Iditarod musher capitalizes on summers spent on Norris Glacier

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- For many of the more than 1,000 dogs running in Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this year, training is shortened by summers spent lazing around the kennel when not running a few laps on the dog wheel or being hitched up to a team that pulls a four-wheeler down a trail.

But Linwood Fiedler and his dogs are able to call upon their Juneau advantage.

Fiedler, 48, runs Alaska Heli-Mush in partnership with ERA Helicopters each summer on Norris Glacier, which is off the Taku Inlet just south of Juneau. From mid-May to the end of August, helicopters fly tourists to the glacier, where Fiedler has about 150 dogs and 20 staff members leading short sled dog tours.

His Juneau advantage means Fiedler is able to run his dogs on snow for all but one or two months of the year when most teams maybe have six or more months of downtime. He started running the tours to make money, but his team got an added bonus of being able to train all year with the summers spent running at 3,000 to 4,000 feet in altitude.

Fiedler's Juneau advantage helped him finish second to four-time champion Doug Swingley in the 2001 Iditarod, establishing the Willow-based musher as one of the leading contenders to win the race to Nome this year.

''It's wonderful for them,'' Fiedler said from his home in Willow, Alaska, where he keeps his Dawn Breaker Kennel. ''They're doing what they want to do. The worst thing to do is hitch them to chains all summer and not let them run. This way, when we go into our fall training they've all got a good depth of training and a strong base.''

In the summer most mushers are struggling with their teams to move four-wheelers or old trucks down dirt roads, or running their dogs in a dogwheel, a device similar to a merry-go-round, which spins as the tethered dogs run laps.

Fiedler said many of the dogs he has on the glacier have Iditarod experience -- from members of his current race team to retired veterans. Some of his staff members are budding mushers, so they bring their own dogs to the glacier. His musher and guides live in tents on the glacier, each rotating back to Juneau every couple of days to a week for short breaks.

''The reason we have so many dogs is we like to keep the teams fresh and ready to go,'' Fiedler said. ''We want them to be enthusiastic, and that requires a lot of dogs. We don't want them being like the ponies in a pony-ride.''

The tourists are flown past three other glaciers before they arrive at Norris Glacier, where they spend an hour learning about the dogs and taking a 2-mile-long ride in the sleds. Fiedler said that on a busy day his staff will give as many as nine tours a day, with four helicopters each carrying as many as 24 passengers per tour. Amy Windred, the Juneau base manager for ERA, said over the course of a summer 9,000 people will be flown to the glacier, each paying $349 for the tour this year.

On the Iditarod Trail, Fiedler is known for his easygoing personality and is considered one of the race's truly nice guys. He won the Iditarod's sportsmanship award in 1989, the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award in 1999 and the Spirit of Alaska Award in 2001. When he won $3,500 last year for being the first musher to reach the Yukon River, Fiedler donated $2,000 of his prize money to the four Yukon River checkpoint villages so they could buy books for their school libraries.

When he was a rookie in 1989, Fiedler had a good team and was running just behind the lead pack. But he lost a day in the race when he and five other mushers came across another competitor, Mike Madden, in distress. Madden was delirious from a case of salmonella poisoning and he'd chopped into his leg with an ax while trying to cut meat for his dogs.

Fiedler and veteran musher Jerry Austin were sent up the trail to get help. Then they waited for the other mushers who helped Madden to catch up so all six teams could finish together in Nome, where a recovering Madden met them at the finish line.

Fiedler was 26th his rookie year, but the next year he posted the first of his eighth-place finishes. Over the next few years Fiedler struggled to finish in the money, which until 2000 went only to the top-20 finishes. It now goes to the top 30.

Fiedler finished 25th twice, 17th three times, 18th and 13th before posting another eighth-place finish in 1998. He took 13th again in 1999 and was 19th in 2000.

The second-place finish last year was his breakthrough race.

Fiedler ran a social work practice specializing in children and families until four years ago, when he retired to concentrate full-time on mushing.

''It was hard having to focus in the winter,'' Fiedler said. ''I had a pretty full plate, and to be competitive in the Iditarod you can't have a nine-to-five job.''

Fiedler defied the Iditarod's conventional wisdom last year when he pushed the pace early and chose to take his mandatory 24-hour layover farther down the trail than most contenders. Eventual winner Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., took his layover in the ghost town of Iditarod and most of the other top teams took their breaks even earlier along the trail. Fiedler made a bold move and pushed his way to Anvik, 90 miles up the trail from Iditarod.

When Fiedler runs the race, he tries not to let what other mushers are doing influence his strategy.

''I've got to focus on my own dog team and not get too worried about anyone else,'' Fiedler said. ''My job is to peak for the Iditarod, and my goal is to get to the starting line with healthy dogs.''

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