'Hippie race' takes to the hills

Posted: Friday, January 04, 2008

 

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  Photo by Joseph Robertia Jason Mackey crosses the finish line to win last season's race. Some professional mushers use the Calm Gulch Classic as a tune-up for larger races later in the year. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia A dog team leaves the starting chute during last season's Clam Gulch Classic sled dog race. The annual event will be happening again this Saturday and Sunday.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

While it may not be the largest or most prestigious sled dog race in Alaska, this weekend's Calm Gulch Classic always lives up to it's moniker according to mushers, as it has done for the past 24 years.

"It's a really fun, low-key event," said Jane Faulkner, a Soldotna musher and past competitor in the race.

Part of what makes the race so great is that unlike the Iditarod, which has so much pomp, circumstance and media hype surrounding it, the Clam Gulch Classic is much more of a grassroots event that focuses on maintaining an informal, friendly atmosphere.

"It's pretty much a hippie race. It focuses on fun, more than rules and regulations," Faulkner said.

Also, unlike the Iditarod, which draws mushers from around the world, the Clam Gulch Classic tends to only attract hometown heroes, Faulkner said.

"It's all local-yokels," she said.

However, that's not to say there isn't depth to the field of competitors, Faulkner added.

"Sometimes we'll see Dean Osmar, Jon Little or Paul Gebhardt running their dogs or a puppy team, but right next to them will be amateur mushers and novices," she said.

Part of what draws professionals and rookies alike is the 12-dog limit (as opposed to 14-dog maximum for the Tustumena 200 and 16-dog max for the Iditarod) and the moderate length of the course.

"It'll be a two-day event, with 35 miles of trail covered each day," said Mitch Michaud, co-organizer of the event.

 

Photo by Joseph Robertia Jason Mackey crosses the finish line to win last season's race. Some professional mushers use the Calm Gulch Classic as a tune-up for larger races later in the year.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

This may mean professional mushers will do fewer miles than perhaps they are used to at this time of year, but the moderate mileage allows smaller kennels, beginning mushers or the handlers of professionals, to use the race for fun or preparation to bigger races, such as the Tustumena 200 later this month.

The Clam Gulch Classic also offers two separate divisions for dog drivers. There is a "racing" and "touring" class, with entry fees that are $35 and $10, respectively. Only the racers will be eligible to split the race purse, though, which will largely be determined based on the number of racers that enter.

This year the Peninsula Sled Dog and Racing Association will also be contributing funds to the race purse, but mushers must be PSDRA members in good standing to be eligible for a share of this additional money. Individual PSDRA memberships are $15.

"PSDRA put in some money to sweeten the pot, but also to demonstrate that we do more than just put on sprint races. PSDRA supports all dog mushing sports on the peninsula," said Michaud, who is also the president of PSDRA.

The trail for both classes will be the same. The route will begin at the trailhead of the Clam Gulch Trail, then wind up into the Caribou Hills, turning back for a return along the Falls Creek Trail, then cutting back over to the Clam Gulch Trail for the final leg.

Michaud said snow is skinny at the start, but improves quickly as the trail gains elevation.

"It's marginal, but doable down low, but the further out and higher up they get, the better the snow gets," he said.

While mushers are on the trail, Michaud said spectators can wait in a nearby and musher-friendly establishment.

"The Clam Shell Lodge is a good supporter of the race and its a good place for people to go for a burger or some hot cocoa while waiting for the mushers to come in," he said.

Those interested in being volunteers are asked to show up at the Clam Shell Lodge Saturday at 9 a.m. Sign-up for the race begins at 10 a.m. with a mandatory musher meeting at 11 a.m. The race itself starts at noon.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@ peninsulaclarion.com.



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