Thursday, February 16, 2012

Looking Ahead to Iditarod

Yesterday's issue of the FairbanksDaily News-Miner had a very nice article about this years top Yukon Quest teams.  They noted winner Hugh Neff’s rough beginnings in the sport and included a great quote from Lance Mackey which speaks highly to the character of both men.  “That guy’s worked his ass off for years to enjoy the feeling that he felt today,” Mackey, who placed third, said in the Whitehorse finish chute. “I know what that’s like and I know how hard he’s worked for it and I know the obstacles he’s overcome. He’s a brother to me. I’m proud as hell of him.”

I can hardly wait to finish my tour of duty here at work so I can meet up with Allen Moore and hear some of his stories from the trail.  His second place finish, only seconds behind Hugh, is the closest finish in Yukon Quest history, and I’m sure it resulted in some pretty good stories and some great memories for Allen.

The News-Miner also ran a story about the really crazy winter weather we’ve been having up here.  .  We enjoyed a mild start of winter during October and the first half of November that came to an abrupt end just before Thanksgiving, when the mercury shrunk to a shivering little ball in the bottom of the thermometer during a record breaking cold snap. 

The first three weeks of December were the second warmest in more than a century, but at Christmas time the bottom dropped out of the thermometer again, and stayed there for nearly 6 full weeks.  Now we are enjoying much warmer than normal temperatures, a trend that’s expected to continue for another week at which point there is no telling what may happen next.

Although it will be a couple of days before this year’s Yukon Quest is finished, there is already speculation about which Iditarod musher will prevail.  Writing for the Alaska Dispatch, Craig Medred asks Will Hugh Neff parlay YukonQuest victory into Iditarod title, like Mackey He also asks if Allen Moore put a “finishing touch” on a super-team for Aliy Zirkle. 

Whether or not Neff's first-place finish will translate into Iditarod success remains to be seen, because there are so many really good teams signed up to race.  Here are some that I consider to be exceptional.

Like many others, I made the mistake of overlooking John Baker last year, but won’t do so this time around.  Nothing leads to success quite like success, and Baker’s record breaking victory last year certainly qualifies as success.  John has 12 Top-10 finishes in his Iditarod racing record. 

Lance Mackey also knows how to win long-distance sled dog races and his third-place Quest finish, with a team of very young dogs, shows that he knows how and when to race, and how and when to back off a bit.  He is locally famous for the tight bond he has with his dog teams.  His 16th place performance in last year’s Iditarod shows that he can make mistakes, just like anyone else.  Whether he can redeem himself this year remains to be seen.

Like Lance, Jeff King has proven his ability to win the Iditarod multiple times – having done so in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2006.  The time spread between those wins proves he is capable of training several different teams to win the race.  This year he has come out of retirement to run the race again, with a new team of dogs and his middle-distance performance this year has been impressive.  Excellence in middle distance races doesn’t always translate into success on the long-distance trails, though.   

Martin Buser likes hard, icy fast trails.  Perhaps I should say he likes to win on hard, icy fast trails, but last year his performance was mediocre over the type of conditions he usually prefers.  Martin last won the race in 2002, so we’ll just have to see whether or not he can do it again a decade later.

There are some other previous champions running this year’s Iditarod who are worthy of our attention.  Mitch Seavey won the race in 2004 and has consistently placed in the Top-10.  This year the I’rod will resemble as Seavey family reunion, as Mitch’s father, Dan, and his son, Dallas are also signed up to race.  I’ll write more along the family reunion theme at another time. 

Rick Swenson is the only 5-time Champion of the Iditarod, and I have a bias in favor of home-town teams.  Having won in 1977 & 79, 1981 & 82 and again in 1992 he is the only musher to have won the race during each of three decades.  A victory this year would make it four decades spread over 2 centuries, which is just kind of cool.  Rick is a mainstay of dog mushing in Two Rivers and I’d dance a jig if he were to win the I’rod again this year. 

