Photo by Joseph Robertia
Rachael Scdoris, known as the first blind musher to compete in the Iditarod, is hoping to change that title to the first blind musher to complete the Iditarod. Only this time, the 21-year-old from Bend, Ore., will get a little local help on her second attempt to make it to Nome.
Tim Osmar, a Ninilchik musher and 20-time veteran of the Last Great Race has agreed to serve as Scdoris' visual interpreter for Iditarod XXXIV, traveling ahead of her on a separate dog sled with a two-way radio to warn her about trail dangers ahead.
"Both of us getting to Nome is the plan, and I'm confident we'll both make it," Osmar said.
Scdoris has congenital achromatopsia, a hereditary visual impairment that affects her ability to properly perceive depth and fine details, particularly in bright light.
However, her vision didn't hold her back from making it to Eagle Island in the 2005 Iditarod a distance of 731 miles. She scratched after her dogs became too sick to safely continue.
Scdoris said she is satisfied with her performance, despite having to make that decision, because she proved to her critics and more importantly to herself, she said she has the ability to do it.
"I made it through the tough stuff," she said, referring to the Happy River Steps, Dalzell Gorge, Farewell Burn and numerous other obstacles she overcame that can make or break rookies.
This is partially what drew Osmar's interest in helping Scdoris. "Initially, I didn't know if she would make it to Nome or not," he said, adding that over the years he's seen a lot of people try and fail despite having the desire to pass under the burled arch at the finish line.
"After seeing her make it 600, 700 miles into the race, though, I started to think it was possible that she could do it," he said.
Though she didn't make it all the way, that didn't change Osmar's opinion of her.
"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.
The two are expected to sign-up at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla on Saturday the first day the race accepts applications.
This already is part of their race strategy, since new rules this year allow mushers to chose their starting order based on their sign-up order.
"This year we're hoping to not be as far back," Scdoris said.
Last year she and her visual interpreter Paul Ellering went out last, but they learned being that far back makes dogs more susceptible to picking up any viruses left by dog teams further up the trail, and it makes for a more difficult run since trail conditions deteriorate with each passing team.
In addition to the starting order change, Osmar also will help Scdoris with her food drop preparation and packing.
"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.
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.
Osmar and Scdoris tentatively are planning to do some training runs together prior to the start of the race and may race the Tustumena 200 together as a shakedown run.
"We haven't worked out all the details yet, but before Iditarod we'll get together to practice using the radios and to let the dogs get to know each other a bit," Osmar said.
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 once.
He acknowledged that guiding Scdoris will change his own race strategy, but not his competitive drive."Things will be a little different this year, but I'm excited about it," he said.
He said he likely will leave his A-team at home, opting to take a relatively young team, to give them the experience of going to Nome without the trial by fire of running the race in an all-out dash to the finish.
"We'll take it easy going through the mountains to get through in good shape, but then I'm thinking we might try and pass a few people if Rachael's up for that," Osmar said.
Also, with his A-team not being taken for the Iditarod, Osmar said he may instead use them to return to the Yukon Quest, a long-distance dog race from Fairbanks to White Horse, Yukon Territory a race Osmar won in 2001.
"This would be a good year to do both races again, but it's too early to say for sure," he said.
The Yukon Quest begins in Fairbanks on Feb. 11; the Iditarod starts in Anchorage on March 4.
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