BIG LAKE — Martin Buser is one of seven people to win the Iditarod at least four times.
But when he lines up for his 37th race this year, he’ll do it behind a team of younger dogs making their first runs to Nome.
It’s been several years since Buser has been at the front of the pack — his last top-10 finish was 2014 — but this year he’s made it official. Protege Tim Pappas will race the top dogs in Buser’s Happy Trails Kennels.
Buser, 61, first tipped Pappas off to the idea at the end of last year’s Iditarod. In May, for Pappas’ birthday, Buser and his wife, Kathy Chapoton, gave Pappas a certificate to redeem the 14 best dogs in the kennel to make a run at the Iditarod title.
Pappas, 30, started working at Buser’s kennel in 2014. He got into the sport because of a musher friend in Wyoming. There, he’d been working with horses before moving to Juneau and then ultimately to Big Lake to continue mushing.
Pappas said he was "a little overwhelmed,” when he got the offer. The last time he raced the Iditarod was with a team of the kennel’s young dogs in 2016 as rookie, finishing 51st.
“I just was kind of blown away,” Pappas recalled recently while standing near the group of dogs he planned to take with him down the trail. He had expected to take another puppy team — dogs two years old and younger — out this year. It took about a month for him to accept the offer.
Running the top dogs is a lot different than running young dogs. Buser said it amounts to trying to win an expedition versus a long camping trip.
Handing the dogs over to Pappas gives Buser an opportunity he hasn’t had in several years.
“I want to prove to the world that I have the best, happiest, fastest, coolest dogs in the sport. That’s always been my driver. I’ve never been a great racer,” Buser said. “After six, seven decades, it’s a little harder to keep up with those 30-year-olds.”
Recently, Pappas finished sixth in the 2018 Yukon Quest and fourth in the Willow 300 in early February.
Pappas might not have the experience of some returning veterans seeking top-10 finishes, or the title. But Buser said he’s handed Pappas the best dogs and the best gear.
Pappas’s sled is carbon fiber with plastic runners for flexibility. It’s the one he took on the trail in 2016 and the Yukon Quest in 2018 — they’ve covered some ground together, Pappas said.
“I could run this thing into a tree and it’s going to be fine,” Pappas said in a garage stocked with harnesses, tools and the other sled he plans to bring as a back-up.
“There is nothing that is going to be lacking other than his personal drive and his desire and his ability. A lot of it comes down to all of those factors and little bit of luck," Buser said.
“He doesn’t go in there unprepared," Buser said. "... He goes in there with 35 years of experience. I tried to share everything I can.”
Pappas said he feels comfortable with his dog team because of what he’s learned working at the kennel.
“A lot of people do just go and do it on their own," Pappas said. "And I think there’s definitely some incentive to working with someone that’s done it a lot and learning from them.”
Buser prefers the to call his employees “apprentices” rather than “handlers,” because he thinks it better reflects what they do at his Happy Trails Kennels.
Buser said he sees in Pappas a young musher who wants to learn. But there’s also something innate about his talent, Buser said: He’s cerebral, and even-keeled.
“But really, most importantly, it comes down to the relationship with the dogs,” Buser said while sorting dog booties into various buckets and bags based on size. “You know, I have my eyes open and I see that.”
Literally, he sees it. As in, he follows Pappas’ mushing tracks and can tell how the dogs respond to the musher.
Recently, Buser was running the younger team and came across a large wet spot on the trail. He saw a single track cutting through deep snow to the right of the water. Three hundred yards down, the track aligned with the trail.
“There’s no deviation,” Buser said. “There’s no other footprints.”
Buser admired Pappas’ command of the dog team. His team of young dogs dragged him through the water.
Buser said he knows Pappas has a better chance of being competitive in the race than he does.
And some of the dogs on his 2020 team are ones that raced with him in 2016.
He’s even taking Tim, a dog born into a litter named after Happy Trails employees.
“I’m taking my own alter ego dog,” Pappas said.
The older team of dogs does come with a bit more pressure, Pappas said. It’s more work, and he’s trying to travel faster and lighter than in years past.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Pappas said the preparation was all-consuming.
“It’s pretty much all I think about," Pappas said. "Like subconsciously, I mean I’ve been dreaming about the Iditarod.”
But Pappas said he wasn’t making any grand predictions for his finish this year.
“Really, finishing is the real goal," he said. "I don’t want to go too fast and not able to finish. I’d rather go a little slower and finish.”