Sunday, March 24, 2013

Successful Journey of Exploration

The other day when I tried this, I got myself a bit confused.  None of that today.  Today I took the proper and right turn off the Dead Martin Trail, and then the proper right turn on the trail to Oh Sh*t Hill.  Sorry, but that's really what it's named.

I'm pretty sure that the person who named it screamed it aloud while careening down with a big string of dogs, 'cause anyone going UP it is likely to be working way too hard and be way too out of breath to say much of anything.  That would especially include me.

The team worked very smoothly through most of the run, but didn't quite earn full bragging rights.  I decided to take the crew home via our neighbor's feeder trail, as I have their permission to use it and it's a lot more fun than returning via the Swamp Trail.  Today the neighbors were also out on the trail, and my leaders decided it would be O.K. to ignore my "on by" cue and visit with Julie and the dogs she was walking.  I've never struck a dog, but I have been known to discuss issues in rather strict tones, and such was the case today.

So, if you can't handle a bit of rough language, you might want to skip today's video.  After all, the geographical place name is indeed obscene, and some of the language I used with the team is a bit profane.  No "F-bombs" or anything quite that bad, but I think I pretty clearly expressed my feelings at the moment.

In any event, here are some video clips from today's challenging but successful exploration.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A bit of catch up.

When last I wrote, I had taken a small team for a leader trial for Animosh and puppy run for Thowra. The next day (Wednesday) I harnessed up an older and more experienced team intending to do some exploring. I ended up taking a wrong turn onto a trail that led me into a residential area. This first necessitated turning the team around on a well used trail, and then later getting them out of someone's back yard. It truly is easier to show than to explain. The video is only about 7 minutes long because I sped up the action in the long, drawn out "error correction" parts.

Thursday I had to spend most of the day in town to run errands and work with my accountant to prepare my federal tax return. 

I was planning to run dogs yesterday, but while feeding my feet slipped out from under me, causing me fall.  I landed hard on my back and realized in very short order that trying to run dogs would not be a particularly bright idea.  I felt that taking care of the lower back pain would make it possible to run a team today.

But, fate has a way of intervening.  This morning I woke to a nice fall of snow, a good three or four inches of heavy spring type snow.  The type that had to be removed from the driveway.  It took several hours of work with the tractor to accomplish that, and by the time I was finished my back was hurting me once again. 

So, here I am, updating the blog, and hoping that I'll feel more sound tomorrow and can finish the exploration that I so badly bungled on Wednesday.  Wish me luck with that, tomorrow will be my last chance to run dogs before I return to my work place.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Short Runs with Big Results

While the weather still permits, I wanted to give Animosh a leader trial, and also wanted to give Thowra (formerly Dozer) a fun puppy run.  For that purpose, I chose a short little 3 1/2 mile run that takes the team over flat terrain for about half the distance, then up and back down a pretty steep hill.  For our work today I chose to run small teams (only six dogs in each) with an empty sled.  Since I already had a six-dog gangline on my toboggan sled, I used that one, though in all truth my traveling sled would have been a better choice.

I put Ani and Thowra in the first team I ran.  The entire lineup was;
Animosh and Just - lead
Thowra and Capella - swing
Nels and Beau - wheel

I couldn't have been more pleased with their performance.  At first Ani was a bit snarky with Cassie and did a fair amount of rubbernecking, but overall she stayed focused on her job and apparently had a good time doing so.  Thowra was all excited to be running, and his behavior was that of an experienced dog.  He was harness trained by Charlie and Robin Boulding before I got him from Brent Sass, so it wasn't his first 'rodeo' by any stretch.  He assisted with harnessing, was reasonably well behaved on hook-up, and ran fast, pulled hard, and did it with a big ol' doggie grin on his face the whole way.

Here is a video of our entire run, from start to finish.  It's about 23 minutes long.

I've only run Aumaruq in lead once before, a leader trial which he passed with flying colors.  He mostly runs back in wheel because of his large size and considerable power, but any dog that wants to run lead should be trained to do so, because you never know when that dog will be absolutely vital at the front of the team.

