and continued on this fall when they selected specialty parts. The Schaeffers will ride Ski-Doos. And so far this winter, they have cruised along on a couple of hundred miles of test runs on their machines. This is the time for putting parts to the test in all kinds of weather and a variety of trail conditions, Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer does his own maintenance and calibration. To him, the biggest challenge is making sure sled components can withstand the frigid temperatures.
"Parts can shatter," he said.
Shocks are the most important part to keep healthy, he added. When they go, the chances of crashing and breaking more parts increases exponentially. Modifying the sleds with hardier bolts and other pieces helps Iron Dogs withstand uneven trail, overflow and icy conditions. Along the trail, Schaeffer said, he is most concerned about a section known as the Farewell Burn -- a 40-mile stretch of trail between the villages of Rohn and Nikolai that was the site of Alaska's largest wildfire back in 1978. The trail is rough and often has little or no snow, which can wreak havoc on the liquid-cooled machines used in the race.
The outbound trail winds over the famed Iditarod Trail with checkpoints located in many of the same villages. It starts in Big Lake, in the Susitna Valley, and heads northwest to Nome, the halfway point. Racers rest, then turn around the head to the finish line in Fairbanks, racing on the frozen Yukon River part of the way. Competitors refuel their machines and themselves at the checkpoints. They can stop to rest, eat or drink there, too, but Schaeffer said the competitive teams generally keep moving. Eating and drinking are done in a hurry. There is a mandatory 36-hour rest-and-repair stop in Nome and short mandatory stops in others spots. Racers travel in teams of two for safety and, said Schaeffer, they're never really more than a mile or two apart, just in case the other needs help or, in extreme cases, a tow.
Strategy varies among teams, but for the Kotzebue pair, getting out front early is a must.
"You can't race the Iron Dog like the races up here," Schaeffer said. "It's 2,000 miles. You have to look ahead to the finish line. Weather plays a factor on when to stop; strategy is a big part of the race, but you have to be willing to change it."
And time is always of the essence.
"At the checkpoint, you check in, gas up and go, otherwise you're wasting time. You're always on the clock."
Iron Doggers carry mandatory gear with them, including a tent and first aid kit, but Schaeffer said with all the advances in winter clothing, extra gear does not mean the piles of stuff it used to. Competitors are able to keep their loads relatively light these days, he said.
But all the top-of-line parts and clothing come at a hefty cost. Schaeffer estimates it will cost him and his son at least $50,000 just to do the race. Winners barely break even, he said.
Sponsorship and donations are essential and without them, the Schaeffers wouldn't be able to fulfill their dream of competing together.
"This was one of my bucket list items; to be able to race with my son," Schaeffer said. "It tickles me that I'm still competitive enough to race with him."
Schaeffer has been racing snowmachines in Alaska for 30 years and said that this has been on his wish list for while.
"All the stars have aligned so far, so we'll just have to see where it goes."
Schaeffer expressed gratitude to his sponsors and to the Iron Dog organization, which, he said, put on a well-organized, popular, competitive event.
The 2014 Iron Dog starts on Feb. 16 in Big Lake. For more information visit irondog.org.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.