Above, Willow musher Dee Dee Jonrowe is all smiles while Sarah Loehr and Robert Dillon stay bundled in her sled basket during the ceremonial start of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race on Saturday morning. At right, funny river musher Jason Mackey goofs around with Red Dog after clipping a T-200 race tag to his collar during veterinary checks at the Soldotna Sports Center on Friday.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
It's race weekend Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, that is as should be obvious by the preponderance of dog trucks that have converged on the central Kenai Peninsula over the past few days.
"It's really great to be here," musher Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers said during the veterinary examination of dogs Friday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Zirkle may be new to the T-200 billed as the toughest 200-mile race in the state but she is by no means new to mushing, having been the first woman to win the 1,000-plus mile Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race in 2000.
The warm weather and scant accumulations of snow on the drive into Kenai had Zirkle a bit concerned about how her dog team would fare over the next two days.
"It was negative 20 when we left. That's what these guys are used to," she said, referring to playful dogs strung 360 degrees around her dog truck.
Zirkle wasn't the only musher concerned about the weather and the trail. As of the most recent trail report posted on the T-200 Web site, the trail is described as hard and fast with hard-packed snow.
On Saturday morning, mushers were met by a parking lot of glare ice in the staging area for the ceremonial start at the Kenai Chrysler Center, which didn't do much to squelch their fears.
"Even with just five dogs, I'm nervous about going out of here in a blaze of glory," said Kasilof musher William "Wild Bill" Haines.
His concern was warranted. Barks and howls ascended in waves from his dogs lunging in harnesses in a near hysterical state as they were ready to do what they were born and bred for run.
Trying to calm the dogs was a futile job. However, as the pink parka-wearing race emcee Evy Gebhardt signaled the start and Haines pulled his snowhook, it was as though a switch was flipped.
The dogs went silent. The only sounds to be heard were the rhythmic beating of their paws on the snow and ice and the swish of the sled as it rocketed by the cheering crowd.
Also, fortunately for Haines and Chris Johnstone the young rider wrapped in a cocoon of synthetic layers in the sled basket, there was a surplus of volunteers at the ceremonial start at Kenai Chrysler Center and other key locations to help slow dog teams down and direct them back if they strayed from the course.
Haines's mile-and-a-half run went clean, as did the runs of nearly all the other mushers. Afterward Haines said he was happy to participate in the event.
"Sponsors do a lot to help make this race happen, and so participating in the ceremonial start is a good way, my way of helping give back to them," Haines said.
"It also lets kids and their parents see what mushing is all about. Some people don't know how much is involved until they see it up close," he added.
Ninilchik musher Tim Osmar also said he likes to participate in the ceremonial start.
"Not everyone's kids are like mine, where mushing is a part of their life every day, so it's nice that these kids get to experience it and get a lot out of it. For some of them it's a dream come true. They'll walk around with a perma-grin the rest of the day," Osmar said.
Kasilof musher Lance Mackey also appeared to relish in taking part in the event. As always, he rode in the basket of the sled, while his 11-year old rider, Josh Souders of Kenai, did the dog driving.
As to why Mackey lets the children drive every year, he said, "It's their day, too, at least this part of it is anyway, and I want them to get the full effect."
Souders didn't seem shy about stepping on the runners.
"It was awesome," the boy said of not only getting a chance to drive, but to drive with Mackey, who he had rooted for in last year's Iditarod as part of a school project that followed the race.
Rachael Scidoris, a legally blind musher from Oregon, prepares to feed her dogs while waiting for the pre-race banquet to begin Friday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Seeing the kids so excited with the morning's activities was equally satisfying to those who organized the rides.
"It's really awesome that kids can take part in a world-class event an Iditarod qualifier like the T-200 and meet world-class mushers," said Mya Renken, a volunteer coordinator for the event.
She also pointed out that the Last Great Race has a similar event called Iditarider, in which sled rides are auctioned off to people who will pay several thousands of dollars to ride with a musher.
The kids who ride in the ceremonial start of the T-200 didn't have to pay one cent.
"There were 33 kids selected to ride. We got kids from all over our area. Some are driving up from Homer and Seward, and a few came down from Anchorage," Renken said.
According to Renken, children were selected from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, as well as more than 20 other organizations known for working with special needs or special situation children.
"Also, not all of the kids are special needs. There's also the T-200 poster contest winners, one is Jess Russell the boy that saved his dad's life while commercial fishing last summer, a child with parents in Iraq and a few others," she said.
Renken said it took a lot of organization, phone calls back and forth and other preparation to make the children's sled rides happen.
"It was a lot of work, but once you meet the kids and their families and see them interact with the dogs and mushers, it's a reward in itself. It's very heart-warming," she said.
After the ceremonial start wrapped up, mushers and their dog teams headed to the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, where they were met by mushers of the Little T the 100-mile race that runs simultaneously.
The crowd of spectators were rife with predictions for who might win the two races. Neither of last year's champions are present this year to defend their titles.
Also, with four Iditarod champions as well as five Yukon Quest champions running in the T-200, and several Iditarod veterans in the Little T, most had a difficult time predicting who will win.
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