A passion for mutts and mushers

T200 Sled Dog Race draws accomplished, aspiring and obsessed

Thirty-three-year-old Jeff Hemann is an addict.


“If I was like some sort of crackhead living in New York City that’s where my money would go,” he said.

But instead, the Willow resident and his wife, Heather Hemann, 35, are mushers, and that’s where all their money goes, Jeff said.

“It’s like someone on drugs. They get their high, they get their fix. When I get extra money I put it into dog food,” he said. “I get the good stuff for my dogs because it makes me feel good.”

Since they started training for the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race in September, Jeff said they have probably spent about $8,000. It’s $500 a month alone just in dog food, he said, and getting their truck with 313,000 miles on it to the start of the race in Kasilof was a race in itself, Heather said. It broke down three times and they had to drop another $1,500 to fix it, she said.

“You don’t even think about it anymore because money comes and money goes,” Jeff said, standing next to his sled.

It was Saturday and they were finally there. The T200. They had already won the race, really, Jeff said. Six months training. All that money. Their two boys being so patient. Sure they needed the prize money from first or second to buy a new truck, but they had made it, Jeff said. The T200.

“I’d be happy with top 10,” Jeff said. “I’d be very, very happy. Anything else is just a bonus.”

About them an army of dogs were becoming antsy and had started yipping and barking. Hundreds of them were tethered to the 46 pickups with the towering cabs where the mushers keep their canines.

At this year’s T200, 35 mushers had shown up for the roughly 200-mile race and 11 had arrived to race the shorter, roughly 100-mile course. Big names like Jeff King, Ken Anderson, Paul Gebhardt and Mitch Seavey are on the roster.

Pam May, a veterinarian who was examining dogs Friday afternoon, said this year’s turnout is about twice last year’s — though it is also about twice the temperature.

At 32 degrees, most mushers were excited to be racing at all.

Willow musher Robert Forto said he has been having a hard time logging the 750 miles required to qualify for the Iditarod; all the qualifying races he was banking on were called off due to low snow levels.

Unfortunately, Forto said, it’s already too late for him to qualify for this year’s Iditarod, the race he gave up his dog training business in Colorado and relocated his family to Alaska for. But if he completes the T200 and races the Two Rivers 200 in Fairbanks, the Kobuk 440 in Kotzebue and the Sheep Mountain 300 in Sutton — if it’s made a qualifier — then he will be ready to race in the Iditarod by 2014, he said.

It’s been tough, he said, with the low snow levels this year.

But the T200 course is in good condition, said Jerimy Thompson, parked several trucks up from Forto.

“Driving (down from Wasilla), the rivers were wide open,” he said. “We weren’t really sure what we would get into.”

Thompson was handling for Wasilla’s Ray Redington Jr., an 11-time racer of the Iditarod. Last year he placed sixth. His grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., founded the Iditarod.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been here,” Redington said. This will be his second T200. “I know it has a few hills in it. I’ll see what happens.”

Although he qualified for the Iditarod long ago, Redington said he has been looking forward to mushing with the small community that gathers for the T200.

“You have some really good mushers that live down here,” he said. “You have some guys that have won the Iditarod and been top contenders. It’s fun to come down here and race against them.”

For Forto, who aspires to one day compete in the big race, prolific mushers like Redington make the event.

“It’s always great when you get out at the checkpoints to sit back and hear what they say,” Forto said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

While the musher turn-out is eclectic, said Mark Nordman, Iditarod race marshal, all the mushers have one thing in common: passion.

“In this passion there’s never enough time. There’s never enough money. And it’s always about the dogs,” Nordman said.

That passion has drained the wallets, sapped the time and uprooted the families of many mushers. A lot of Alaskan mushers had driven all day to the start line of the T200, and others trekked days from North Dakota and Minnesota and even New Zealand to compete in the race.

Back at the Hemann’s truck, Jeff was getting nervous.

“All my trainings I do I get nervous before,” he said.

But it’s good for him, he said. One time before he tested for a belt in Taekwondo his father asked him if he was nervous. He said he was not, and he failed the test. After the test his father explained to him that it’s alright to be nervous.

“It’s just kind of something you need,” he said.

Heather seemed nervous, too. She was moving quickly around the truck, opening doors and pulling out dogs and collaring them in position around the truck. She was not racing. Although she had wanted to. Just weeks before, she had blown out her knee in a Taekwondo fight, she said.

Heather dropped their dog booties on the sled next to her husband. She told him to stop chatting and get ready. It was just one hour before the start.

 This story has been corrected to reflect the correct title of Tammi Murray. Tammi Murray is the T200 race director.

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.