Photo by M. Scott Moon Lance Mackey's lead dogs Mattel and Maple are eager to start the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race on Saturday morning as Patrick Mackey waits for the order to move to the starting line.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Continue training? Or lease out your strongest dogs in order to spend more time with the family?
Kasilof musher Jon Little was forced into that predicament on Nov. 4, 2007, when his second child, Sylvie, was born.
Turns out the choice was simple.
"It wasn't a tough decision. It was tough doing it, but it was an easy decision," Little said. "If the dogs take precedence over your baby, then you've got a screw loose."
Running a team of mixed with experienced 2-year-olds and more accomplished journeymen, as his most talented competitors are training with four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King for the upcoming 1,049-mile trek across the Last Frontier, Little is one of 25 mushers currently competing in the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, which began in Kasilof at 11 a.m. Saturday.
"November and December are critical training months, and when you have a newborn, there's not much else you can do for a few weeks," Little said at Friday's vet check at the Soldotna Sports Center. "They get training, I get time with the family, and I still get some good training. I still was away from home for a bit working with the dogs, but not as much as I would be."
The trade off fortuitously allowed Little to sit out last weekend's Kuskokwim 300, a competition run predominantly along the surface of the traditionally frozen Kuskokwim River.
But when a tropical storm blew across the Pacific Ocean, causing temperatures to rise and ice to melt, and in turn, possibly placing mushers in precarious life-or-death situations, Little breathed a sigh of relief.
"There's a part of me that wanted to see how I would do in that horrible situation. But I think there's a part of me that's not thinking real deep," he said with a laugh. "Basically, if I go do the Kusko, I want a competitive team. It costs a lot to get over there and I want to really perform well.
"I definitely wasn't upset when I saw how things were going."
The conditions are much smoother for the T-200.
Or as Little put it prior to the race, ideal.
"Now we've got ... four or five, in some places, six inches of powder on top of it. It could be very good," he said of Thursday's snowfall. "A clear night is forecast with lows 15 below, moon. The dogs are going to love it."
According to race officials Saturday night, Judy Currier, of Two Rivers, was first out of Rocky's Straight Inn Lodge at 6:37 p.m. and on her way to the Clam Shell Lodge for the mandatory eight-hour layover. Wasilla's Ryan Redington was second, having left the lodge at 6:42 p.m., followed by Lance Mackey at 7:05.
Making the race even more intriguing is the talented field of competitors who embarked on the 200-mile journey.
"I think this is the deepest field this race has ever had," Little said. "And it's not like you've got the so-called names. You don't have Jeff (King), Martin (Buser), DeeDee (Jonrowe), those names. But you have very, very talented, skilled mushers, and skilled dogs all the way. So that will be a lot of fun."
Excluded from that list of "names" is defending Yukon Quest and Iditarod champion Mackey, a former Kasilof resident running this event for the first time in what he deemed to be two or three years.
Rachael Scdoris mushes her team across a lake near the start of the 200-mile long race through the Caribou Hills.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"This is where we originated years ago. I've never had real good luck down here for the simple fact that I trained down here and I have my cabin in the hills and the race trail goes right through all that stuff," he said, adding his best finish was third. "So I never had a real good run. I wasn't coming back until I had a team that hadn't seen this trail before."
With the Quest on the horizon, Mackey who didn't run a sled out of his Fairbanks' home until Jan. 18, much later than usual is obviously gunning for a victory. Keeping his dogs healthy is the primary focus, though.
"This is kind of the end of my preseason. I've done two other preseason races ... . This is the last hoorah. This team here, I'm basically looking for three dogs for my Quest team," he said. "I've come to the conclusion, I don't need any more training. I'm here to race. As much as I want to race, my dogs come first, and their performance at the finish line is most important to me.
"So if I have to come in seventh to make them look good at the finish line, that's what I'll do."
Considering what transpired at the Kusko, Mackey also is relieved at the conditions.
"I don't want to go swimming. I don't have very good swimmers," he said with a smile. "... The fastest teams can't go that fast in this deep powder snow. I think it's kind of an advantage for the simple fact that I've been training in powder snow for the last three weeks. I know my team isn't as fast as some of the teams that are out here racing. We're all on the same playing ground, basically."
Competing in just his second race, 21-year-old Tyler Cameron, a 2005 Soldotna High School graduate from Kasilof, is one of 17 mushers currently running the T-100.
Cameron was optimistic after placing 19th in the Knik 200.
"It should be a lot of fun. It looks like it's going to be great weather," he said. "It should be a good, clean, quick race for me."
That's what everyone's hoping for. And a victory wouldn't be bad, either.
Residing near the course for close to 12 years and running the race five or six times, Mackey said the T-200 holds a little extra meaning for him this year.
Especially with his 1,000-mile excursion just two weeks away.
"Sure, that'd be great," he said of winning his hometown race. "My wife likes the paychecks; I like the trophies. So if I get a trophy, that means I'm getting a paycheck, as well, and that's always nice.
"And like I said, I'm going on the Quest here in a couple weeks, so any extra funds for that trip sure would help."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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