That team consisted of:
Cassiopeia and Just (lead)
Amazing Grace and Seamus (swing)
Denali and Chetan (wheel)

Just like last time, Aumaruq led the team as though he'd been doing it every day for his entire life.  He was fully focused and intent on working hard and running fast.  All of the dogs on that team were on their best behavior and we did the training circuit in very short order.

I couldn't be happier with the Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Vladimir's Grand Adventure

Vladimir is on his way to Eureka for a family reunion with his Wild and Free mushing kin, and then onward to a mushing adventure north of the Brooks Range.  Vlad is from a breeding between Brent Sass' famous leader Silver, and Kyle Belleque's wonderful leader Juliet.  When I was offered an opportunity to bring Vlad to the Stardancer kennel I jumped at the chance.  Silver is famous for good reason, and that famous Silver courage, drive and intelligence could make for a really nice outcross for the Hedlund huskies. 

Vlad has a delightful temperament, he's a hard working little dog, but unfortunately for the Hedlunds, the key word is "little".  He's a great size and build for a racing dog, but just a bit small for the type of mushing I most enjoy.  Considerably smaller than we need for an outcross in the Hedlunds.  That noted, he is a darned good sled dog and though just a yearling he acts and performs like an older dog.  He's a really fun dog to run, copes well with anything and everything that happens on the trail, and is as serious as a 14 month old dog can be. 

When I received Dozer (now Thowra) from Brent, Brent had mentioned that he was needing smaller dogs for his racing kennel.  I described Vladimir to him, and tonight he came over to check him out.  Brent's first words to Vladimir were "I see your daddy in there."  Brent and Vlad seem to get along great, so Vladimir is heading over to meet some of his half brothers and sisters, some aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and soon will be heading to the north slope for a mushing adventure up there.  If he has as much fun as I think he will, he may well be destined for a career as a Wild and Free long distance racing dog.

I believe that the right dog goes to the right place at the right time, and Vladimir is the right dog for a racing team, rather than a recreational traveling and camping team.  There are only two people on the entire planet I would be willing to place young Vladimir with.  His original breeder, Kyle Belleque, and the owner of his sire, Brent Sass.  They understand him and appreciate him for who he is.

Of course there is one stipulation.  If for any reason in the future Vlad needs a home then he is to come right back here to the Stardancer yard.  I'm pretty sure that won't be happening very soon.

Vladimir checking out Brent Sass

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A challenging game of "chase me".

My friend Trish Cordon works 7 evenings each week, so stealing some time away to run sled dogs is difficult for her.  Yesterday she was able to do just that, so we decided a game of "chase me" over the trails was in order.  We certainly didn't expect the challenges we had to overcome.

In the past, Trish has run smaller teams of just four or 5 dogs.  Yesterday we were going further, so decided a six-dog team would be 'better'.  Since Trish weighs little more than a feather in a windstorm and the toboggan sled she was driving was empty, that was probably 1 or maybe even 2 dogs more than necessary. 

I was driving my traveling sled, with has nearly all my back-country camping gear in the basket.  With a heavier load, 8 dogs seems to be just the right number for me on that rig.

Here is line-up of our teams:

My team -
Orion and Capella (lead)
Chetan - Grace (swing)
Selene - Vladimir (team)
Midnight's Son - Denali (wheel)

Trish's team-
Just and Cassie (lead)
Maggie - Animosh (swing / team)
Beau - Seamus (wheel)

One of the earliest challenges was my fault.  I had just installed a new type of quick release on the snub line of the sled that Trish was running.  Because of the way it was set up, Trish didn't have enough strength to release it one handed.  She used both hands, which resulted in her being pitched off the sled when the dog's bolted.

I realized there was a bit of an issue when Just and Cassie were trying to pass my team shorting after launching.  I called for Trish to slow her team, but that didn't happen.  When I glanced back to see why, it was pretty obvious.  There was no musher on the sled.

I got my dogs stopped (they didn't much want to), and got her team stopped as well.  Shortly after that, Maggie and Animosh started fighting.  I had to break up the dog fight, while holding my sled and team in place.  Meanwhile, Grace was running without a neckline, and had gotten into a bad harness tangle. 

