The frosted tips of Deb Rhoades’ bangs protruded from a small opening on her snug ski mask. A bitter cold didn’t stop her and Steve Young from leaving Homer to witness their first sled dog race.
“The cold wasn’t going to hold us back,” she said. “We were going to come regardless.”
Hundreds of Kenai Peninsula residents traveled to mile 112 of the Sterling Highway Saturday morning to watch the start of the 28th Annual Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race despite a temperature of 30 below zero.
Children played on mounds of snow surrounding the makeshift parking lot, ignoring the calls of their parents. Toward the starting line of the race, teams readied their provisions and made last minute checks with many barking huskies.
The dogs wined in anticipation of the 200-mile race. Perhaps they were aware the race was a potential no-go this year. The race lost $30,000 of its $50,000 in revenue in the past year due to a decrease in gaming receipts.
Race organizers responded by lowering the purse from $25,000 to $10,000. In order to still entice mushers, the entry fee is down to $200 from $250 and there is no longer a late entry fee.
Dean Osmar, local musher and Iditarod champion, started the race in 1984 with 10 to 15 local teams. The original purse was a case of beer.
In 1994, the T200 race association reorganized the event. The official starting point — Tustumena Lodge — became an integral part of the race.
Former rest site Clam Shell Lodge in Clam Gluch is no longer open. As a result, this year’s race from Caribou Lake to Homer reverts the trail back to its original route.
DeeDee Jonrowe, veteran musher and race’s 2011 winner, petted her lead husky’s head with bear hands in the frigid cold.
A day earlier during the vet check at Aspen Inn in Soldotna, Jonrowe expressed her pleasure toward the “warmer” race.
“It was 34 below when I left the house this morning,” she said. “So, I’m thinking it will be spring mushing. Even if it’s 20 below it will be like spring mushing.”
Unfortunately, the temperature took a drop.
Jonrowe’s team of huskies, most of which were bred from her lead dog Ivan, are 1 to 2 years old. She said the dogs are being conditioned to run the Iditarod.
The vets checked the young dogs for tenderness, soreness and lameness in the limbs. Volunteer veterinarian Pam May listened to the dogs’ heartbeats with a stethoscope. Jonrowe’s team checked out healthy.
The new trail is an unknown factor for the veteran musher.
“In the past, I knew exactly when things were coming up, and this year I don’t,” she said. “It will definitely be challenging.”
T200 is a well-organized race Jonrowe uses to examine her dogs without too much stress. She said she also enjoys the fierce competition of other veteran mushers like Jeff King and Dan Kaduce.
Competing in the race for a second time, 27-year-old Anna Berington handled her team of young dogs with care at the vet check.
She said she’s also conditioning her dogs for the Iditarod. As a Kasilof resident, Berington’s team of Alaska huskies is familiar with the race area.
The dogs know many of the shortcuts home due to many days of practice, which could cause problems during the race, she said.
“Some of the dogs that aren’t from around here are aware that they’re at a race,” she said. “I’m hoping with all the dogs at the competition my team will get that feeling.
“They’ll probably try and take a couple turns that they know where we’ve been training, and I’ll have to redirect them.”
However, having a major race close to home allows the dogs to rest in their own kennels, and Berington’s team won’t haul large amounts of equipment over hundreds of miles.
“It’s like a home game for us,” she said.
Back at the starting line Saturday, an announcer shouted five minutes into a scratchy sound system then 11-year-old Olivia Brewer took the stage and sung “Star Spangled Banner” in a puffy, purple jacket.
Wearing bib No. 1, Paul Gebhardt coasted through the starting stretch shortly after 11 a.m.
Erin Boehme stood with her four boys watching the race’s mushers pass. Having moved from Idaho in 2009, the race has become a family tradition.
“The kids just like to see the dogs and how excited they get,” she said.
Her husband Doug snapped photos of the family from across the track. They try to attend as many local events as possible, Boehme said.
Colleen Robertia was the last musher to race passed the remaining residents who endured the cold. But the area quickly cleared shortly after.
The racers will likely continue their journey into late Sunday afternoon. Their status’ are tracked with GPS, and people can keep tabs on mushers’ progress at the race’s official website, www.tustumena200.com.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.