Spinning their wheels

Sled dog teams adapt to lack of snowfall, warm weather

Posted: Friday, December 20, 2002

The unseasonably late winter weather has been affecting peninsula residents in a myriad of ways, and local mushers are no exception. For many sled dog racers, it has become a race before the race to get their teams trained in the face of many challenges presented by the well-above-average temperatures and below-average snowfall amounts.

"The weather this year has been terrible for training," Dean Osmar said, "but we're not too far behind where we want to be."

Osmar, a 56-year-old from Clam Gulch, has signed up to race in the 2003 Iditarod. Osmar, who is a commercial fisher during the summer season, is also a veteran musher and former Iditarod champion. He won the race on his second attempt back in 1984. Although he has sporadically competed in various other mid-distance races, this will be his first year back in the Iditarod following an 18-year hiatus.

"We've got about 800 miles behind each dog," Osmar said, "so we're not as far behind as some."

Osmar thinks there may be some undertrained teams out there this year due to the unfavorable training conditions resulting from the weather.

For many Iditarod, Yukon Quest and other big race contenders, training for races begins in July of the preceding year. Dogs are hooked up to ATVs for short runs of 3 to 5 miles. By the time snow begins to fall around mid-October, runs have been lengthened up to 10 to 15 miles. Once enough snow has accumulated to use sleds instead of ATVs, dog runs will rapidly increase to 30 to 40 miles. Many teams are routinely making 50-mile runs by Christmas and most Iditarod teams will have 1,000 to 1,500 miles behind them by the start of the race.

Osmar started this year's training at the beginning of August by running dogs on the beach four days a week using an ATV. By mid-October the ATV training continued, but he had switched locations from the beaches of Clam Gulch to the Caribou Hills and runs were up to 25 miles a day. Most recently, with enough snow to finally use sleds, he's been logging 40- to 45-mile runs at Sheep Mountain and Lake Louise off the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Glennallen.

Training with ATVs on the beach or dirt trails is a good way to warm up for the season, but prolonged runs of increased distances on this type of terrain are hard on a dog's feet and can lead to injuries.

In past years Oil Well Road would be utilized for training around this time, but that's not an option this year with the poor road conditions.

"We would like to have 1,100 miles (behind the dogs) by Jan. 1 and we're shooting for 2,000 miles by March 1," Osmar said.

The weather hasn't just been tough on Osmar, but the whole Osmar clan. His son, Tim, has also traveled far distances to keep up a competitive training regime. Tim, who has been mushing since he was 12, is no stranger to The Last Great Race. As a teen-ager, he won the Junior Iditarod three of the four times he competed and has placed in the top 10 in the Iditarod on 10 occasions. In 2001, he came in first in the grueling Yukon Quest. Nicole Osmar, Tim's daughter, will be competing again this year in the Junior Iditarod as well.

"It's still not enough," said Dean, referring to the recent snowfall, "but it's better than we had a week ago."

The Osmar family, along with their handlers, have been making the most of their time until heavy snow accumulates by preparing food drops for the race on days they're not running dogs. The food drops, which are for both musher and dogs, can exceed a ton in total weight, but are broken down into individual two-pound portions to be fed to dogs as part of the 11,000 calories they will require each day when racing.

Sterling resident and longtime musher Mitch Seavey has also been hampered by the weather in the course of his Iditarod training. He too started the season training dogs on dirt roads and trails with a four-wheeler.

But it's important to begin simulating Iditarod conditions and routines early. Like the Osmars, Seavey has also traveled great distances to keep a competitive edge. He's been driving to Lake Louise and Wolverine Lodge where there has been some good ice and temperatures dropping to 10-below. The longer runs and camping trips he's been able to accomplish there are all part of the big picture of building the physical and mental toughness necessary to endure and succeed in a race of this magnitude.

"It's going pretty well under the circumstances," Seavey said. He's remained objective and very positive about the upcoming year.

"We have to continue training, we don't have the option not to," he said.

Seavey, who placed 11th in last year's Iditarod, runs dogs year-round through Ididaride, his business that offers sled dog tours throughout the summer.

He's a well-rounded veteran musher who has seen much success in his professional career. He's won the Copper Basin 300 twice and also claimed victory in the Grand Portage Passage in Minnesota. He came in first in the Klondike 300 last year. In the Tustumena 200, he has placed as high as second and came in third in the 2002 race.

Many mushers use these mid-distance races as training for the Iditarod. They serve to get both musher and dogs into shape, and are a valuable tool for determining the core group from which the best 16 dogs will be chosen -- a daunting task when you have over 100 dogs as Seavey does. Many will be too young, too old or too inexperienced to run this year.

"Certain realities come into play," Seavey said. "The weather can change overnight right up to the night before the race."

If the weather does radically change, it certainly won't be the first year there's been a "feast or famine" pattern. Historically, many winters that started off warm and slow have ended with heavy accumulations late in the season. Racing in late season snow can be difficult for mushers that had only minimal amounts during the majority of their training.

"All hope is for snow," Seavey said. "It would be nice to stay close to home and train."

Like the Osmars, mushing has been a family affair for the Seaveys. Mitch's father, Dan, mushed in the very first Iditarod in 1973 and placed third out of 36 competitors.

Mitch's son, Tyrell, the 2001 Junior Iditarod champion, will be running with the big boys for the first time this year. He too must face the challenge of training despite the odd weather.

Regardless of whether they're rookies, veterans or perennial contenders, mushers will all have to find ways to compensate for the lack of snow. While many people already are speculating about this year's favorites, the weather may prove it's still anybody's race.

Only time will tell if all the long trips, long runs and extreme measures will pay off for area mushers.

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