When Trish caught up with us, I pulled my guys forward a bit to fix Grace's tangle.  We got everyone sorted out reasonably well and headed off again, this time with Trish practically welded to the runners of her sled.  We hadn't gone all that far when Ani and Maggie decided to continue their squabble.  In the ruckus Maggie slipped her neck collar. 

Maggie is a little sprint-type Alaskan husky that Trish rescued as a starving stray.  She's a delightful little girl who loves to run with the team, but she isn't experienced enough to run safely without a neck line.

Meanwhile, Grace was also running without a neckline as either she or Chetan had chewed it in two.  Normally Grace runs quite well without a neckline, but yesterday was the exception.  So, we stopped to resolve those issues.  The problem now was that Maggie was rather uncooperative when it came to replacing her collar, and both teams were fresh, full of energy, and pounding at their harnesses wanting to go.  I ended up grabbing another spare neckline to use on Maggie in lieu of a collar, and just lucked out that it fit perfectly, with one snap fastened through the other so it couldn't become a choke collar type set up.

Once those issues were resolved we were able to continue our run.  Trish reported she had to do nearly the entire run with most of her weight on the drag mat, and sometimes on the bar brake, to keep from over-running my team.  Hauling so little weight, Trish's six-dog team was much faster than my 8 dogs, and she had to work hard to prevent them from passing.  Since Trish doesn't yet know the trail system, it was fairly important she stay behind me. 

The important thing is that we finished our run, enjoyed some pretty scenery along with way, gave the dogs a good workout and got everyone home safely.  I've already re-rigged the sleds, putting the snub line with the new type quick release on my sled and the one with the older and more easily released style on hers.  That should resolve the initial problem that caused Trish to lose her team.  Next time we'll either put some additional weight in Trish's sled or hook up fewer dogs so it's easier for her to control the speed.  If we can keep the dogs moving we are much less likely to have to deal with squabbles between team mates. 

In any event, I did capture some of our challenges on video.  At the very least, it provides about 10 minutes of entertainment.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mae has been found - Our own challenges.

A few days ago, Newton Marshall was forced to scratch from the Iditarod after a dog on his team, a nine year old female named Mae, got loose and ran off.  Mae was found yesterday, near the starting point of the race at Willow.  Apparently she had backtracked over 200 miles, heading for home and someone she might know.  If we could but follow the details of her journey, it would likely be a story worthy of it's very own motion picture.

Mae faced plenty of challenges on her journey home, and today the Stardancers faced some challenges of our own.

Our team today consisted of Just and Rose in lead, Vladimir (yearling) and Selene in swing, Animosh (Yearling) and Seamus in team, and big ol' goofy Aumaruq (yearling) beside Nels in wheel.  We weren't alone on the trails, and a chance encounter with another team on the upper pond resulted in a bit of confusion and a tangle, but nothing that couldn't be overcome with some cooperation from the other musher, Jimmy Liebling running a team for Muzzy's Place Sleddog Kennel.

Here is how I wrote up the story in today's entry in our training journal:

This was a team in a hurry, it was everything I could do to keep the speed down during the launch and I was hard on the drag mat throughout the first mile or more. 
We had some leader issues today worth noting.  At the second pond I called for a gee and then saw another team, stopped on the trail.  I called for a haw, but Just and Rose did not respond to that well.  I ended up needing some help from the other musher to get the team lined out in the proper direction again, but once they were they went around both that team, and another that had come up behind them. 

Coming up to times square, a team passed from left to right directly in front of us.  Just appeared to take the straight ahead cue past their trail, but then tried to chase them by diving down the opposite leg of their turn off.  It took three attempts to get Just and Rose to line out straight so we could continue our run.

Then, coming off the ridge Rose and Just missed the "gee" to come back on Rod and Julie's feeder trail, so we ended up coming home via the swamp trail.

Vladimir ran really well the entire run, as did Animosh.  I didn't see any of the distracted behavior in Ani that I saw in her sister Chetan yesterday, so Animosh is still in line for a leader trail sometime next week, as is Vladimir.

Aumaruq is just a big, goofy boy who loves to run.  He did well in a leader trial a month or two ago, and today he ran like a gangbuster in wheel beside Nels. 

