Kevin Neher, a musher from Bend, Ore., leaves the chute during the official start of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race in Kasilof on Saturday. Eighteen mushers are competing in this year's T-200, and another 10 mushers in the T-100.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
In New York City they’ve got cabs, in Fort Worth they’ve got horses and in San Francisco they’ve got trolleys. In Kasilof they’ve got dog teams.
At no time is that more apparent than during this weekend’s start of the annual Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race.
This year’s race had a few changes, as the central Kenai Peninsula’s below-zero temperatures the latter half of last week forced race organizers to cancel the ceremonial start to the race.
Mushers took the decision in stride, though, and the official start got under way in Kasilof with few problems.
Jessica Hendricks of Two Rivers, the 2005 T-200 champion, is back this year to defend her title against the other 18 mushers signed up for the race.
She said the poor training conditions that prevailed for much of the season where she trains have worked against her.
“Our training hasn’t been as good as in past years. There’s been lots of ice and hardly any snow,” Hendricks said.
As a result of the hard trail conditions, she said a few dogs she would normally count on are sitting this race out.
“I don’t have a lot of dogs I wish I had, but the ones I do have are really miled up and ready, so my goal is to do the best I can,” Hendricks said.
Hendricks will have stiff competition this year, as two Iditarod champions Dean Osmar of Clam Gulch and Jeff King of Denali also are racing.
King, who just days ago raced in temperatures of minus 60 in Bethel to win the Kuskokwim 300, said he was happy with this weekend’s forecast.
“This weather is much more amiable,” he said in regard to the temperature holding at just under 10 degrees in Kasilof on Saturday.
King’s team of only 12 dogs 14 dogs are allowed in the T-200 that he is running in the race are not the same ones he had in the K-300. But he said that this team was “ready to go and wouldn’t blink an eye at 200 miles.”
He stopped short of saying his team would be the first to cross the finish line.
“With Jessica back, plus a host of other good mushers, we’ll have to see how it goes,” King said.
Another team to beat in this year’s race may be that of Kasilof musher Bill Hanes, who just two weeks ago placed first in the 80-mile Clam Gulch Classic. Hanes said he was hoping for a top five finish in the T-200.
“I got in some good training, even though I had to go to Cantwell to do it, so they’re really muscled up and their feet are looking good,” he said.
Hanes’ only concern was he had a heavy hand with the feeding ladle leading up to the race because he was expecting extreme cold.
“I planned and prepared for it to be minus 20, so a couple of dogs fattened up a little too much,” he said.
While many have picked Hendricks, King, Osmar or Hanes as potential champions, a dark horse for this year’s race may be Anjanette Steer from Sutton.
Steer is the wife of Yukon Quest contender Zack Steer and a kennel partner of annual Iditarod racer Robert Bundtzen, who also is in this year’s T-200. As such she has a strong pool of dogs to pull from and has trained them in the rugged high country of the Sheep Mountains near her home.
Steer said she was preparing for the race by expecting the worst but hoping for the best.
“I’m expecting it to be tougher than Sheep Mountain, and I think it really could be, but I’m looking forward to getting on the trail,” she said.
Also back again this year is Rachael Scdoris the legally blind musher from Bend, Ore. This year she will be led both in this race and in the Iditarod in March by Ninilchik musher Tim Osmar, who holds the official title of “most winningest musher” in the T-200.
“It made sense to lead her in this race as a good shakedown run,” Osmar said.
“I’ll be leading her, and while I won’t be racing for the first time ever, I’ve got a good team and so does she, so we may end passing a few people,” he added.
This year’s T-100, which runs simultaneous to the T-200, had 10 mushers this year. This out-and-back race, while 100 miles shorter, still is no easy feat as the musher has to carry their own food and supplies rather than having them waiting at a checkpoint as in the T-200.
T-100 mushers also can’t drop dogs during the race, so if one of their canine companions is sick or injured, it must be carried. Depending on the weight of the dog, this can often dramatically alter a musher’s finishing position.
Jeremy Malloy of Sterling said he was hoping that wouldn’t happen. Cold-related ailments and injuries leading up to the race forced him to start with only eight dogs as opposed to the 10 dogs allowed.
“I’m just hoping to finish in the top 10,” Malloy joked.
As to the conditions T-200 and T-100 mushers will face, trail groomer and marker Kevin Fulton of Kasilof said the trail was bumpy in a few places, but he did the best he could with the amount of snow he had to work with.
While snow conditions may be marginal in some areas, Fulton said the amount of trail markers he put out should put mushers’ minds at ease.
“I take trail marking pretty seriously,” he said. “Several of us put in 10-hour days this week. Up at Caribou Lake we cut holes with the chainsaw to stick markers in the ice. We’ve got 2,900 markers for 100 miles of trail.”
With that many markers, Fulton said it was improbable anyone would get lost, but he added that this since it was a dog race and anything could happen he wouldn’t go so far as to say it was impossible.
Anyone interested in checking mushers’ progress can do so on the T-200’s Web site, www.tustumena200.com.
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