Another tough and gritty young woman from Two Rivers is poised this week to hang with the big dogs as the first major mushing race of the year kicks off Saturday in Glennallen.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ryne Olson is back in the Copper Basin 300, which kicks off Alaska's distance dog sled racing season, with an even-stronger team of dogs than the motley crew that surprised her last season by finishing third in the 300-mile event. That earned Olson rookie-of-the-year honors and the respect of notable mushers left in her wake, including 2009 Iditarod runner-up Sebastian Schnuelle and Yukon Quest champions John Schandelmeier and Aliy Zirkle.
"I was ecstatic," Olson said by phone on Monday. "It was a young team, and they totally exceeded my expectations.
"They were excited the entire race. Toward the end was an 85-mile section, and I planned on stopping to camp. But the dogs looked so great, I tossed the straw aside and kept on going."
Zirkle is the queen of Two Rivers mushers, with runner-up finishes in three of the last four Iditarods. And Zirkle, who raced her kennel's puppy team last year while husband Allen Moore won his third-consecutive Copper Basin with the A team, is a big part of the reason that Olson is racing at all.
When Olson moved north from Durango, Colorado, in 2010, she worked as a handler at Zirkle's and Moore's SP Kennel for a couple of years, guiding the couple's B team to a 31st place finish in the 2012 Iditarod.
A 13th-place finish in the Yukon Quest followed and now she faces a new set of decisions, one familiar to coaches in every sport but new to Olson: Who makes the cut?
For Olson's previous races it was easy to figure out which dogs to put in harness. If you weren't limping, you were racing. Olson pretty much emptied out her small kennel for major races, usually borrowing a dog or three. Now after breeding some dogs she got from neighbors Zirkle and Moore, there are two dozen dogs in Olson's kennel.
"That's been my challenge this year," she said. "There are still 16 dogs in the running to make the final cut (to a starting team of 12). It's a good position to be in.
"And they're all a year older, mostly 3-year-olds, with more maturity. There are quite a few who weren't leaders last year who have matured into leaders."
How about the coach-boss-musher?
"I'm definitely going in a little more nervous than I was 12 months ago," Olson said. "Now there are some expectations. Last year, my only goal was to finish."
And the Copper Basin, with a minimum purse of $15,000, can be a test, even for veteran teams. Some years, temperatures dip below minus 40. Other years, it's above freezing with deep overflow to wade through on lakes such as Crosswind and Lake Louise, plus open water on the Gakona River.
"There is still the horrendous climb between Chistochina and Paxson," said veteran musher Schandelmeier. "I have gone up that mountain behind big, confident dog teams barely having to kick. More often, I have climbed it gasping for breath, struggling to run behind a weaker team."
Trail boss Jamie Kemp and his crew have been evaluating the trail, with the portion along the Glennallen Highway posing the most problems for the race that starts in Glennallen and passes checkpoints in Chistochina, Meiers Lake, Sourdough, and Mendeltna.
Alternative start and finish locations are under consideration due to the weather.
But unless the weather takes a massive turn for the worse, conditions won't be as bad as four years ago, when deep snow and bitter cold forced the race to be canceled less than 24 hours after the start.
"The trail was impassable," Race Marshall Greg Parvin said at the time. "Four experienced National Guardsmen with Iron Dog experience couldn't break the trail. They might have been fine if they could go 50 or 60 miles an hour across that snow and never stop, but when they did stop they were up to their necks and just couldn't move. It was simply impassable, the trail was just gone, and we were getting consistent reports of minus 50 to minus 60 degree temperatures."
While it may not be that bad this weekend, Kemp's crew is evaluating conditions along the course this week. Alternative start and finish locations are under consideration.
Contact reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com