Peninsula mushers get ready for the big race: Iditarod

Posted: Thursday, March 04, 2004

The first Saturday in March is just a couple of days away and with it comes the start of the 32nd Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

This year, 87 mushers will brave the trail behind their 16-dog teams. Some are seasoned veterans looking for a win, while others are rookie drivers hungry to challenge the pros.

A mix of both kinds of competitors come from the Kenai Peninsula. Nine will make the trip by dog sled from Wasilla to Nome this year.

Between last-minute training runs, food-drop packing and mandatory veterinary check-ups; the last few weeks have been busy for these mushers.

However, they all found the time to share their thoughts and aspirations before going into this year's race.


Rookie Rick Casillo of Sterling is anxious for the start of his first Iditarod.

"I'm jacked to run it, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little nervous. I go to bed every night thinking about it, but I've trained hard and I'm confident we'll finish," he said.

Casillo isn't just new to the Iditarod, he's also relatively new to the sport of mushing. He moved to Alaska in 1999 and only got involved in it in 2000.

However, he has been around dogs his whole life, having formerly trained pointers and hunting dogs. Casillo also will run dogs from, and did much of his training with, Iditarod veteran Mitch Seavey.

Despite learning from a professional musher, Casillo said he doesn't have any false hopes about finishing as a front-runner.

"My goal is just to learn as much as I can about the trail and finish with a strong and happy dog team. I'm expecting to finish probably somewhere around the middle of the pack. I'll be happy coming in anywhere under 30th place," he said.

Casillo will celebrate his 31st birthday on the trail.

"I can't think of a better way to celebrate," he said. "Maybe, someone in one of the checkpoints will have a cupcake with a candle in it or something."


Kasilof-based Paul Gebhardt will run his young pups again this year.

"I'm expecting a finish similar to last year's, maybe a little better," he said.

In 2003, Gebhardt placed 23rd.

"My goal is to try and break the top 20."

Other than his beloved leader Reddog, none of the other dogs on his team this year is older than 3.

"It's been a three-year plan to build the team. This year will be for training again, but next year the dogs will be older, more mature, and they all will have been to Nome, so hopefully we can really turn it on then," he said.

Gebhardt knows that in the mushing world, today's youngsters may be tomorrow's champions. His best finish ever was second place in the 2000 Iditarod, but he's hopeful these pups will one day lead him to a first-place finish.


Originally from Kentucky, Kasilof musher Bill Hanes has many nicknames, including "Wild Bill" and "Hillbilly," which he said he doesn't mind a bit.

"It's probably because of my accent," he said with a thick southern drawl.

Hanes came to Alaska in 1993 to work as a commercial fisher in Bristol Bay and enjoyed skijoring during his down time. However, he wanted something more satisfying than what blades on the feet could offer.

"I wanted to go further and stay out longer, which meant I needed more gear," he said.

He made the switch to a dog sled and has never regretted it.

He said he can't complain about the training season this year, having used many of his Iditarod-qualifying races as training runs. He placed seventh in the Knik 200, and although he didn't finish as high as he would have liked in the Kuskokwim 300, it served to put some miles on his team.

"I'm really excited for Iditarod," Hanes said. "I'm just now starting to realize how close it is. My goal is just to finish and get my 2-year-old dogs through it. Then maybe I can take a year or two off and come back when the dogs are 4 or 5 and really push."


This will be Kasilof musher Jason Mackey's inaugural year in the Iditarod, and he said he's feeling a broad range of emotions as the clock ticks down to the start of the race.

"I've waited 32 years to run this race and now it's just days away," he said. "All I do is eat, sleep, drink and think Iditarod."

He has been getting a lot of advice from family members and friends, and he will blend all the information with what he already knows.

Mackey's credo is typically "expect the worst, but hope for the best." He said his strategy will be to play it by ear, based on weather, his team's performance and how the competition stacks up.

He's going into the race with only three goals.

"One I want to make it to Nome; two I want to be in the top 30; and three I'm hoping for rookie of the year," he said.

In many ways, Mackey is lucky to be racing at all, after he had an almost devastating run-in with a rogue moose several weeks back.

