Many distinctly Alaska images are conjured by sled dog racing -- the barking of excited dogs rising over the din of an assembled starting line crowd; the soothing sweep of sled runners piercing the cold, silent air of a remote forest trail; frozen-whiskered faces of canine-athletes or the haggard face of a weary musher nearly gone the distance.
These will be in abundance again this weekend as the 19th annual Tustumena 200 is run in the peninsula's own Caribou Hills. The race has seen many changes over the years and has grown into one of the premier pre-Iditarod competitions in the state.
One image not likely to be conjured, though, is the image of any of the countless nameless and faceless volunteers and sponsors who have helped the race grow into a headline event -- and a community production -- of which all peninsula residents can be proud. Whether it be marking trails, handling dogs or lending a hand at a checkpoint, volunteers are the life blood of this race. And without a purse -- including the $10,000 first-place money -- the race would be unable to draw so many "big name" mushers to the event. This year's major corporate sponsor, Kenai Chrysler Center, has been a driving force in establishing the race's financial credentials, as well as in developing the ceremonial start into the community event it has become in recent years.
Only through such a synthesis of corporate money and volunteer muscle can a race like the T-200 even exist. Other, more spectator-friendly sports usually grab the majority of the headlines, so sponsors are often wary of getting involved with sled dog racing. It takes an extraordinary amount of interest in the community for sponsors to lend their name to something that is not likely to generate the kind of recognition generated by more popular winter sports, such as hockey or basketball.
It speaks volumes about the character of a community when so many people are willing to step up and support events like the T-200. Sled dog racing is one of the many things that make Alaska different, something special. Without people who are genuinely interested, competitive dog mushing would cease to exist. Those volunteers and sponsors who care enough about preserving this Alaska tradition are truly giving something important to the Kenai Peninsula, something that can never be measured with dollar signs or hours worked. In doing so, they are a testament to what makes Alaska, and Alaskans, something special.
Nema Arndt, race secretary, said close to 100 volunteers from the community are helping to make this year's race a reality.
"Without the volunteers, there wouldn't be a race," she said.
So if you go out to cheer for your favorite musher this weekend, don't forget to say thank you to a race volunteer or sponsor.
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