Lack of snow puts Iditarod mushers on the go

In search of winter

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2000

Mitch Seavey is dreaming of a white Christmas -- at least one he doesn't have to drive 450 miles to enjoy.

"We've pretty much done all our training up here," the Iditarod musher and resident of Sterling said by phone from Nenana. "You have to find a place where you can tie up the dogs comfortably and where there's good trails to run on."

Seavey and the rest of the Kenai Peninsula's mushing community have been facing the same dilemma as the racing season approaches -- finding ways to train sled dogs when there's not enough snow on much of the peninsula over which a team of dogs can pull a sled.

Seavey, his father Dan and his son Danny, all entered in the 2001 Iditarod, have opted to leave the peninsula in search of snow. Danny and his brother Tyrell, in training for the Junior Iditarod, have joined Mitch this week in Nenana while Dan is training in Glennallen.

Back on the peninsula, mushers are exploring other options. Some, like Judy Merritt of Moose Pass, have their teams hitched to four-wheelers and have yet to spend any time on snow this season.

Mushers from Kasilof and Ninilchik have been able to find snow deep in the Caribou Hills, but getting there requires trucking the dogs in, rather than the sled ride into the hills that is usually incorporated into the training run.

"We'd normally be coming up here anyway," Seavey said. "Usually, we're away in November and home in December. I would like to be home training."

If there's one positive thing to come out of all the travel, Seavey said, it's all the extra time he's spent with his dogs.

"With most negatives, there's also a positive," Seavey said. "I've been focusing on time with my dogs. I'm not distracted with all of the chores piling up at home."

Dealing with the chores at home has fallen to Seavey's wife Janine.

"There's 4,500 pounds of meat in the freezer waiting to be sliced up," she said, referring to the food that needs to be prepared and packaged for the three teams the family will be running in the 2001 Iditarod. "In between trips, we need to cook enough food to last three weeks. Sled repairs, or building that new sled -- things like that are usually done in the off-time, but when they come home it's a mad dash."

In fact, most mushers said that the logistics of finding snow has been much harder on the people involved than the dogs.

"It just makes it a lot harder on the human aspect," said Paul Gebhardt, the Kasilof musher who finished second in last year's Iditarod.

Gebhardt has been spending his days with his team in the Caribou Hills -- his normal training procedure. The difference is that instead of coming home every night, he's spending four or five days at a time in the hills before coming home.

"The training is going beautifully -- it's some of the best I've had since I started," Gebhardt said. "Just about every musher I know from the peninsula is up here."

Perennial contender Tim Osmar, a Ninilchik resident who will be racing in his 16th Iditarod in March, has also been spotted on the trails in the Caribou Hills.

Lance Mackey of Kasilof is a rookie entry into the upcoming Iditarod.

With the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge closed to snowmachines due to lack of snow, mushers are finding plenty of unbroken trail in the moose range.

"That's excellent training for the dogs," Gebhardt said.

Gebhardt said he hasn't started with his other race preparations, such as preparing food drops.

"I haven't got a chance to do any of that," Gebhardt said.

Janine Seavey said mushers aren't the only ones feeling the squeeze.

"There's so many other aspects of this race that have to be put on the back burner," she said. "It put more pressure on and makes it more challenging. There's a lot of things that need to be purchased. We need to get a hold of supplies, there's chores, and we home-school the kids, so a lot more of that falls to me."

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas -- that's critical for us," Mitch said. "We like to do our food drops right after Christmas.

"We have three teams running this year. That makes everything three times as much. It does become an issue. It's expensive, too, paying for all that goes into traveling."

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