Having noted my home-town bias, I’ve been a supporter of Aliy Zirkle for quite a few years, even before Allen Moore came into the picture.  Along with other friends and neighbors, Aliy and Allen greatly encouraged and helped me get started in this crazy sport, so I am definitely biased in favor of them and their SP Kennel.  I suspect that some of those 10 dogs that Allen raced so effectively to the Quest finish line will be on Aliy’s Iditarod team, which I personally believe gives her an advantage many other mushers can’t claim.   Everyone associated with the SP Kennel can be defined as darned good folks, and I’d love to see Aliy claim that new truck this year. 

Hugh Neff won the Quest.  What more do we need say?  Hugh has had to work hard to live down a less than stellar reputation.  It isn’t easy to do that, and it isn’t easy to win any long distance sled dog race.  Hugh has done both, and it won’t be his first trip on the Iditarod trail.  His teams have performed well in previous I’rods, he was the 2004 Rookie of the Year.  His performance on the Iditarod trail has been improving each year but even though it ain’t his first rodeo, he and Walter’s Warriors faces some stiff competition.  It’s good that Hugh is no stranger to hard work, because he’s going to have to do some more hard work to win the big prize and a new truck.

Just as I have a parochial bias in favor of my home town, I also have a bias in favor of professional colleagues such as EMT and paramedic student Jake Berkowitz.  Jake first came to my attention after winning the 2010 Copper Basin 300, and of course this year Jake brought his team from Fairbanks to Whitehorse to take fourth place in the Yukon Quest.  That’s no mean feat.  He’s an Iditarod veteran and is rapidly proving his ability to train dogs as well as treat the sick and injured. 

Born and raised in Nome, Aaron Burmeister will be racing toward the familiar turf of his home town.  Although he’s taken a couple of years off from the race to focus on family and career he boasts that he now has a very talented young team to work with.  While it may not be his year to win, that talented young team is probably well worth watching.  Aaron is very popular among other mushers as well as among race fans. 

Dallas Seavey turned 18 years old just days before running his first Iditarod.  Last year he gave his best ever Iditarod performance only days after winning the Yukon Quest.  He’ll be running in the same field as has father, Mitch and grandfather, Dan.  Of the three I think Dallas will probably finish highest in the standings.  He’s got that fire in his belly.

 While it is unlikely that an Iditarod rookie could win against the more experienced competition, the race for Rookie of the Year could be exciting.  There are four mushers new to the I'rod trail that I think will do quite well.

Brent Sass has a lot of long distance experience, albeit on the Quest rather than the Iditarod trail.  He kept his famous leader, "Silver" in reserve so the older but wiser dog could be in great shape to run the more famous (and higher paying) race.  Brent trains in Eureka, offering the toughest training conditions to be found anywhere.  If the weather turns foul, we can expect Brent and his Wild and Free Mushing Kennel team to perform exceptionally well - they have always done so in the past.

Josh Cadzow was the 2010 Yukon Quest Rookie of the Year, and while giving a team of very young dogs a chance to strut their stuff under racing conditions, pulled ahead of all the competition to win the 2012 Yukon Quest 300.  Those Fort Yukon dogs have a lot to give and young Josh knows how to convince them to give it.  I'm sure he'll do well in the easier Iditarod.

Ryne Olson, running the SP Kennel B-team, doesn't have the racing experience that Brent or Josh can boast, but she does have a lot of hear and Aliy and Allen wouldn't have her run the 'puppies' if there were any question at all regarding her competence.  No matter how well or how poorly she places, you can bet that her dog care will be exemplary.

Braxton Peterson as been handling Mackey's dogs for nearly 10 years and has done well in the races he's run.  I think few rookies will be so well prepared for the Iditarod as Braxton.


  1. Interesting comments, Swanny. I will keep them in mind. Have sure enjoyed the YQ to date - even though a couple of my favourites didn't come 1st. Still loved following the race.

  2. Swanny, Mikhail Telpin has now finished the YQ and I've seen more photos of his dogs - their harnesses are different - that band across their chests - with my Rottie, that was where the strength was, so leads/restraints were best not in this position as it was one of the dog's strongest points. Could see why it would work well with working/pulling, dogs. Interesting.