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Sled dot race heads for (Caribou) hills

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2001

Barking dogs, noisy people and lines of cars are the kinds of things that bring law enforcement running to most neighborhoods. But no one in the vicinity of Kasilof's Tustu-mena Lodge was complaining Saturday morning.

It was the start of the 2001 Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, a qualifying event for the Iditarod. And the neighborhood turned out in full force to watch 20 mushers from Alaska, the Lower 48 and points outside the United States, compete for the $25,000 purse.

In the last 60 minutes before the 11 a.m. start, mushers gave instructions to handlers, put booties on their dogs, checked over their sleds, answered questions from the public and signed autographs.

"I get to lead the pack," said smiling Kasilof musher James Wheeler, wearing bib No. 1.

Next to him, Larry Carroll, of Willow, was setting his sights on something he left unfinished in 1996.

"I scratched (in the Tustumena 200) in 1996," said Carroll, a decision made because of rough trail conditions. In the years since then, Carroll has left his mark on the Yukon Quest, finishing fifteenth in 1998, seventh in 1999, and twelfth last year. This year he was back on the Kenai Peninsula to finish the Tustumena 200. "I try not to leave anything undone."

Wendy Warren, of Kasilof, who finished third and eighth in two runs at the Junior Iditarod, expressed some concern over possible patches of ice on the T-200 race course.

"The start's pretty hairy," Warren said, referring to the first 15 miles. Last year, weather conditions slowed Warren's progress, but this year she hopes to cross the finish line by 8 p.m. Sunday.

 

A full round of hot chocolate poses a momentary distraction for Abby Chadwick during the race start.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Lance Mackey, fresh from participating in the Copper Basin 300, was hoping to shave 10 hours off last year's time. Like Warren, weather slowed him down considerably in the 2000 race.

Weather played a major factor this year, too. Lack of snow caused race officials to push the start back a week. The decision paid off with an additional 6-inch accumulation of snow.

Tabby Perkovich, race veterinarian from Soldotna, made her way through the teams.

"I'm really happy with the way the dogs are looking this year," she said.

 

Homer amateur Jason Cameron leaves the starting line at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Postponing the start had a negative effect on Perkovich, who lost members of her veterinary team because of the scheduling.

"We're short a couple of people," Perkovich said, adding that there would be six vets stationed along the course. She looked forward to a busy night at the Clam Shell Lodge, halfway point of the race where racers are required to take a six-hour layover.

Tim Osmar's wife, Tawny, said her husband was "all set to go." Focused on last minute details, the Clam Gulch musher just nodded his head in agreement.

Jeff King, of Denali Park, was back to defend his 2000 win.

"It's a beautiful day for a dog race," King said. "I'm looking forward to a good run."

Rick Swenson, from Two Rivers, and a five-time Iditarod champ, said the delayed start worked in his favor, giving him another week to train and making it possible for him to participate in Saturday's race.

Injured dogs and a stretched Achilles' tendon placed Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt on the sidelines Saturday. Looking at the field of mushers, Gebhardt, who took second in last year's Iditarod and has won the Tustumena 200 twice, said the decision wasn't an easy one.

"I would love to be racing against these guys," he said. "I'm champing at the bit."

Blue-ribboned volunteers, family members and friends helped restrain the eager teams at the starting gates. Onlookers whooped and hollered, snapped pictures, waved at favorite mushers and were ready to help if needed. During the two-minute wait between start times, mushers stepped to the head of their teams, patted the lead dogs and quietly praised them.

Todd Black, from Clam Gulch, helped control teams as they pulled in their harnesses, waiting for the five-second countdown. Black began mushing in 1993, but said lack of training this year due to lack of snow made him decide not to compete in the Tustumena 200. He is the proud four-time winner of the Clam Gulch Classic's Red Lantern (last place) trophy and looked forward to defending that title in March.

Black predicted Osmar, King and Swenson would be the top finishers in Saturday's race. But it was the camaraderie among mushers and their teams, rather than the competition, Black focused on.

"The dogs run because they love you," he said. "Sometimes out there, it's just you and the 14 dogs."

This wasn't the first time Chris Newgren and his 6-year-old niece Alena, both of Kasilof, have watched the start, nor is it the only race that has caught Newgren's interest.

"I watched the Iditarod last year," Newgren said, adding that he has a cousin who is a dog handler. But that was as close as Newgren said he wanted to get to mushing. "It looks like too much work to me."

David and Yumi Baxter and their sons Calvin, 6, and Walter, 4, chose the vantage point of their pick-up bed to view the start of the race. Snacks and cups of steaming beverages turned the event into a family picnic.

"I couldn't bring my dog, Celia," said Calvin of having to leave his 1-year-old sheepdog at home. The Tustumena Elementary School student said Celia pulls him on a sled.

Caught up in Saturday's excitement, Calvin said one day he might try racing her in the Tustumena 200.



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