Ninilchik fish processor goes to the dogs

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2000

A predominantly summer operation has found a way to take advantage of winter on the Kenai Peninsula.

Deep Creek Custom Packing is in its second year of offering its services to Iditarod dog mushers. The business, which has been processing fish in Ninilchik for nearly 40 years, prepares trail food for hungry canine-athletes, boosting its off-season business while lightening the prerace load of mushers, who used to prep trail food themselves.

"Each musher has his particular way of liking it," said company Superintendent Rod Van Saun. "We try to deliver the products the way it best suits their needs."

Mushers mostly bring in their own meat -- usually beef, lamb and liver -- and Deep Creek cuts it up and presses it into "Snickers bars," bagging and wrapping them in frozen 60-pound blocks for shipment out to remote checkpoints along the Iditarod Trail. The processor also offers its own pink and chum salmon for sale to mushers.

"We definitely appreciate what they're doing," said Kasilof musher Jon Little, who is getting ready for his second Iditarod. "Mushers are a minority. It's neat that somebody altered their routine for us."

Mushers' own routines, in addition to hours and hours of trail time with dog teams, include packaging and shipping 1,100 miles worth of supplies for dogs and themselves. Iditarod mushers were scrambling to finish their food drops over the weekend, in anticipation of the March 4 start of the annual mushing marathon from Anchorage to Nome.

"I did a lot of my own cutting last year. It took me several evenings," Little said. "It's all time I could be training dogs or getting things ready."

Iditarod veteran Tim Osmar of Kasilof, a perennial front-runner who is preparing for his 15th Iditarod, said he also enjoys the time he saves by having Deep Creek Custom Packing cut up 1,000 pounds of meat for him.

"What they can do in two hours there it takes us two days to do at home," he said. "It's quite a lot of savings."

Aside from the convenience the service provides to the mushing community, it also gives Deep Creek Custom Packing a boost in an otherwise slow time of year.

"We've got folks on staff (already)," Van Saun said. "This just keeps them busier than they would've been. It gives us a couple months worth of work that we wouldn't have otherwise had."

Van Saun credits Mike Sutton in retail and wholesale sales with rounding up the off-season business and keeping it growing.

"He's put a lot of effort into going out and meeting mushers and finding out what they need," Van Saun said. "They've been happy, and so have we."

Homer musher Dario Daniels is another believer in the process. He said he was so impressed with the effort the company took to accommodate his needs last year, that he signed on again this year.

"We told them what we needed. They listened very carefully and understood," he said. "We're very, very, very happy with them."

Deep Creek Custom Packing employs 30 people through the winter, down from 150 at the peak of the summer. The company does processing for both commercial and sport fishers and has retail outlets in Soldotna and Ninilchik, where it sells fresh seafood and gourmet canned and smoked products.

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