It only took one ride to hook Ezra Engeberg, who was just 4 years old when he and his brother Asher got started mushing.
“We used to go out to Chugiak and see the dog teams go out there, and one day they gave my brother a ride on a sled and then we started doing it,” Engeberg said.
Engeberg in turn introduced the sport to his friend, Sam Perez.
“We stopped by one day to see what was going on,” said Theresa Perez, Sam’s mother. “They said, ‘How about you give it a try?’ and that was it for him. He did one lap on the quarter-mile track with one dog that day, and he was hooked.”
Perez and the Engeberg brothers were among the two dozen youth mushers competing Friday during the 2023 Junior Mushing World Championships, which runs through Sunday at the Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association’s relocated clubhouse and Tozier Track in Anchorage. It was the first race on the property where the group’s new multimillion-dollar facility is still under construction.
Whether they were spurred on with a push from a friend or encouragement from a parent, many of the young racers at the championships took an immediate interest in mushing.
Sam Perez, now 13, finished second in the longest race on Friday, the five-dog, 5.4-mile swing through the Shields trail and Homecoming trail. His time of 19 minutes, 10 seconds was nearly a minute behind race winner Mira Franz, who ran the course in 18:18. Asher Engeberg placed third at 19:34.
Ezra Engeberg, also 13, finished fifth in the three-dog, 3.9-mile race.
He said his favorite part of participating in the sport isn’t mushing itself, but rather spending time and building strong bonds with the dogs and his fellow mushers.
Leonie Tetzner won the 3.9-mile race in a record time of 12:55, more than 90 seconds faster than her closest competitor. Tetzner is the daughter of German sprint race mushing veteran Michael Tetzner, who has traveled to Alaska to compete in races like the annual Fur Rondy World Championships.
The battle of the day occurred in the two-dog, 2.6-mile race where Eli Markley edged out Finn Drinkwater by just two seconds. Markley’s time of 10:19 also earned him a record in the process.
Jade Moser won the one-dog, 1/4-mile race in a record time of 1:02.
The first race of the day saw 8-year-old Hunter Sterling set a track record for the two-dog, 1-mile race in a blistering time of 3:54.
The runner-up in that race, 10-year-old Cedar-Rose Itchoak, was inspired to take up mushing by her father.
Karlin Itchoak watched on as his daughter, who has only been mushing for a year, finished the race in 4:44.
“I used to have a dog team in Nome,” Itchoak said. “I had 44 dogs and she was inspired by that and always wanted to try it so she gave it a shot and loves it.”
He started mushing when he was around his daughter’s age, and after college, he moved into a cabin in Nome for five years where he resumed mushing.
“I did the Kobuk 440 in 2009 and that was my biggest race, but I mostly just did it for fun,” Itchoak said.
Growing up in Nome, where the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ends, he was always around dogs, always had mushers at his house, and it was just a part of their lifestyle.
He and his family now reside in Anchorage and come to the clubhouse every week so his daughter can run dogs.
“It’s awesome to see her growing and going from being a little timid to just really enjoying it and not being afraid,” Itchoak said.
When his daughter and her two-dog team ran their race, the seemingly continuous onslaught of snow was coming down fast and furious.
“She’s not a fair-weather musher,” Itchoak said. “She can handle anything, and these kids are the same. They come out here and run in all kinds of weather.”
Theresa Perez, whose son has been mushing for almost a decade, said he’s learning valuable lessons while in the heat of competition.
“They’re directly competing with each other, but if they see somebody in trouble, they are happy to stop and help,” she said. “You just don’t see that in a lot of other sports.”
Karlin Itchoak said there’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with mushing.
“They get to learn about taking care of their dogs, respecting the animals and treating them with respect, and not pushing them too hard but knowing that they love to run,” Itchok said. “They get a lot of self-confidence and they learn how to work as a team with the dogs.
“The kids help each other out on the trail and beforehand and also the kids run all their meetings so it gives them great responsibility training in that area.”
The 20-acre property where the new facility is being built was originally proposed to be developed by the city as a housing complex.
“It would’ve made our trails more difficult,” Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association board member Lois Rockcastle said. “We would’ve had to cross another road or two.”
Since it was part of a land trust, it was earmarked for a nonprofit organization. As a 501(c)(3), the Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association was able to purchase it through an agreement with the city.
Rockcastle said one of the biggest benefits of the new property is that it allows for a 1-mile trail contained completely on the land.
It’s especially helpful for the “kids moving up from one dog but they’re not quite ready to go to two dogs,” according to Rockcastle.
“It’s nice to have our own quarter-mile, half-mile and 1-mile track on our own property so people can come practice whenever they want,” Theresa Perez said.
Construction on the new facility began in the fall and is slated to be completed by late spring or early summer.
“It’s a great facility,” Itchoak said. “The other one was great and lasted a long time, but I think this location and the quality of the facility is really going to help draw more people and also make it a lot more comfortable for the kids and the families to be here.”
In addition to being utilized as a training and event site for dog mushing, it will also host other dog-related events and will be available for other organizations to rent.