With all the sled dog teams down in Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod Saturday, skijorers had the trails around Fairbanks all to themselves for the Two Rivers 50-Miler.
Soldotna's Bill Berkhahn finished the race in second place in 4 hours, 16 minutes and 29 seconds, 15:12 behind winner Andy Elsberg, while Char Mason of Kasilof was fifth overall, crossing the line at 4:46:35.
Berkhahn ran the race with a team of three dogs, Bandit, Nellie and Alder, while Mason ran two dogs, Triumph and Glenn.
Both skijorers were competing in there first Two Rivers race.
"I've always wanted to do a long-distance race," Berkhahn said before heading up to Fairbanks last week. "I've signed up for this race a couple of times. It's finally a go for this one."
While Berkhahn and Mason have taken the sport to its extreme in terms of competition, both had much more humble beginnings with skijoring.
Berkhahn and his wife, Patti, started skijoring as a fun way to spend a winter afternoon with their family dogs while they lived in Fairbanks.
"We both started with the same old husky mix in Fairbanks," Patti said. "Mostly, we just like to be out with the dogs."
Bill's job as a park ranger brought the couple to the Kenai Peninsula several years ago, and they became involved Peninsula Sled Dog Racing Association, several members of which were looking to form a group for skijorers.
Mason was one of their early converts, dropping the sled for skis about eight years ago.
"I was at a sprint race at the airport," Mason said. "Then I did one with my Siberians. I went about as slow as you can go."
Mason started with sled dogs in Talkeetna in the early '80s, hooking up with Pecos Humphries when he was training for the Yukon Quest.
"I came to Alaska for a summer and stayed forever," Mason said during a break in her training last week on the Kenai Golf Course. "I got to help him train his dogs.
"When I was a kid, growing up in Lake Tahoe, I went camping all the time. Up here, I got to go winter camping at Denali, and I had to carry a heavy pack. When Pecos took me winter camping, he put everything -- a cast iron skillet, a chainsaw, all of our gear -- in the sled. I was hook, line and sinker after that."
Mason went on to handle for the Osmars for three years, where she says she picked up most of her knowledge of sled dogs.
"It's been invaluable experience. The three years I handled for them was like a college education in dog mushing," Mason said.
Mason still keeps in touch with the mushing community. In fact, Kasilof musher James Wheeler, an Iditarod rookie, suggested she treat her dogs to a little bit of lamb at the 30-mile checkpoint in the Two Rivers race.
Mason's plan for the Two Rivers race was to take it easy through the checkpoint, following the flat course along the Chena River. She figured the dogs could pour it on over the final 20 miles, taking advantage of the hilly terrain.
"There's not a lot of gee and hah (right and left) until you get past the (trans-Alaska) pipeline," Mason said. "After training in the Caribou Hills, we do hills really well."
While Mason seems to have moved into the upper echelon of competitive skijoring fairly quickly, most skijorers tend to follow the same track that the Berkhahns did.
Even Mason said she spends her fair share of time just enjoying the outdoors with two of her older dogs.
"These two older girls -- we just tour," Mason said. "We stop and smell the roses and watch the birds. I call it recreational skijoring at its finest.
"It's a nice way to be outdoors and get some exercise. You bond more with your dogs. It's a special type of bond."
Mason said members of the skijor club take all types of dogs out on the trails, from huskies to Labrador retrievers to mutts. Just about any dog will enjoy an afternoon romp in the woods; the trick for most novice skijorers is developing the skate-skiing skills necessary to keep up with the dogs.
"A lot of people think you're just standing on your skis, going along for the ride," Bill said. "You can do that, if you've got a dog strong enough to pull you. But if you're serious about speed, the more skiing you do, the easier it is for the dogs to pull you. You use the skate technique, or sometimes you can double-pull down the trail.
"You're always putting effort in to help the dogs out. In a sprint, you have to skate ski behind the dogs as hard as you can. Otherwise, the dogs will tire out faster."
Mason has taken steps to improve her skate technique by attending clinics run by Stephanie Kind, the Kenai High School ski coach, and Dave Feeken on the Kenai Golf Course.
"They've been teaching me how to do it right," Mason said. "I'll be so much more efficient -- I'll be as fast as my dogs," Mason said. "My first win, whenever that happens, is going to be because of their coaching."
In the meantime, Mason is just hoping to give Bill Berkhahn a run for his money so he doesn't have to go to Anchorage to find some competition. She's also training a third dog, Cloud, for her team, and says that opens up a whole new world of endurance races.
"I wouldn't mind Skijoring to Nome," Mason said. "It'd be a great way just to see the country. The opportunity's there, I've got the dogs, I've got the knowledge."
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