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Mushers use early season race to put miles on teams

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2006

 

  A shadow is cast as the setting sun strikes a dog team training in the Caribou Hills last week. Several local mushers have used the area to train for the Sheep Mountain 150 dog sled race held this weekend in Sutton. Photo by Joseph Robertia

A shadow is cast as the setting sun strikes a dog team training in the Caribou Hills last week. Several local mushers have used the area to train for the Sheep Mountain 150 dog sled race held this weekend in Sutton.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

From the Kenai Peninsula, a small group of hardy men and one woman are preparing to put themselves and their dog teams to the test during the Sheep Mountain 150 sled dog race this weekend.

Jon Little, Bruce Linton, Mike Barnett and Colleen Robertia — all from Kasilof, are entered in the race being held in Sutton, just west of Glennallen on the Glenn Highway.

The race is divided into three 50-mile sections with five-hour breaks between each section. According to some mushers, this is a lot of ground to cover, particularly so early in the mushing season.

“It used to be if you did a 50 in December you were patting yourself on the back, but the last three or four years, distance mushers have really ramped it up early,” Jon Little said.

This season, Little has been training since August, gradually building up the strength and speed of his dogs by incrementally adding to the miles they run.

Little said he wishes he could have more miles on his dogs, but according to his training logs he is right on track compared to past years and is confident he will do well.

“Three 50s in 24 hours, you always wonder if you’re up to it, but that’s the neat thing about racing, it really lets you know how you’re doing,” he said.

In recent days Little has been taking his dogs on long runs through the Caribou Hills to prepare for the race, but the lack of snow was holding him back.

“I’ve been able to squeeze out some 40s, but didn’t get to do as many 50s as I would have liked. The dogs were ready, but the weather conditions weren’t there,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Little said he is looking forward to the event.

He has two 12-dog teams signed up for the race. Little will drive the racing team while his handler, Mike Barnett, will take a team of much younger dogs to give them the experience of being in a race.

“I’m running the racing team, but I’m looking at it as a training run. I just want the dogs to do their best, and if I finish in the top five — that’s just icing on the cake,” he said, referring to positions that pay out race winnings.

Little said the goal for his handler, Barnett, is to take it much slower and get as many of the young dogs as possible to the finish line.

“He’s very capable and I think he’ll do good,” Little said.

Like Little, Bruce Linton is excited about participating in the event, particularly since it will be his first race in Alaska.

“I don’t really know what to expect,” he said.

Despite having run many races in Vermont — where Linton lived before moving to Kasilof last year to train for the Iditarod — he said mushing in Alaska is dissimilar to running dogs back East.

“It’s so different. The caliber of mushing here is amazing,” he said.

Linton said he did his best to learn from those around him. He said he is excited to test that knowledge.

“I’ve worked hard running these dogs. I’ve got about 850 miles on them, so I’m more prepared than I’ve ever been and I’m excited to get into it and see how they perform,” he said.

Linton said he was hoping to do well, but rather than aiming to finish in the front of the pack he said he was setting modest goals.

“I just want to not get lost and finish with a happy team,” he said.

Like Linton, Colleen Robertia said she will run a conservative race. Unlike the other mushers from Kasilof gearing up for their first race of the season, Robertia and her team ran 140 miles to a second-place finish in the Gin Gin 120 sled dog race held last weekend in Paxson.

For more information on the Sheep Mountain 150, or to follow the event, visit the race’s Web site at www.sheepmountain.com.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@ peninsulaclarion.com.



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