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For rookies, Nome is where the heart is

Iditarod fast fact: Dick Wilmarth (1973), Carl Huntington (1974) and Emmitt Peters (1975) were all rookies when they won the race.

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2000

Bob Hempstead

Age: 42

Home: Kasilof

Caleb Banse

Age: 18

Home: Moose Pass

John Bramante

Age: 36

Home: Kasilof

James Wheeler

Age: 30

Home: Kasilof

BYLINE1:By SARA J. SMITH

BYLINE2:Peninsula Clarion

Racing 1,150 miles of rough and lonely terrain isn't easy for an experienced musher. So for first-time participants in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it is even more intimidating.

Though the stretch is tough, four area men have committed themselves and their dogs for the first time to the Last Great Race, which gets under way at 11 a.m. Saturday with the annual ceremonial start in Anchorage.

To get to the starting line, Bob Hempstead, Caleb Banse, John Bramante and James Wheeler have undergone years of preparation and training. They also must have run at least 500 miles of Iditarod-sanctioned qualifying races.

Born in Nebraska, Hempstead has been mushing for 2 1/2 years. He was introduced to the sport by 1984 Iditarod champion Dean Osmar of Kasilof, "and that was it," he said.

Hempstead, 42, who now calls Kasilof home, raced in the Copper Basin 300 this year and the Nushagak Classic last year to qualify for the upcoming race.

"I am getting pretty nervous," said Hempstead, who works for Arco in Prudhoe Bay when he's not mushing his 16 husky-mix dogs leased from Osmar. "There is more to (the race) than just taking care of yourself."

But he should be well-prepared to do that. Among his list of accomplishments, he has climbed Mount Everest, although he claims completing the Iditarod will be even more difficult than that.

In competing in this Iditarod, he is getting himself and his team ready to sled to the North Pole, or deciding after the race if it is still a goal, he said.

Other rookies have different goals in mind.

Caleb Banse, 18, said he plans on enjoying the scenery along the trail, which winds through the Susitna Valley, over the Alaska Range, then northwest across a vast expanse of Interior Alaska to the Bering Sea coast for the stretch run to Nome.

Already a seasoned musher, Banse has competed in the Junior Iditarod, Copper Basin 300, Canada's Percy DeWolfe and the Grand Portage Passage in Minnesota. The Moose Pass resident, who grew up mushing with friend Danny Seavey, will be running behind a team of yearlings from the kennel of Iditarod veteran and top contender Mitch Seavey.

The idea of mushing started for Banse when he received a puppy as a young child. He then began attending every dog mushing camp and clinic he could to learn more about training and dog care.

Another area rookie knew he wanted to mush his first winter in Alaska in 1993.

John Bramante, a New Jersey native, has been mushing for five years.

"I am pretty excited," he said, "I think we are ready."

He shares his kennel with Iditarod veteran Gus Guenther; together they have 35 dogs total.

Bramante, 36, said he is ready for the surprises the race has in store. His goal for the race has nothing to do with the time it takes to finish or his speed, he said,. He simply is racing to have fun.

As well as being a dog musher, Bramante, who lives in Kasilof, is a doctor with Peninsula Internal Medicine in Soldotna.

His dogs have logged more than 2,000 miles for the training of the Iditarod. He has run in the Knik 200, the Copper Basin 300 and the Tustumena 200 to qualify for this year's Iditarod.

"Everything I do is a learning experience," he said.

The goal of being in the top 30, at least, is in James Wheeler's mind.

"I am looking forward to it," he said. "I think we are fairly ready for it."

Though he has never run the race, he has done a lot of winter camping and run other races to ready himself for the Iditarod. To qualify, he has run the Copper Basin 300 and the Tustumena 200 quite a few times, he said.

Wheeler, a self-described Army brat, moved to Alaska in 1993. He went on a few training runs with a friend and, like many others, was hooked. He lives in Kasilof and runs an oyster farm and fishes commercially during the summer.

His dogs, all huskies, are between the ages of 2 and 4.

"I will do my best with the team I have," he said.



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