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Aussie musher chipper despite raucous trip across Farewell Burn

  • Author: Casey Grove
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 5, 2014

NIKOLAI -- Australian musher Christian Turner traveled more than 7,500 miles from home to get to the Iditarod, but it was the 75 trail miles between Rohn and Nikolai that proved to be the rookie's biggest hurdle yet to finishing the race.

The run took Turner 24 hours -- longer than it took him to fly from Australia to Alaska. Along the way, he lost most of his dog team and thought about scratching.

He decided he'd come too far to do that, he said.

Longtime Iditarod veterans say trail conditions are the worst they've ever seen on the run across Farewell Burn, and on the run before it, which includes the treacherous Dalzell Gorge. Mushers have been left bruised after bashing into trees and getting dragged by tipped-over sleds. Even the most grizzled mushers appeared stunned upon reaching Nikolai -- musher Rick Casillo, who works with wounded soldiers in the off-season, described the look as shell shock.

The 25-year-old Turner, however, sounded chipper Wednesday as he fed his healthy-looking dogs in the morning sun alongside the south fork of the Kuskokwim River.

Maybe it was his Australian optimism. Maybe he was glad to still have a dog team at all, after the line holding them to his sled broke. Maybe he was just glad to be alive.

"I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't expect that. It was terrifying," Turner said. "I always think, 'How are the other teams getting through? If they get through, I guess I can get through.' "

Turner and his dogs, including 14 two-year-olds from 2012 champion Dallas Seavey's kennel, were going through the Burn and heading down a hill when disaster struck. It was the same spot that caused a race-ending injury to Scott Janssen and nearly destroyed Kelly Maixner's sled, Turner said.

"I was coming down there, and there was a stump right in the middle. I was on the brake and it just ripped out the whole bottom of my sled," he said. "And once your brake's gone, you can't really stop, so I hit a tree, and then the line just snapped at the (wheel dogs)."

The 14 dogs, connected to nothing but each other, kept running, leaving behind Turner and the two wheel dogs, which are the animals closest to the sled.

That was when Turner thought about pushing the button on his tracker beacon to call for help and scratch from the race. Aside from his concern for the dogs' safety, Turner said, there was added pressure because he did not want anything to happen to someone else's dogs. Dallas Seavey survived a similar situation the day before by chasing, then diving, to catch his detached team.

If it came down to ending his race -- the result of asking for outside assistance -- and the dogs' well-being, Turner said the dogs were more important than the five years of work he put in to get to the Iditarod.

THE DREAM

Turner is from Dorrigo, on the eastern coast of Australia, about 340 miles north of Sydney. It's often close to 100 degrees there, he said. Many residents -- including his mother, who Turner said plans to meet him in Nome -- have never seen snow. Almost none of them know what dog mushing is.

Between high school and college, Turner spent a winter in Canada's Banff National Park and picked up a side job as a sled dog handler. That got him into mushing dogs.

Before then, "I hadn't even heard of the Iditarod," Turner said. The Canadian mushers all talked about racing in Alaska. And Turner was starting to run dogs in sprint races and for tourists in Banff.

Turner took some university classes back in Australia, but the mushing dream kept calling. He decided to work in the iron ore mines in Western Australia during the winter there, which is the summer here. He returned to Canada in the off-season to mush dogs.

"They're always screaming for people in the mines, so I just do it the same as the people on (Alaska's North) Slope. You just work," Turner said in an interview before the race began. "It's not much of a lifestyle, but once you get the winter off, it's pretty cool."

For three years, Turner went back and forth from Canada to Australia, working in the mines six months at a time.

While still mushing in Canada, Turner posted a message on SledDogCentral.com. He was looking to work as a handler for room and board for an Iditarod musher and hoping to run somebody's B team in the Last Great Race. He received replies from 15 or 20 mushers, including Dallas Seavey, that year's Iditarod champ.

"I had my pick, really," Turner said. "I just picked him, because he's the most current winner."

He has spent the last two winters in Alaska and still does seasonal mine work.

In a quick interview at the Nikolai checkpoint, Seavey said it was rare to see a handler looking for a job.

"Usually it's the mushers looking for people, not the other way around," Seavey said. "I figured if the guy was desperate enough and he had to ask for a handler spot, rather than reply to one of the two dozen postings up there, he must not be all that great.

"Turns out, he was pretty good. Real good dude. Very capable."

"He's been a huge help the last couple years," Seavey said. "I trust him training my dogs and stuff."

In a couple of years, Seavey said, the young dogs Turner is running now will be "in my humble opinion, the best team in the world."

"I'm not worried about him doing a good job," Seavey said, a day before Turner arrived safely in Nikolai. "He's just as capable as anybody else out here. But on that trail we just mushed over, it could take anybody out."

'WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?'

It's very difficult to catch a running dog team on foot, Turner said. But he was worried the dogs would get hurt as they sped downhill away from him Tuesday.

"So I was sprinting as fast as I could down that hill to catch 'em," he said. "That whole time I was thinking, 'I really hope nothing happens to one of the dogs. What am I going to do if I can't catch 'em? Am I going to have to hit the button?' Five years down the drain."

Maybe it was luck. The dogs became jumbled and Turner caught them after a mile or so, he said. He tied the dogs to trees off the trail and went back to get his sled.

"I had to walk miles," he said. "I couldn't push my sled. It was too heavy. I had to unload it."

Turner and the wheel dogs were spotted through falling snow pulling the sled midday Tuesday. He said he returned to ferry the supplies -- half of his dogs' meat and his cooker -- back up to the sled. Then he repaired his brake and did the best he could to fix his sled, which was bent in several places and a bit wobbly.

The ordeal added nine hours to an already long trip, Turner said. He camped three times along the way to rest the young dogs and feed them.

Back in Australia, his girlfriend, Sarah Dionne, was following his progress on Iditarod.com's GPS tracker.

"I found out he had been stopped for a while last night (Australian time) and was teary this morning, was feeling very worried about him indeed," Dionne said in a Facebook message. "I have found out he is on the move again so that cheered me up. I feel quite helpless over here however. I know this is his dream and it's such a fantastic adventure to endeavor to finish, especially being an Australian!"

Later, safe in Nikolai, Turner said he wished he could call his girlfriend to tell her he was OK, but a new rule this year prohibits mushers from making phone calls. Asked if he had anything to say to his supporters back home, he just wanted to convey that he was all right.

"I was feeling pretty negative halfway through last night, but I had a nap, spent some time with the dogs, and I'm picking myself back up," he said.

After the longest run on a dog sled he'd ever done in his life, Turner said he planned on making it to Nome in the top 20. If he does, it would be the highest Iditarod finish by an Australian. Only one other has even finished.

"I know he is strong-willed and tough. He will get through this," Dionne said. "All I can do is send him all my positive energy and happy thoughts from Australia."

Now that the most dangerous part of the trail is out of the way, Turner planned to focus on racing, he said while ladling out food for his 16 dogs.

"Even though it's a puppy team, they'll give it a go."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com.

By CASEY GROVE

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