Even with the stops to deal with the leader issues, we had a considerably faster run than yesterday.

Here is the "musher's eye view" of our first encounter.  As you can see, it wasn't a particularly bad situation at all, just one of those training opportunities that require a bit of work to sort through.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bad Tempered Dogs Today.

Here is the narrative from today's entry in my training journal.  It pretty much tells the story.  Other than displays of temper, it was a pretty good run with some nice training opportunities. 

Hook up went pretty good.  Grace and Chetan trying to fight during launch but settled their differences quickly.  Girls did a pretty good job leading overall.  Good with directional cues. 

We had head-on passes with a party of three times twice during the run.  The first team passed easily, but leaders in the second team not well at all.  This caused a bit of ball-up during the first encounter, during which Midnight and Orion decided it would be fun to fight.  Got them settled but Midnight badly tangled and leaders wanted to follow the other teams rather than line out.  It took a while to clear the tangles.

Second pass wasn't quite so bad, as it occurred on the lower pond, out in the open.  The first team went by without a hitch, but leaders on the second team balled up again.  At that point Chetan spooked, pushing Grace off the trail, then Cassie and Capella tried to turn right down a snowmachine track.  Got them line out in the proper direction, third team passed OK, and we were back on the move in reasonably short order without any fights or tangles.

Chetan was distracted quite a bit during the return trip, sniffing at stuff, rubbernecking, and generally being a puppy.  She probably isn't ready for a leader trial yet.

That Has to Sting a Little

It's nearly 8:00 am, and I have to admit I slept in today.  That's because I was up late last night, watching the video stream of the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  Mitch Seavey held off Aliy Zirkle all evening long in order to win his second Championship.  Although Aliy was all smiles and upbeat as she crossed the finish line in 2nd place, it just has to sting a little bit. 

The fact is, taking back to back second-place finishes in the Iditarod is a very big deal.  As we saw repeated through the race, there were a LOT of very competitive teams in this year's race, just as there were last year and just as there are every year.  Just finishing in the top 20 is a huge accomplishment, and finishing 2nd two years in a row speaks very highly of the work that Aliy, Allen, their family and their crew put in to their dogs. 

Still, it must sting a little to be beaten by so narrow a margin to another Seavey. 

Credit should be paid where credit is due, and Mitch ran a masterful race.  He wasn't even on anyone's radar as a contender until two days ago.  Starting 35th in the field, he moved up quickly early on, coming into the McGrath checkpoint in third position.  After taking his 8 hour layover, he moved up again, and then maintained his position within striking range until the end game, where he moved at Shaktoolik, and held off all challengers to the very end.

Meanwhile, as nearly as I can tell, Aliy ran her team almost exactly to her original plan, a plan that obviously worked well for her and her dogs.  On the river, she had the only team in position to catch Martin Buser, which she did.  She seemed to falter over the Katag Portage, but banished the ghost of last year to recover quickly and regain the momentum.  As late as the Safety checkpoint, pundits were writing that she had the momentum and was very likely to pass Mitch on the last stretch of the race.

I couldn't keep my eyes off the GPS tracker, but no matter how often I refreshed the data the result was the same.  Aliy could match his pace, and did match his pace.  She just couldn't quite muster the surge needed to go around him.

Aliy is a good friend and an important mentor, and I can't help but think that placing 2nd behind another Seavey just has to sting a little.

Meanwhile, though, the race continues.  Other racers are coming across the finish line.  The remainder of our top 10 include 4-time Champion Jeff King, defending champion Dallas Seavey, long time contender Ray Redington Jr., Nicholas Petit.  Rookie of the year and the 7th place money goes to Joar Liefseth Ulsom, who was followed by Jake Berkowitz, Sonny Lindner and DeeDee Jonrowe.

Aaron Burmeister and Ken Anderson have also crossed the finish line.  Out of Safety and on the trail we have Peter Kaiser followed by Josh Cadzow who is completing his rookie run over the trail.  Next out were Paul Gebhardt, Cim Smyth and finally, way back in 18th place, the man who dominated the first half of the race Martin Buser.  Jessie Royer, Lance Mackey and Brent Sass are all out of White Mountain, and will probably round out the top-20 teams in this year's race.

