The first long-distance sled dog race of the 2014-15 season will kick off the evening of Jan. 2 at Meiers Lake. The Gin Gin 200 starts at 6 p.m. at Meiers Lake Lodge, milepost 170 on the Richardson Highway. Most of the race route tracks the Denali Highway to Alpine Creek Lodge. The eastern Alaska Range is one of the few places in Alaska that has good snow this season.
Snow has become a precious commodity in Alaska. If dogs, skis or snowmobiles interest you, the early October snow in the Interior probably excited you. Then there was nothing. Even Paxson had a dry spell. The winter caribou season came and hunters could easily drive the Denali Highway. But, finally, the snow began to return. Rain elsewhere was snow along the Denali, in Paxson, and in Glennallen.
The white powder stayed -- and early December, snows have been substantial. They came on the solid base of the October snows, making for excellent snowmobiling, skiing and dog sledding. Isabel Pass, the site of the spring snowmobile event, Arctic Man, has great conditions. Snowmobilers have been traveling to the area for weeks to take advantage of what may be the best play location on the highway system.
The Denali Highway is just as good on its eastern end. A couple feet of snow covers the ground almost everywhere as far as Alpine Creek at Mile 68. The normally windblown Tangle Lakes area has enjoyed a relatively calm season thus far and the highway is completely snow-covered.
The Lodge at Alpine Creek, the only facility open year-round on the Denali, hosted a 50-mile fun race on the west end of the Denali Highway to jump-start the sled-dog racing season in early December. The snow was, and still is, minimal on the Cantwell end of the highway. However, by the Susitna Bridge, the snow conditions improve.
More dogs than snowmobiles
The roadway has had a drag on it all of the way from the bridge to Paxson. The trail has an excellent soft-pack base. Dog teams have been training, mostly from the Cantwell end, for more than a month. Claude and Jennifer Bondy, owners of Alpine Creek Lodge, said they have seen more dogs than snowmobiles this season.
I recently traveled to Alpine Creek by snowmobile to set the Gin Gin 200 trail and found that my little Skidoo, with its old-style suspension, was completely comfortable on the semi-groomed highway. The Gin Gin trail turns off the Denali and travels up the Susitna River. I also found very good conditions along the river. One should use extreme caution along the Interior river systems, however, because of the lack of cold weather this winter.
I spent a night at our place on the Maclaren and experienced my first minus-20 day of the winter. The cold will come, though none is in the near-term forecast. Maybe it will magically appear the weekend of the dog race.
The Gin Gin 200 sled dog race has been around since 2005 with the course changing slightly over the years to take advantage of snow conditions but always maintaining its presence on the Denali. Teams are limited to 10 dogs and will be required to take 10 hours of combined rest at the Alpine Creek checkpoint on the outbound or inbound trail. The race is limited to 40 teams.
Not first year of warm weather
The Knik 200, which normally runs the same weekend, has been postponed a month due to unsafe trail conditions in the area.
Training conditions have been poor for many of the early races. Many dog yards that don't have the time or opportunity to travel to good snow are still on ATVs. Whoever heard of training dogs on an ATV at Christmas?
Tex Greathouse, who trapped the Valdez Creek area in the 1960s, drove a car to Maclaren River on Christmas of 1963. I trained dogs out of my truck on the Maclaren River in the early 1990s. It happens.
If you are looking for an opportunity to enjoy the mild winter temperatures and a little excitement, the Gin Gin 200 may provide it. The start should be wild with 400 dogs packed into the Meiers Lake parking lot. Teams are expected to be returning to the finish line at Meiers Lake beginning Sunday morning.
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.