He came though the encounter with a cracked rib and a few bumps and bruises but had injuries to his team, some of which were destined for the Iditarod.

"I'm really sad to be leaving one of my wheel dogs behind," Mackey said. "His performance was great all year and he had really earned the right to go to Nome. He'll be missed."


Jason isn't the only Mackey in this year's Iditarod. His brother and kennel partner, Lance Mackey, also is in the race. So is their half-brother Rick Mackey from Nenana, who won the race in 1983.

All three are sons of Dick Mackey, who won the Iditarod by one second in 1978.

This year will mark Kasilof musher Lance Mackey's third appearance in the Iditarod, and he's hoping for his best finish yet.

"I'm shooting for the top 20, and hopefully will do even better than that," he said.

Mackey has finished in the top five in the six mid-distance races he has run this season, including the Tustumena 200 and Copper Basin 300.

"My team has been very consistent this season," he said. "I think my team's got it in them to really do it this year, but it's a challenging race and there are 20 other guys out there all thinking the same thing I am, so you never know what will happen."


Judy Merritt of Moose Pass said her slogan this year was "Nome not Rohn." In 2002, her first year running the Iditarod, Merritt hit a tree at the bottom of the infamous Dazell Gorge, irreparably damaging her sled.

"It was so busted up I couldn't make it to McGrath," she said, which would have been her next checkpoint. As a result, she had to scratch at the Rohn checkpoint, just under 300 miles into the race.

However, Merritt thinks she'll apply what she gleaned from that race to make it all the way this year.

"I've been running dogs for eight or nine years now, but my 2002 run showed me that I still had a lot to learn," she said. "This year we know more about what to expect and we're just going to take it checkpoint to checkpoint."

Merritt, who rescues dogs in addition to racing them, said for her, "It's not about winning, it's about getting to Nome with a happy and healthy dog team."


Tim Osmar of Ninilchik said his team has been consistent with training this year, and he's hoping all the hard work will pay off in a win.

"Training has been very steady. We haven't missed a beat, so I think we're ready for it," Osmar said. "I've got some young dogs, and I've got some veterans, but all are ready to race."

Osmar is a former Yukon Quest champion, and is typically a tough competitor in the Iditarod. He has finished the race in the top 10 on 10 occasions.


Carmen Perzechino of Sterling will be a rookie. He said his biggest worry is just making it to the starting line.

Bad luck befell the musher this time last year. One of his lead dog's ate a rock and required surgery, and his dog truck broke down, all just a week before the race.

However, Perzechino's been on the fast track this year. With all his qualifying races out of the way, he was able to focus strictly on training this year.

"Training has been good this year, so the dogs are healthy, and I'm feeling really good," he said.

Perzechino began mushing roughly five years ago, and he attributes his start to one event in particular.

"My karate teacher back east jinxed me," Perzechino said. "He had done some mushing and so when he found out I was moving to Alaska, he said, 'Here, you might need this' and gave me a sled."

A year later, after seeing Point Hope musher Russell Lane race, Perzechino got a sled dog from him.

"After that I just started piling them up, getting more and more dogs, and the rest is history," he said.

He's looking forward to the trip to Nome, saying, "It doesn't matter to me where I end up, I just want to finish with happy dogs."


Mitch Seavey of Seward said he's hoping for a win this year.

"If you race, you race to win, and my goal is to win the Iditarod. It's been my goal since the first time I raced it," Seavey said.

Seavey first ran the race in 1982 and placed 22nd out of the 54 mushers who started that year. He took a few years off before returning in 1995 and has run every year since.

This year the Iditarod will be following the northern route, which Seavey has always done better on, he said.

He currently maintains a 120-plus dog kennel and said he is hoping for a strong performance from the core group of dogs he's selected for this year's race.

"I've got a competitive team this year, some really good candidates, 22 that are the real nitty-gritty. I'm looking forward to getting on the trail and getting to Nome as fast as I can," he said.

Despite his strong desire to win, Seavey said it's not just about being the first one under the burled arch at the finish line.

"You can have a good race even if you don't win. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the lifestyle. I can't imagine not doing it. I intend to race it my whole life."

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