Mush: Peninsula pups hit the trail

Posted: Friday, February 24, 2006

Three young pups from Kenai Peninsula are in the final stages of preparing to test themselves and their dog teams during the 2006 Jr. Iditarod Sled Dog Race being held this weekend.

Cain Carter, 14, of Kasilof, Patrick Mackey,14, of Funny River and Mark Ruzicka,17, of Anchor Point are among the 20 mushers signed up to compete in the youth version of the Last Great Race.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Mackey, his last name familiar in dog mushing circles as his father Jason Mackey has competed in the Iditarod in the past, and his uncle Lance Mackey — who is also Carter’s step father — just won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race for the second year in a row.

Started in 1978, the Jr. Iditarod began as a way to provide a competitive training ground for young mushers interested in distance mushing.

Teens fourteen to seventeen can accept the challenge of 10-dogs on the 140-mile out and back race the follows some of the traditional Iditarod Trail.

The race begins in Knik, then winds it’s way over hills, through forests, across frozen swamps and down icy rivers before reaching the halfway point at Yentna.

There, at Yentna Station, the mushers take a mandatory 10-hour layover before retracing their trail back to the beginning, which is also the end.

To reward the dedication and determination of these young mushers that participate, the University of Alaska College Savings Plan provides scholarships to the first, second, third, fourth and fifth place finishers, and two prizes for the winners of the sportsmanship and humanitarian awards.

Mackey, still a few years away from college, said he’s not going up to Knik with the idea of coming home with a scholarship, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

“This is my first year so I’m going to have fun. I’m just hoping to finish, but if I get to Yentna and I’m in a good position, then I will compete on the way back,” he said.

Mackey said he has worked hard to prepare for this race, which hasn’t been easy since he is still in school and has to balance training dogs and doing homework.

“I’ve been training all year. I just try to get most of my work done at school and then I run dogs after school. I’ve been running the dogs on a three days on, two days off schedule,” he said.

Mackey said his father is at ease with him preparing to travel the back country by dog team, but that his mother is a little worried. He said she has nothing to fear though.

“I’ve been doing this awhile, so I’m pretty used to it,” he said with the confidence of youth.

Like Mackey, Carter will also be running his first Jr. Iditarod. He said he made the decision to compete after many years of watching his stepfather and step-uncle run from Anchorage to Nome.

“Lance and Jason always come home and say how much fun it was and what a good time they had,” he said.

Carter said that despite this being his first race, he is confident in himself and his dogs.

“We’ve trained hard and I feel like we’re ready. I’m hoping to do the best I can,” he said.

Carter said his biggest fear isn’t the winter weather, the isolation, or getting off trail and becoming lost. Instead he feared something much worse in the eyes of a teen.

“I’m not nervous about the race. I’ve heard rumors about a banquet after the race and I don’t want to get on stage and talk,” he said with complete sincerity.

At 17-years-old, Ruzicka will be the oldest youth from the peninsula competing in the race. Unlike, Carter and Mackey who’s parents are professional mushers, Ruzicka said his father mushed recreationally, but it was helping his dad run dogs for fun that gave him his start.

“He ran dogs for years, just not competitively. I started to move in that direction two years ago to prepare for the Jr. Iditarod,” he said.

Ruzicka is officially listed as a rookie, but he ran the race last year and completed all but 40-miles of the course before dog related injuries and ailments forced him to scratch. He’s hoping this year will be better.

“I’m pretty confident about this year. I’ve been fortunate with training this year and have over 1,000 miles on the dogs,” he said.

Ruzicka has also performed well in races earlier in the season, placing 5th in the Clam Gulch Classic in January, only a few minutes behind Iditarod contenders like Tim Osmar and Bill Hanes.

As such, he hopes to do the best he can, but despite how his performance turns out, as a 17-year-old this will be his last race, at least at the junior level. However, he said another Ruzicka may take his place in 2007.

“My sister Rebekah turns 14 soon, so next year she’ll take the dogs,” he said.

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