Greg Barclay grooms trail recently near the Four Corners checkpoint before the Tustumena 200 sled dog race.
Photo courtesy of Caribou Hills
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of five stories leading up to the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race starting Saturday. Friday’s story in the Outdoors section is on the race’s history.
A good race is made up of many things, but ask many mushers what is most important and they will likely say having a good trail.
Either that or a good purse.
Seriously, though, when a sleep-deprived musher is way up in the high country of the Caribou Hills, in the dark of night, and snow is blowing sideways, the last thing they want to do is wonder where the trail is.
“It is critical to have a well-marked trail,” said Bruce Linton, a musher who moved from Vermont to Kasilof last year.
Fortunately for the mushers entered in this year’s Tustumena 200, the small band of volunteers that mark the trail take their role in the race very seriously.
“We don’t want anyone getting lost so we’ll put out about 3,000 markers,” said Kevin Fulton, one of the people putting out the wooden stakes donated by local sponsors that are then painted fluorescent orange by Roy Hoekman of Kasilof.
Fulton said he and others start marking the trail, 25 miles per day, about a week before the race. He said he focuses heavily on marking the more challenging areas.
“We saturate corners and have lots on tops of hills that might be bad so mushers know to be on the brake. In the swamps and open areas where it could be tough to see, we put markers about 100 feet apart,” he said.
Fulton explained since the average 14-dog team is roughly 70 feet long, as a musher is passing one marker, his or her lead dogs should be almost up to the next one.
Linton, while not signed up for the T-200, uses the race’s course for training for the Iditarod and he said not all race organizations have as high a standard as the T-200 when it comes to keeping up their trails.
As a musher with out-of-state race experience and having participated in several in-state races already, he said he has seen a wide spectrum of trail conditions while competing.
He said he has been on race trails “so poorly marked I got lost in certain areas. I ran through sections miles long with alders and sticks sticking up that could poke the dogs. I’ve been on other races where the trails are so narrow you can’t even pass or be passed safely.”
In contrast, Linton said the trails for the T-200 are practically superhighways, they are so wide and well-maintained.
“They’re incredibly groomed and beautiful. The (Caribou Hills) Cabin Hoppers do a hell of a job,” he said.
Howard Davis, a Cabin Hoppers board member, said Linton is not the first person to make such remarks.
“I’ve heard from a lot of mushers, it’s the nicest course in the state,” he said.
While not a dog musher himself, Davis said it is beneficial for different user groups to share trails, particularly since land for outdoor recreation tends to decrease with time.
“I like trails that are multi-use, rather than each individual user groups snowmachiners, dog mushers, what have you each having their own trail,” he said.
Davis said other areas around the state could learn from this example.
“It’s not like this all over. We’re one of the few areas where the two groups don’t fight. We help each other out with things like cutting trees out of the trail. We work well with the dog mushers” he said.
Linton affirmed that the feeling was mutual among mushers.
“In Vermont people on snowmachines would try to kick your dogs and they acted like you being there was a safety issue, but here, the snowmachiners are so freaking nice.
“The majority of them will pull over, stop and turn off their engine when they seeing you coming. It seems like the snowmachiners really respect the dog mushers,” he said.
This year’s T-200 begins Saturday, with the ceremonial start at 10 a.m. at Kenai Chrysler Center, followed by the official race start at 2 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia @peninsulaclarion.com.
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