They come in a variety of colors, sizes and abilities, but sled dogs have at least one thing in common: they love to move.
The Soldotna Regional Sports Complex parking lot was a din of barking and whining and a whirl of swishing tails and bounding dogs as Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race mushers rolled in for the pre-race veterinary checks Friday. Mushers, dog handlers and assistants arranged the dogs around their trucks and trailers as veterinarians made the rounds among the teams, checking teeth, paws and heart rates.
This year will be Yukon Territory musher Crispin Studer’s first time racing the T200. Originally from Switzerland, he said he originally came over to North America to work with dogs and fell in love with the sport.
“Just being out there, just you and your dogs, is amazing,” he said.
The T200 route curls through the Caribou Hills of the southern Kenai Peninsula between Ninilchik and Homer. Mushers running the 200-mile event complete two laps of the circuit while mushers running the 100-mile event only have to finish one. The event is also a qualifier for the Iditarod and many mushers, like Spuder, run it in the hopes of making it into the world-famous race to Nome.
MyDzung Osmar of Kasilof and her team will run the 100-mile event this year, which they last ran in 2013. She moved to Alaska from Vietnam in 2011 and started racing dogs shortly after, taking third place in the 2013 T100 race.
Others have long histories in the mushing sphere. Lance Mackey has run just about every mushing race there is in Alaska, including winning four Iditarods and four Yukon Quest races. He’s running the 200-mile race in the T200.
“The 100-miler sounds pretty good,” he joked as he packed and unpacked dogs from his trailer at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Friday.
The race organizers moved the start this year from the traditional site in Kasilof to Freddie’s Roadhouse in the Caribou Hills outside Ninilchik. The move was in part to accommodate the snow conditions in the area, said Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Association President Tami Murray.
The mushers come from all over the country, but the veterinarians might have come from further than most. Veterinarian Janice Baker and veterinary technician Trinity Maurer, who hopped from trailer to trailer checking dogs in Soldotna on Friday, came all the way from North Carolina specifically to perform vet checks on mushing dogs.
Baker said she originally came up to Alaska to do research on canine performance in extreme conditions when she met the organizers for the Northern Lights 300, a sled dog race in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, who asked her if she wanted to the veterinary checks for the race. This year would have been her fifth year doing the checks on the Northern Lights 300, but the race was cancelled for lack of signups.
Instead, she and veterinary technician Trinity Maurer came down to the Kenai Peninsula to work on the T200. It’s their first time working this race, they said. However, they’ve come up to Alaska a number of times to work on races or teach classes, such as K-9 aid classes for the Alaska State Troopers, Baker said. In her practice in North Carolina, she focuses primarily on working dogs.
People often ask them why they come all the way up to Alaska, Baker said.
“There’s just nothing quite like it,” she said.
Children and outstretched cell phones surrounded the dog sled teams assembled at Freddie’s Roadhouse in Ninilchik for the start of the race Saturday morning. Unfazed, mushers and handlers went about strapping their dogs into their lines and cooperating with race officials who stopped by to check their sleds prior to takeoff.
First out of the gate — and first in to the race’s first checkpoint at McNeil Canyon Elementary School — was Nicolas Petit, a transplant from France who has raced in every Iditarod since 2011. Petit finished the T200 in second place last year, just three minutes behind winner Cim Smyth, who passed Petit in the final stretches of the race.
“It’ll be fun,” he said while readying his team at near the starting line. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m second again.”
Asked what his focus would be for the race, Petit answered, “the scenery,” gesturing to the expansive Caribou Hills the race trail traverses and the crystal clear view of the Kenai Mountains across Cook Inlet.
With the exception of one dog, each of Petit’s sled dogs ran the T200 with him last year. Of the change in location from Kasilof to Ninilchik, Petit said, “If we always did the same thing, we’d be bored mushers.”
Just next door in the line of mushers and their trucks, Emily Maxwell was getting her team ready for their first-ever T200 race. She and Petit live and train together, and one of her lead dogs, Beemer, was originally his — she was dropped from his Iditarod team and moved over to Maxwell’s.
Maxwell said she expects the race to be enough of a challenge, with several hills and climbs, without being too intense. She said the race will be about having fun and getting more experience ahead of her rookie run of the Iditarod this year.
“I hear about hills a lot,” said, pausing to shout to a fellow musher that a loose dog was bounding toward his team. “Although I’m kind of wondering what kind of hills, because we did (the) Copper Basin (300), which is very straight up, straight down, forever and ever and ever. So these hills I’m kind of curious to know.”
Down at the other end of the line of teams, Lance Mackey prepared to make his first return to the race since around 2010, he said.
“It’s like coming home,” he said. “Unfortunately all the friends I haven’t seen maybe in that time have aged a little bit like myself, but, I mean, this is where my kennel started. I have a cabin just right over here, and you know, it’s pretty cool to come back and see some of the same people, the vets that helped me out when I was here and are still affiliated with the race.”
Mackey said he’s shooting to just have a good time with the T200. While he won’t be running the Iditarod this year, he said some of the dogs on his team might be, as he’s training them to hand off to another musher.
About 43 miles of trail south, volunteers and onlookers paced the grounds behind McNeil Canyon Elementary School waiting for the first mushers to arrive at the race’s first checkpoint. The teams must complete a 100-mile loop from Ninilchik to McNeil and back twice to finish the race. This puts two checkpoints at McNeil and one at Freddie’s Roadhouse, where the race will end sometime Sunday afternoon.
Each musher must take a minimum 10 hours of rest, which they can space out between the three checkpoints. Fairbanks musher Dave Turner, who claimed third place in last year’s T200 race the first time he ever ran it, pulled into the checkpoint minutes behind Petit.
“This is almost the same trail as last year for this section,” Turner said of the stretch from Ninilchik to Homer. “And … we had over 5,000 feet of climbing, so there’s a lot of hills. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work, though.”
Turner said a big focus for him this race will be making sure his dogs pace themselves so that they have enough energy to run well on the last leg.
“Convincing the dogs to take it easy in the sun is kind of tough,” he said.
Half of Turner’s dogs ran the T200 with him last year while the other half are yearlings. He said he’s aiming to win this year, but won’t push his dogs farther than they can go.
“At the same time, I have young dogs,” he said. “So I’m trying to win within their abilities. So, I think that if we run our best, and run a really good race, and finish strong, I think that we’re good enough that we should be able to win. But everything has to go right,”
Several mushers spoke to the friendly atmosphere surrounding the T200 and how fun the volunteers and community make it. Maxwell said, having never done the race before, she’s heard from others that it’s really fun and that everyone is friendly.
“This community is so welcoming to the mushers when we come,” Petit said.
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