This weekend's Copper Basin 300 sled dog race offers something for everyone.
For some mushers it will be a race of determination and victory. For others it will glide and teeter along the edge of competition and recreation. For the sport's newer participants, it will be a race of experience and a testing ground for untried dogs.
Peninsula mushers competing fill all categories.
"There are going to be a lot of teams out there that are going to be hungry for a win," Jon Little of Kasilof said. "Then again there are going to be a lot of teams that aren't."
For mushers like Little the race will bring with it an air of competition and, if the opportunity presents itself, a victory. Even with the competition, mushers like Little will not forget the taste of sweetness brought by pure enjoyment of the sport.
"I've always loved mushing," Little said. "Make no mistake, I am not going out there to be easy going. But I always go out with a plan to fall back on, and that is to have fun."
The Copper Basin 300 sled dog race starts Saturday from Glennallen on a trail that will take mushers on a 300-mile journey through the hills and broken trails of the Copper River Valley. This year's field of 52 is larger than usual and includes some of the sport's brightest stars, including three-time Iditarod champions Jeff King of Denali Park and Martin Buser of Big Lake, and last year's Iditarod runner-up and defending CB 300 champion Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, all of whom will vie for a share of the $50,000 purse.
Gebhardt said he will be racing to win.
"Who's the favorite? Me. Or at least I sure hope so," Gebhardt said. "Don't get me wrong, I don't think I am just going to walk away with it. It's going to be a very good race. I am very confident of my team, and if we lose it will be because of something I do and not them."
Little agreed that even with King, Buser, past Iditarod winner Bill Mackey and Yukon Quest champ Frank Turner racing, his fellow Kasilof musher has to be considered the favorite to pocket the $12,000 first-place check.
"Paul won it last year and has a juggernaut team again this year," Little said. "He has a fast, fire-breathing bunch of dogs."
Gebhardt said Little, who is racing in his fourth CB300 and has finished fourth in the last two, is among the contenders who could challenge him for the title.
"Jeff King is showing up and he'll have a good team like he always has," Gebhardt said. "You also have racers like Martin Buser and Jon Little coming too. Little will have a good team and he knows that trail."
But Little downplayed his chances, saying the race offers a test for both him and his dog team.
"(The dogs) flourish on love and praise," Little said. "You can't get mad at them. My team is trained to be fairly fast. If there is a lot of blowing snow and drifts they won't perform very well. That's Paul's job, he is the trail breaker."
Among those racing for the experience, as well as their Iditarod qualifying miles, are Danny Seavey of Seward and Judy Merritt of Moose Pass. Sig Stormo of Funny River, who is looking to qualify for February's Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and Janice Foust of Ninilchik also will represent the peninsula in this weekend's race.
Seavey, the 18-year-old son of Iditarod veteran Mitch Seavey, will be joined in the field by his grandfather, Dan Seavey, also of Seward. Mitch, who will join his father and son to complete a three-generation entry in this year's Iditarod, is skipping the CB300 in favor of Minnesota's Grand Portage Passage, which begins Jan. 20.
The elder Seavey is an Iditarod pioneer who saw the snows of the first two races to Nome. The Seaveys have fled the snow-free peninsula for whiter training grounds in the Interior, but Dan's wife, Shirley, said her husband expected a good showing in the race, although he harbors no illusions about winning.
The lack of snow so far this year could weigh heavily on the outcome of the race.
"I think the training conditions have hampered everyone training in the state," Gebhardt said. "I've been living in my cabin in the Caribou Hills, just living in the snow. It has made family life tough, but the dogs are loving it."
Little said attempts to relieve the pressures of mild-winter training may have set aside the tensions of competition, or at least for now.
"This strange weather has brought mushers closer together," he said. "We have been helping each other out with training and trail-breaking this year. It has let us get to know each other even better then we did before."
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