It was hard to tell who was more excited Saturday morning in downtown Kenai before the ceremonial start of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race -- the kids or the dogs.
As wide-eyed children stood anxiously alongside their parents, energetic dogs hopped and yipped as they were hooked into their harnesses. Race officials scuttled to and fro, busying themselves with last-minute preparations. Only the mushers seemed to be taking everything in stride, calmly standing in small clusters trading pre-race gossip about the upcoming race, which got its official sendoff at 3 p.m. Saturday from the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
Soldotna Elementary School student Cristal Barton quietly stood near the vociferous canines with her family, intently eyeing the action.
"It's really neat," said the little girl, barely taking her eyes from the dogs.
Barton was one of 40 local children lucky enough to get to ride along with a musher for the ceremonial start. The T-200 brings mushers together with kids for the event, providing the unique chance for children to experience the thrill of riding a husky-powered sled.
The event, which has grown significantly in the past couple of years, was the idea of Evy Gebhardt, of the T-200 race committee, and race sponsor Bob Favretto of Kenai Chrysler Center.
"This is my fifth year," said Favretto. "Evy came to me (five years ago) and asked me if I'd like to get involved with the Tustumena 200. What's the Tustumena 200, I said," laughed Favretto.
From that initial conversation, the ceremonial start has grown into a bona fide event.
"I said we should do something with the kids," said Favretto.
"I thought we should do something here in Kenai with the Peninsula Winter Games," Favretto said, pointing out that the annual games are held at the same time as the race.
The ceremonial start, which began hear Favretto's Kenai Chrysler Center and ran alongside Marathon Road, is popular with the mushers as well as the children who ride along with them.
"It's just great for the community," said Two Rivers musher Kevin Lupo, preparing for his first T-200.
Many mushers agreed that the community involvement is what makes the Tustumena 200 a top racing event.
"This is probably the premier one of the 200s and 300s. The community really gets behind it," said Vern Halter of Willow, one of the state's most experienced long-distance mushers, who is running the race for the first time in seven years. "I was looking at the sponsor list, and I think this one has more sponsors than the Iditarod."
"This is a vacation for me," said Canadian musher Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, articulating the loose attitude of the 38 assembled mushers.
Everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves, and the mushers seemed to genuinely care about helping out the kids.
"They go out of their way to keep the kids warm out there on the trail," commented T-200 board member Lonnie Kay Brooks.
Keeping warm was a high priority for many at the ceremonial start as the temperature hovered near zero.
At 10 a.m., the Alaska Young Marines presented the colors and the assembled crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The Young Marines, a youth service group, also volunteered to handle snow fencing and trail maintenance.
"We like to get involved with the community with volunteer things like this,"said Young Marine Commanding officer Ken Crews of Clam Gulch.
"My feet are kinda cold," was the only complaint overheard from the group of young volunteers, peninsula youths between the ages of 8 and 18.
Following the presentation of the colors, the first musher, Tim Osmar of Clam Gulch readied his team to hit the trail.
"Five, four, three, two, one ... go," race announcer Ron Holloway of KSRM radio said over the loudspeakers, and the ceremonial start was under way.
From that point, the teams left the starting gate, some with two children in the basket, at two-minute intervals. The waiting was affecting the psyche of the already hyper dogs. As they waited for their turn to hit the course, the dogs tried frantically to get their mushers to move. They resembled high octane automobiles, revving their engines before the green flag.
"It looks like northern lights NASCAR," said Kenai Chrysler salesman Dan Ungrue, watching the dogs strain at their harnesses.
As the teams took their turns heading out on the mile-long course, the excitement in the crowd began to abate. More and more people returned to the safety of their vehicles to get out of the cold and watch the teams file by in comfort. Talk among those who remained turned to who would win the actual race.
And the children riding in the sleds were difficult to distinguish underneath the countless layers they wore to protect them from the elements. All that was visible were their broad smiles.
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