Tustumena 200 still on track after 20 years

Breaking trail

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2007


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  Deam Osmar of Clam Gulch poses with a dog named Swenson before the start of the first Tustumena 200 in 1984. Osmar is one of the primary people responsible for the race's inception. Clarion file photo

Ed Borden of Kasilof drives his team toward the finish of the first Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race in 1984. Borden has since died.

Clarion file photo

Dean Osmar remembers that day back in 1984 well.

Cocooned in thick vestments to protect him from the gale-force winds hurling snow sideways at him, he surged on. He was being led by his loyal team of thick-coated canines that steadily punched a trail through the thick powder.

Little did Osmar or the six other mushers that set off driving dog teams from the Decanter Inn at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, 1984, know, they were about to be forbearers of history.

Osmar was using the first Tustumena 200 race to train for the Iditarod, which a month later he won. He was heavily favored to be the first across the finish line in that inaugural T-200, and in the end it was an Osmar, but not the one everyone thought it would be.

“Bob (Toll of Soldotna) and I were leading, but it was tough going, breaking a lot of trail, so we stopped to snack our dogs at Four Corners and Timmy came by,” Osmar said.

The younger Osmar, Dean’s 17-year-old son, asked what the two were doing. Not thinking anything of it, they told him they were taking a break.

“Timmy said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll go a little further up the trail and stop and snack too,’ but he never did,” Osmar said.

The younger Osmar had shown some of the same race strategy that has led to him being the musher with the most wins in the T-200 (see side bar).

From those humble beginnings the race has continued to grow over the past 23 years, and while it is still hailed by many as the toughest 200-mile race in Alaska, it has experienced many changes over the years.

First and foremost was the number of dogs mushers drove from the starting chute. Back then, teams of 12 to 18 dogs were legal, four more than the maximum number of 14 dogs currently allowed.

“Eighteen dogs was what Iditarod had back then, and since it was an Iditarod qualifier that’s what we had,” Dean Osmar, of Clam Gulch, said.

Over the years Osmar has worn many hats to help out the race.

“I’ve been race coordinator, race marshal, I’ve put in the trail and raced it, of course. I’ve never placed higher than second or lower than fifth,” he said.

Osmar has won the race’s humanitarian award, the sportsmanship award and the short-lived most inspirational musher award.


Deam Osmar of Clam Gulch poses with a dog named Swenson before the start of the first Tustumena 200 in 1984. Osmar is one of the primary people responsible for the race's inception.

Clarion file photo

Dog limits weren’t the only thing different in that first race. The event also had a different start, a few different checkpoints and the race course was considerably more dangerous then.

From the Decanter Inn starting point, the race course traveled inland seven miles to Tustumena Lake, where mushers then ran the lake’s north shore to Bear Creek.

“We’d stop at ‘The Lodge.’ It was Joe Blackwell’s place, and mushers could grab a hot cup (of coffee) if they wanted to,” Osmar said.

From there they crossed Tustumena Lake.

“It was always blowing and snowing when we’d shoot across,” Osmar said.

They crossed the big lake to Windy Point and followed the south shore back. The course then paralleled the Kasilof River and met with Centennial Trail, where there was another checkpoint and the race turned back inland over a series of trails to Four Corners in the Caribou Hills, a third checkpoint.

It then crossed the north fork of Deep Creek, climbed above timberline to 2,900 feet in altitude to cross over Ptarmigan Head, where Osmar said the weather was extreme, to say the least.

“It was pretty bad crossing Ptarmigan Head that first year. It was just a major storm, a total whiteout, with snow drifts so deep they buried the trail markers,” he said.

Osmar said he and the others mushers feared they might drive their teams right off a cliff as they wandered on and off the trail.

Eventually, after crossing Ptarmigan Head, the trail dropped down through the Boxcar Hills and crossed Caribou Lake, then followed seismographic trails to come out at Mile 18 on Homer’s East End Road — the race’s halfway point.

“The Homer checkpoint was pretty cool. We had a big bonfire and there was a barbecue going and people brought out lots of cakes and sweets,” Osmar said.

After resting, mushers then turned around and ran the same 104 miles back to the Decanter Inn.

Tim Osmar finished first at 1:01 a.m. Friday morning after 28 hours, three minutes on the trail.

Bob Toll came in second at 29:34, Dean Osmar was third at 30:26, Kenai’s Dan Cowen finished fourth at 40:42, Julie McIntyre of Ninilchik was fifth at 41:21, Bill Chamberlain came in two minutes later at 41:23, and Ed Borden of Kasilof was seventh at 52:25.

“That first race was really fun,” the elder Osmar said. “It’s still fun, but there was a lot more fellowship in those days — a lot more camping the dogs with friends, sitting around campfires, telling lies.”

This year’s T-200 begins Saturday, with the ceremonial start at 10 a.m. at the 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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