Norwegian mushers handle Iditarod's bumpy trail as teammates

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

RAINY PASS (AP) -- Sled dog racing isn't generally considered a team sport. But the three Norwegian mushers racing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this year refer to themselves as Team Norway.

And with good reason. They've handled bumps along their way to the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race with a sense of team spirit and plenty of good humor.

For Harald Tunheim of Alta, Norway there was the lost luggage and the visa snafus of a handler and a badly sprained ankle that kept Tunheim from the ceremonial start.

For rookies Robert Sorlie of Hurdal and Kjetil Backen of Porsgrunn, there were the housing arrangements that fell through after they reached Alaska just days before the start of the race.

Ask Tunheim about his dogs and he'll tell you how fast his teammates are. Ask Sorlie and Backen how they are doing and they express concern about Tunheim's swollen ankle.

And if anyone wonders what Norwegians know about mushing, they mention Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian who came to Alaska in 1900 and was best known for his heroic 260-mile run to bring lifesaving serum to Nome during the diphtheria outbreak of 1925.

Tunheim, Sorlie and Backen each have years of mushing experience and each has won Norway's premier long distance sled dog race, the 1,000-kilometer Finnmarkslopet. Each has spent about $50,000 to get to the starting line of the Iditarod -- a price tag that includes the cost of equipment; the cost of transporting themselves, their dogs and their handlers to Alaska; and the cost of supplies and food for themselves and their dogs as they travel up the trail.

''It's a dream for me,'' said Sorlie, a firefighter who is married and the father of two boys. He took out a bank loan to finance his Iditarod dream. He would like to finish as the top rookie this year.

''I'm not just here for the experience,'' he said.

Also hoping for the rookie prize is Backen. Married and the father of two small children, he works for a company that makes devices for handicapped people. Backen has promised his wife he will take a break from competitive mushing for a few years, so his first Iditarod is likely to be his last for a while.

''The Iditarod is the ultimate challenge,'' said Backen who has been mushing since 1997. Backen owns just 16 dogs and is running with all of them.

Sorlie and Backen have stayed close as they make their way up the trail in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

''We travel together, we are good friends -- but not on the trail,'' Sorlie said with a grin, hinting that, perhaps, they would split up as they got closer to Nome.

If there is a leader of Team Norway, it is Harald Tunheim, who is running his third Iditarod. Tunheim was the top Iditarod rookie in 1999, finishing 19th. He finished 25th in 2000. Tunheim, a teacher, is married and the father of a 1-year-old boy.

Before the start of this year's race, Tunheim said his teammates had the fastest dogs. His team, he said, was young. But it is Tunheim who jumped ahead early in the race, despite wrenching his right ankle at the pre-race banquet. At the start of the race he joked that, if he was going fast, it was because it hurt too much to put on the brake.

The other two eventually passed Tunheim farther down the trail.

Arna Isacsson of Fairbanks packed all the food and supplies sent out to the race checkpoints for the Norwegian mushers.

''They're kind of the Doug Swingleys, Martin Busers and Rick Swensons of Norway,'' Isacsson said of Team Norway. ''It's a really big deal that they've come over here.''

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