Ninilchik musher leads Oregon rookie on the trail

Nome in their sight

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2006

 

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  Rachael Scdoris navigates an icy corner during the start of the 2005 Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race. It was her first taste of Alaska sled dog racing. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Veterinarian Tim Bowser talks to Rachael Scdoris and Tim Osmar about a dog during veterinary check-ups at the Soldotna Animal Hospital on Tuesday. Osmar will serve as Scdoris' "visual interpreter" for this year's Iditarod traveling ahead of her on a separate dog sled with a two-way radio to warn her about trail dangers.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Rachael Scdoris — a legally blind musher from Bend, Ore. — may have impaired vision, but that hasn’t stopped her from being focused on what has become a single, engrossing, all-consuming goal — to complete the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome.

This is no easy feat, however.

Annually, scores of people — without impaired vision — embark on this same endeavor, and despite having a deep desire to pass under the burled arch at the finish line, many fail to achieve their goal.

In fact, more people have reached the 29,035-feet high summit of Mount Everest than have made the 1,100-mile trek to Nome behind a 16-dog team.

 

Scdoris loads dogs into her dog truck outside of Soldotna Animal Hospital on Tuesday. Scdoris has congenital achromatopsia a hereditary visual impairment that affects her ability to properly perceive depth and fine details, particularly in bright light.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

And, like a high altitude mountaineering expedition, attempting the Last Great Race isn’t a decision that many make whimsically. It costs an exorbitant amount of money and takes months to, in some cases, years of planning and preparing. This was perhaps doubly so in Scdoris’ case.

Although Scdoris began mushing at the age of 3, the now 21-year-old stated “forever” when asked how long ago her childhood dream of running the Iditarod began. Officially, though, it was 2003 when she first approached the Iditarod board of directors.

Scdoris, was the first handicapped dog driver to ever seek special arrangements in order to participate in the race. She asked that special concession be made allowing for two snowmachines — one in front of her team and one behind it, and that they have two-way radios to advise her of trail conditions.

 

Tim Osmar

Photo by Joseph Robertia

However, Iditarod race rules specified competitors were only allowed to receive assistance from competing mushers in an emergency. The rules also restricted mushers to traditional forms of navigation, thus forbidding the use of radios and other communications equipment, as well as pacing dogs behind snowmachines.

Outcries also came from several Iditarod veterans. To return to the Everest example, climbers only are responsible for themselves, but in the Iditarod, mushers also are responsible for caring for 16 dogs. Mushers cited Scdoris’ congenital achromatopsia — a hereditary visual impairment that affects her ability to properly perceive depth and fine details, particularly in bright light — could be dangerous to her and her team.

After weeks of special sessions and exhaustive discussions, board members failed to approve special accommodations for Scdoris. She didn’t give up, though.

 

Rachael Scdoris navigates an icy corner during the start of the 2005 Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race. It was her first taste of Alaska sled dog racing.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Scdoris returned with another proposal that requested she be accompanied in the race by a “visual interpreter” traveling ahead of her on a separate dog sled with a two-way radio to warn her about trail dangers ahead. In a unanimous vote, race officials decided to waive the rules for her and signed off on the plan.

“I was ecstatic,” Scdoris said, remembering how she felt upon learning the news.

Scdoris eagerly signed up for the 2004 Iditarod with the plan of being led by Colorado-based musher and five-time Iditarod veteran Dan MacEachon. But Scdoris ended up withdrawing prior to the start after unforeseen problems arose in financing two dog teams at a cost of roughly $40,000 to $50,000 per team.

However, just like navigating her sled around a downed tree in the trail, Scdoris overcame this obstacle with savvy. She used the additional year to gain more experience toward a long distance race the caliber of the Iditarod and chipped away at her 500-miles of qualifying races — a mandatory prerequisite for all rookies hoping to compete.

In 2005, Scdoris — led by Tyrell Seavey, son of 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey — got her first taste of Alaska sled dog racing by competing in the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race in Kasilof. She then turned her sights to the Last Great Race.

Led by Paul Ellering — a Minnesota-based musher and veteran of only one Iditarod — Scdoris made it to Eagle Island — a distance of 731 miles. She scratched after her dogs became too sick to safely continue.

 

Tim Osmar assists Scdoris a legally blind musher from Bend, Ore. with paperwork during veterinary check-ups of their dogs.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Rather than seeing 2005 as a defeat, Scdoris said she was satisfied with her performance, because she proved to her critics — and more importantly to herself — she has the ability to do it.

That’s where musher Tim Osmar of Ninilchik — a 20-time Iditarod veteran entered the picture.

“I saw her skills during the race and saw she was a capable musher. Then I talked to her after she scratched and saw her determination. So I went home and thought about it and talked it over with my family and decided to call her up and offer to help,” Osmar said.

