Veteran Iditarod musher Dallas Seavey is bringing a bunch of pieces of hockey sticks on the trail with him from Willow to Nome.
No, not in case he comes across a game along the way. The carbon fiber Reebok sticks actually form the backbone of his 34-pound sled -- some space-age technology in a decidedly old-school sport.
Top competitors like Seavey customize their sleds, with many building their own, borrowing components from the aircraft industry and from other sports, like hockey.
With this year's trail conditions expected to include more than the usual dose of ice and rugged terrain, some mushers are going to great lengths to ensure their sleds will be able to stand up to the beating they'll take over 1000 miles of racing.
"I beefed everything up," said Paul Gebhardt, a veteran musher who races on a custom-made bamboo sled. "It's going to be the roughest trail we've ever had."
For Iditarod mushers, sleds serve as a combination of car, backpack and mobile office space. They have to be flexible enough to slide smoothly along the trail and around corners, while simultaneously carrying supplies and camping gear for the rider. And they have to do it comfortably, and without being too heavy.
Today's 40-pound sleds, made from aluminum or carbon fiber, bear little resemblance to the heavy wooden ones originally used on the Iditarod Trail, which were sometimes loaded down with more than a ton of freight.
Some mushers buy pre-made sleds that can cost up to $4,000, but many top-level competitors have their own designs. They start from scratch, gathering and assembling the pieces of their sleds themselves — some purchased from eBay. Sled dog racing is not like hockey or skiing, where even the stars use equipment that's mass-produced by manufacturers.
"There's no money in making dog sleds, because mushers are all poor," said Tim Krause, a sled builder from Willow.
The sleds need to be lightweight, but they also need to be strong enough to withstand rough trails and the occasional crash. Weak spots get reinforcements like aluminum braces or are wrapped with a sheet of carbon fiber.
"If a sled is going to break, it's going to break behind the back stanchion, right in front of your standing board. That's a stress point," Seavey said. "When you're building something new, you're generally trying to solve one of those problems. But you have to be careful not to cause another problem in the process of solving that one."
The advantage for mushers who construct their own sleds is knowing how the pieces go together, in case a problem arises, said Martin Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion, who brings tie wire and rope on the trail with him for emergency repairs.
"If you build it, you know how to fix it," he said.
Many elite mushers will use two different sleds over the course of the race, taking a heavier one with more camping equipment for the first stretch, to McGrath. Then, for the latter stages of the race, when they're pushing for the finish, they'll take a lighter sled without as much gear.
This year, some mushers have made minor modifications for the expected rough conditions.
Gebhardt said he added an extra pair of metal teeth to a set of brakes, to better dig into ice.
Hans Gatt, a four-time Yukon Quest champion, put some metal blades on the bottom of his runners to keep his sled tracking straight.
Buser said he's using a special set of runners made entirely from plastic instead of the traditional design that includes aluminum -- and he claims the sled he specially built for this edition of the Iditarod is "virtually indestructible."
"We tweak, we improve, we change something just about every year," he said. "It's just one of the thousand puzzle pieces that go into making the race successful."
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ
Alaska Dispatch Publishing