In Alaska, most folks take note of the Iditarod. They know when it happens and they know many of the mushers. Sled-dog racing is, after all, the Alaska state sport. However, three of the biggest dog races in the world happen this month in other venues. And in their locale, they are akin to Alaska's Iditarod.
The Yukon Quest, the darling of the Yukon and Interior Alaska, is in full swing, with the lead teams already some 400 miles down the trail. By the time you read this, the leaders should be in Dawson City, the Quest's midpoint. Don't be surprised to hear the familiar names of Lance Mackey, Allen Moore and Hugh Neff among them.
It is cold on the Quest. The standing joke in Interior Alaska is that on the Iditarod, reporters write about the cold when it's 40 below. On the Yukon Quest, they write about it if it isn't. Earlier this week, Dawson City was basking in sunshine and minus-50 temperatures. The race began in Whitehorse at 40 below. Like most of Alaska, snow cover on the trail is light but passable. Cold, hard and fast doesn't seem to be affecting the front-runners, many of which still have big teams, although four teams have scratched as of midday Tuesday.
There were other teams racing south of Alaska this week. The Pedigree Stage Stop finished Sunday in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A name familiar to those who follow racing in Alaska claimed the top spot. Buddy Streeper, the 2004 Fur Rondy sprint race champion, managed a hotly contested 15-minute victory.
Lower 48 stage race
Pedigree is a race composed of eight stages varying in length from 30 to 50 miles. One stage is run each day with a maximum of 12 dogs, chosen from the mushers' pool of 16. Dogs can go back in the truck each day and be cared for by handlers.
I ran the Stage Stop a dozen years ago and found it hectic. I'm not the kind of person who wants to go to a gala banquet every evening. However, the fine trails were well groomed and I was amazed to find timber at 10,000 feet. The Tetons are nice little hills and I now totally understand all the fences in Wyoming. If they didn't fence in the Grand Tetons, they'd all run off to Alaska to visit the real mountains up here …
The Pedigree race does have something that Alaska races don't always boast, a very good purse. The Stage Stop, the brainchild of former Iditarod musher Frank Teasley, boasts the biggest purse in the mushing world behind the Iditarod. About $200,000 is split between the top 15 spots, with considerable day money in addition. For teams not sponsored by a different dog food company, Pedigree has an incentive program that can dramatically increase mushers' earning potential.
Still, it is an expensive event to travel to from Alaska. There were three teams from the 49th state in this year's event; Jeff Conn of Fairbanks (eighth place), Ryan Redington of Knik (10th) and Monica Zappa of Kasilof (13th).
Trouble in Norway
The biggest dog-racing event in the world, in terms of number of participants, was also held this past week. Norway's Femundlopet has been run since 1989 and boasts between 150 and 200 entrants in all of their classes. The Femund race is 370 miles long and travels through some of Norway's most challenging terrain. This year's event was called to a halt Saturday in the midst of a horrific storm which blew away trail markers and pinned two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie down for hours. Many of the junior mushers were also unable to move and had to be rescued by snowmobile.
Alaska is not the only place where sled-dog racing is tough.
Tough is foremost in Iditarod organizers minds. This week the decision must be made as to whether or not there is enough snow to begin the race in Willow or if the start needs to be moved to Fairbanks. There is enough snow on the south side of the Alaska Range, but the Dalzell Gorge, the Farewell Burn and the ground around Nikolai are mostly brown. The safety of mushers and dogs is paramount in manager's minds.
In the event of a Fairbanks restart, the ceremonial start and its accompanying fanfare would still take place in Anchorage. In 2003, the Iditarod restarted in Fairbanks and followed the Tanana River and then the Yukon River to rejoin the Northern Iditarod route in Ruby. If the Fairbanks start becomes a reality, the Iditarod would follow some of the same path as in 2003, though from the village of Galena, the route would take a winter trail to Huslia and then down the Koyokuk River back to the Yukon and the customary trail to Nulato.
The weather is shaking up the dog races of 2015, but most are going on anyway, either as scheduled or at a postponed date. Whether it is climate change, a poor snow year, or just plain cold, our state sport mushes on.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.