RUBY — Even though Jeff King has started the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race a total of 26 times since 1981, the 60-year-old musher still has some new tricks. Call King the king of energy management — at least, that's his intent.
This year, that means the four-time Iditarod champion from Denali Park has built a seat behind his sled's handlebars, a seat that reclines. He can move pins attached to the back of the chair to adjust its angle. It's the trail version of a living room La-Z-Boy — except there's no cushioning or foot rest, at least not yet.
"It may sound inappropriately luxurious for the Iditarod — but the fact is, if I can be really comfortable during some of the long, monotonous stretches, it gives me all the more energy when there's something for me to accomplish," King said. "Whether it's running up the hill or doing chores at the checkpoint."
That's not all. King has also built a tall, thin cooker that looks a lot like a miniature smokestack. He bolted it to metal behind the chair. It can boil up to 3 gallons of water at a time. (Under race rules, mushers must carry a cooker and pot that can boil that amount at one time).
"I really wanted to be able to mount it sort of rigidly to the sled so I don't have to unload it and reload it every time I use it," King explained Friday afternoon, a couple hours shy of the end of his 24-hour mandatory rest. "Plus, it's using some space that typically would go unused."
He said the contraption didn't have a name. It's just "tall, skinny cooker." To start a fire, he puts alcohol-based fuel in the first tall metal container and then water in the smaller one that squeezes inside.
These aren't the first trail innovations that King has masterminded.
In 1994, he came up with a scheme to attach wheels for his dogsled to roll on, but those got banned from the Iditarod before he had a chance to test them. He has also devised a gel-fueled heated handlebar to protect a badly frostbitten hand, though King later confessed there was a chance a musher could burn his or her hands if not careful.
In 2004, he unveiled his Trail-Dragger sled, the sled with a shock-absorber-mounted seat. And a year later, he simplified the seat so it sat on a cooler. He has taken his dogs swimming in the summertime to train for the Iditarod and redid the harness and towline system. The list goes on.
On Friday, the innovator had his team parked alongside several other dog teams resting in this sunny village on the Yukon River. Late in the morning, mushers and sled dog teams arrived in a steady stream, up a small hill and into the village where volunteers checked mushers in, counted their dogs and asked if they planned to stay. Temperatures hovered in the mid-20s.
The warmer-than-normal weather had King feeling good. He said he usually dreads the leg cramps that come with the Iditarod. But this year, he hasn't felt any pain. Perhaps it's the balmy winter temperatures or perhaps it's the recliner, he said.
Either way, he said, "I'm feeling fabulous."