Scdoris said she is thrilled about their partnership.

“He’s a great guy with great dogs and few people can match his experience, so it’s a real honor,” she said.

As a visual interpreter and in many ways a mentor, Osmar had a lot to offer Scdoris. Since his first Iditarod at the age of 18 in 1985, Osmar has finished in the Top 10 on 10 occasions and finished outside the Top 20 only once. Also, Osmar has had a lot of experience working with young mushers, including all four of his own children, the oldest of whom — Nicole — won the Junior Iditarod in 2004.

To prepare for the 2006 Iditarod, Scdoris decided to relocate to Clam Gulch in January, to maximize her training both in Alaska and with Osmar. She said it was a stark contrast to what she was used to at home.

“It was very different,” she said. “At home we train a bit slower than Timmy does. Training with him, at first, was like training for the Open North American Championship (the Iditarod of sprint races).

Osmar also noticed the speed difference in the teams initially. The two mushers ran the 2006 T-200 as a shakedown run, and Osmar said he had to rate his team down a bit, so as not to pull away from Scdoris. However, he said as training progressed, their two teams began to balance out their speed.

“They’re just about equal now,” he said last week.

Just days before heading to Anchorage for the ceremonial start, Scdoris said her dogs were looking great, a large part of which she attributes to where and how she and Osmar trained.

“Training in the (Caribou) Hills was great. There are a lot of hills, a lot of trail options and the trail is never boring,” Scdoris said.

“We were able to run several hundred miles together and we got to know each other better with each run, and I got to see her sled driving ability is really darn good,” Osmar said.

However, in the 2005 Iditarod, after successfully making it through the Happy River Steps, Dalzell Gorge, Farewell Burn and numerous other obstacles that can make or break rookies, even Scdoris’ critics seem to accept she was a skilled dog driver.

If she needed help with anything, it was more in the area of transitioning from the feeding regime of mid-distance and stage racing, to one that better accommodates a continuous ultra-marathon like Iditarod.

“There’s a lot more to the Iditarod than just knowing how to drive dogs. Getting your food drops set up right is a big part of making it to Nome,” he said.

Iditarod dogs have to consume enormous amounts of food during the course of the race. Recent studies have shown that a 50-pound sled dog can burn more than 10,000 calories a day while distance racing.

Yet, after running for six-hour stretches, if a dog’s dinner isn’t extremely enticing, they may decide to curl up and sleep rather than eat, and once that happens it’s the beginning of the end for that mushers chances of making it all the way.

“Preparing our food drops was a big-time learning experience,” Scdoris said.

Osmar said other than taking twice as long due to preparing to feed two teams, the food drop preparation was the same this year as every year, and he packed plenty to entice even the most finicky of dog eaters.

“We sent out several hundred pounds of high quality commercial kibble, plus salmon, beef, lamb, liver, turkey — all the usual stuff,” he said.

Scdoris and Osmar said they believe all of the prior planning and practicing running dogs will translate into success for them in this year’s race.

“I know the ins and outs of the trail. We’ve got some good trained-up teams and we’re both good mushers, so baring any natural disasters, I think we’ll make it all the way,” Osmar said.

Scdoris said she has a completely different feel going into this year’s race.

“This time last year I was just freaked, but this year I’m just totally relaxed. I feel like everything is going great,” Scdoris said days before the start.

Scdoris said some of the relaxed feelings come from working with Osmar, who practically exudes ease.

“Timmy has such a positive attitude about everything. I love it. He makes everything easy, likes it’s no big deal. If something is unbelievably hard, his take on it is, ‘At least it’s not boring,’” she said.

Osmar’s take on the same matter was, “I’ve got to go into everything having fun,” he said.

Scdoris also said part of being comfortable going into this year’s race stems from knowing what to expect — sort of.

“Well, I’ve been through some of the tough parts of the trail, but conditions change every year, so the easy parts last year could be the hard parts this year,” she said.

While she does believe this is the year she’s going to make it all the way, she said she thinks she’ll still be the same person after the trek is over.

“I think I’ll have a great sense of accomplishment, but otherwise I think I’ll still be the same person. I’ll go home and scoop poop and take care of the dogs, just like I’ve always done.”

Osmar is confident they will do well, but said they will be further back in the pack than he is used to traveling.

“We probably won’t be in the Top 20, but I think we’ll do good.”

As to why he is willing make a move that might put him outside the Top 20, Osmar said the answer is two-fold.

“Well, I wanted to help Rachael out, but also this is a race I’ve done 20 times now and I’m hoping to do it 20 more, so it’s nice to do something like this in the middle. I’m really looking forward to it,” he said.

As to what Scdoris is most looking forward to after she leaves the starting chute to head into the frozen Alaska backcountry for the next two weeks, her answer is simple: “Nome.”



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