"I want to run the Iditarod." Crazy Louie Azy told me. "My dogs, they are strong, I am trapping, hauling wood with these since they are small. Myself; I have run the dog since I am a child, always in the woods. I want to try the Race, but I cannot; I have no Internet!"
What does having no Internet have to do with running a dog race? Qualifying races are the key.
The Iditarod requires a rookie to have 750 miles of previous race experience before signing up for the Iditarod. The Yukon Quest requires 500 miles. Where are these required races? Most of the easily accessible qualifiers are along the Southcentral highway system. The Knik 200, Copper Basin 300, Tustumena 200 and Northern Lights 300 are all readily accessible to anyone who has a truck. These races aren't cheap to run, but they are a necessary expense for anyone attempting a 1,000-mile race.
It appears that in today's electronic world one must also have instant access to the Internet -- and some luck.
Entries in the Tustumena 200 opened at 8 a.m. on Oct. 15. At 8:20 a.m., the field of 50 was full and there were teams on a waiting list. The Copper Basin 300 reached its limit of 45 teams in just eight minutes. Other races along the road system filled nearly as quickly. The only race along the road with a few slots still open is the Gin Gin 200, which only accepts mail-in entries.
The options in the Bush are few, and far more expensive. The Kuskokwim 300 is in Bethel, and the cost of taking a 14-dog team there can be prohibitive. A round-trip flight to Bethel from Anchorage, not counting the associated cost of getting to Anchorage in the first place, is around $5,000. The Kobuk 440 in Kotzebue has similar travel expenses.
There are qualifying races in the Lower 48, but running the Beargrease in Minnesota or the UP 200 in Michigan will never make anyone as competent to run the Iditarod as Crazy Louie already is. Crazy Louie is nearly 60 and has been trapping and living in the woods his entire adult life. Yet he may never get the opportunity to race in the Iditarod.
Where are the teams that have filled this winter's qualifying races coming from? I recognize only a handful of the names. I thought people were getting out of dogs because of the expense, but it appears only the teams from the Bush are finding the cost of dogs too high.
How can this new electronic wave that is making such an impact on our state sport be counteracted? The simple answer is the creation of more mid-distance races. That is a hard sell. Organizing a dog race takes time and races cost money. They need veterinarians, timekeepers and checkpoint personnel. They must have good stopover points. Above all, a race must have a decent trail. It is a plus in today's dog mushing world if a race has a decent purse. The Gin Gin 200 in Paxson and the Chatanika 200 near Fairbanks rely on entry fees for funding. Many of the Southcentral races have committees that raise a purse from nearby communities.
All of the activities required to hold a successful dog event take time. The folks most qualified to put together a race are the mushers themselves. For a competitive dog-driver, time becomes the deal-breaker. There is little other than "thanks" for a race organizer. (That, and "whew, I'm glad that's over!")
I believe middle-distance races should begin leaving a few slots open to allow for entries other than those made on the Internet. Should we, in this most basic of sports, be required to have PayPal, Facebook and instant online computer skills?
If that is to be the case, then we may never know if Louie, or any other team from the Bush, has a dog team capable of being competitive in the Iditarod. Crazy Louie with his fur gauntlets and his wild hair will just be a ghost in the fog as he blows by your team on the trail down the Yukon.
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.