Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dog Mushing Season In Full Swing

Dog mushing is the official sport of the state of Alaska. Does any other state have an official sport? Surfing in California, snowshoeing in Maine? If so, I’ve never heard of it. Having a state sport seems to be another way that Alaska is unique.

I have written quite a bit about dog mushing over the years of this blog. You can see all previous posts on mushing by clicking the label at the bottom of this (or any other) post that says Dog Mushing.

Being January, the competitive dog mushing season is well under way and there are sled dog races happening all over the place, pretty much every weekend from New Year’s until March. Competitive mushing generally falls into one of three categories: long distance races of a thousand miles or more, such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest; mid-distance races of two hundred to five hundred miles; and sprint races of less than a hundred miles. There is a fourth category, stage racing, which is a variation of sprinting: teams compete in several consecutive days of sprinting with the winner determined by best overall time.

My favorite has always been the mid- and long distance races. They are as much about strategy, dogcraft, and the musher’s relationship with the team as they are about speed.

Any musher who wants to run the Quest or the Iditarod has to prove his or her ability to manage a dog team over many miles of trail. Both races require rookies to have completed two mid-distance races with an accumulated total of 500 miles; the Iditarod rules further stipulate that the musher must finish the qualifiers in the top 75% of the field or not more twice the elapsed time of the winner.

January abounds with mid-distance races that provide qualifying opportunities for rookies and excellent training opportunities for both rookies and veterans. The Knik 200 was the first weekend in January, won by Ken Anderson. Then came the Copper Basin 300 last weekend, won by the incredible Lance Mackey. This weekend there are the Klondike 300 in Wasilla and the Kuskokwim 300 and the Bogus Creek 150 in Bethel. Next weekend will be the Tustumena 200, not far from Kenai.

Following the sport of dog mushing can be a challenge. It isn’t as simple as turning the television on to Wide World of Sports and watching interviews with your favorite mushers interspersed with gorgeous shots of dog teams traveling through jaw-dropping scenery. The Iditarod has become well known enough to garner some television attention, but that’s about it. Otherwise you have to be present for the races or follow them on the internet; almost all have websites and post photos, video clips and commentary. This requires more knowledge of the sport, as there is no commentator explaining things.

The Alaskan dog racing season so far this year has been beset with incredible weather challenges. First we had a high pressure cell take up residence over most of the state, bringing record-setting low temperatures that stayed what seemed like forever. It was -56 degrees around Fairbanks for three weeks, -65 degrees about a hundred miles north of Fairbanks, and even southerly Kenai had -33 degrees. It is difficult—if not impossible—to do much dog training in that kind of cold.

Then, as so often happens in Alaska in the winter, our prayers to warm up (just a little!) were answered by a visitation from the Pineapple Express (known other places as a Chinook, a Santa Ana, a Fohn), the warm, dry wind which comes in and changes everything. Be careful what you ask for! Kenai is now at +38 degrees, with rain, slush, and melting everywhere. Fairbanks was +50—more than a hundred degree change in a few days.

You might think we’d be so happy for a break from that deep, deep cold that anything warmer would be better. Well, we are, and not to get too picky here, but staying ten degrees below freezing is far preferable. Rain in the winter sucks. The world turns into an ice rink and every step outdoors risks busting your ass.

And where before it was too cold to train dogs, now it is too warm. Sled dogs get overheated from working in these temperatures, so only short runs are possible.

Colder temperatures have been predicted for this weekend, so hopefully we’ll be back to our ideal winter range of single positive digits. Zero to ten above is just perfect.

The Kuskokwim 300 and Bogus Creek 150 were supposed to start Friday in Bethel, but have now been postponed until Sunday in the hope of dropping temperatures and improved trail. Forty degrees and raining earlier this week made a mess of everything. My weather genie tells me that today it is +10 and sunny in Bethel, so things hopefully will improve enough for tomorrow’s start.

As usual, many of the well-known professional mushers are in Bethel for K-300: Jeff King, Martin Buser, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Ed Iten, Mitch Seavey, Hugh Neff, Aaron Burmeister. The K-300 has one of the largest purses in mid-distance racing: a total of $100,000, with the winner taking $20,000. Finishing in the top 20 means being “in the money” and this year there are 16 teams registered. That means the Red Lantern (last place) will take $2,300 just for making it around the course. Worth the difficulties of getting a dog team to Bethel.

I will probably post updates and comments here as I am inspired to do so. If you want a broader and more reliable info-stream, go to Sled Dog Central. They keep up with everything involving dog-powered sports.

Photo of musher and dog team by The Tundra PA.



Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

Ah, dog mushing. One of the wonderful things that first drew me to your blog (and you)...what was it? Two years now?

Do you miss living in Bethel this weekend? I know on balance you're happy where you are, but are there any twinges?

Saturday, January 17, 2009 4:19:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Hey Dr. Dino! So nice to have a comment from you! Yes, it has been two years and then some. I do miss Bethel, despite being happy in Kenai, especially this particular weekend. I will be headed back out there for a week of seeing patients in clinic next month, and am greatly looking forward to it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009 4:43:00 PM  
Blogger Omnibus Driver said...

Ack! It's colder in Chicato than it is in Kenar!

(Want me to send the cold air back your way? Trust me, it'll be my pleasure...)

Monday, January 19, 2009 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Moose-Tipping said...

I stumbled upon your blog and stuck around due to the subject matter! For the past three years, I have been a handler for a mid-distance team in Chugiak, AK. I'm glad to see there are others as obsessed with mushing as I am!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 1:47:00 PM  

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