As the Iditarod is winding down, I'm gearing up and firming up some plans for this R&R during the best month of the entire mushing season.  You can bet those plans will have something to do with dogs.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Overnight Changes

It's 3:45 as I write, prime time for running racing sled dogs.  Out on the Iditarod Trail there is some serious racing going on, and some interesting changes overnight.

The front runners are en route from Elim to the checkpoint and mandatory 8 hour layover in White Mountain.  As I noted last night, the early portion of the run from Koyuk to Elim presents some significant terrain challenges, including Little McKinley.  Currently, Mitch Seavey still holds the lead, well beyond Little McKinley and is crossing Golovan Bay.  Aliy Zirkle, who has moved up and is crossing the ice-covered bay strongly only three miles behind him.  She has an 8 mile advantage over Jeff King's team, who are 8 miles behind and matching her pace.  These two teams are about 10 miles from the White Mountain checkpoint and the promise of a good, long rest.

Ray Redinton Jr. is currently holding the fourth position, but is being challenged by Dallas Seavey, who has strongly continued his 'end game' push though down to only 8 dogs. 

At this point I'm predicting the winner will cross the line sometime this evening, most likely before I crawl into my own bed, in my own home. 

At this point it looks like Aliy is maintaining the SP Kennel tradition of very close, nearly photo finishes.  Aliy and her husband Allen Moore are the only married couple in history to each have won a 1,000 mile sled dog race.  Allen won this year's Yukon Quest.  It is quite possible that they could become the only married couple in history to each win a 1,000 mile sled dog race in the same year.  Now THAT would be a record guaranteed to stand for a long, long time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dynamic End Game

This year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is one of the closest races I can remember in a good, long while.  Let's take it from the top, or at least from the top of last night.

After stopping for about four hours, Mitch Seavey left Shaktoolik for Koyuk at 01:15.
Aaron Burmeister followed at 02:09 after roughly 3 ½ hours of rest.

Jeff King also rested his team about three hours before leaving at 01:12. By 06:00 Jeff had passed Aaron Burmeister to claim the second position well before the half-way point of the run.  King’s dogs were running a bit more than 1 ½ MPH faster than Aaron’s.

Aliy Zirkle out at 03:16.  At 06:15 she was running more than 2 MPH faster than Aaron, and gaining on him quickly.

Ray Redington Jr out at 03:17.  At 6:10, Aliy and Ray Redington were both running at about 7.5 mph, still close together.

Joar Ulsom at 03:18.  At 06:10 Ulsom’s team had slowed to about 6.3 mph

Jake Berkowitz left at at 05:28 and at 06:10 was about 11 miles behind the rookie, gaining ground slowly but apparently steadily.

Dallas Seavey, moving up very strongly, left Shaktoolik at 06:11 and arrived in Koyuk at 12:12.  He had the fastest run time of any of these leading teams and last year he came on strong to win from well behind.  That’s his style, it’s what he does, and it makes him a threat once again this year.

Mitch Seavey was the first musher into Koyuk, arriving at 07:41.  Jeff King didn’t give him much time to bask in glory, though.  Jeff hit the checkpoint at 0816, asked for his drop bags, repacked his sled and was back on the trail 6 minutes later, to claim the lead.  King then stopped only about 8 miles out of Koyuk to set up a camp and rest his team.  I don’t know if that was done to maintain his intended run/rest schedule, or perhaps an attempt to bait one of his competitors into cutting his own team’s rest short and giving chase. 

Aaron Burmeister’s team seemed to falter out on the ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, which give Ray Redington Jr. a chance to pass both he and Aliy Zirkle less than 10 miles from the checkpoint.  Aliy then slipped past both Burmeister and Redington as the teams regained the beach, to reach the checkpoint in third place.  Those three teams left nearly on top of each other, with Aliy pulling her hook at 1:23, Ray at 1:28 and Aaron at 1:37.  Aaron posted the slowest run of the front-runners across the ice.  At about 2:30 it looked like Aliy and Ray were running together while Aaron was roughly two miles behind.

By 5:00, Mitch Seavey has passed Jeff King to take over the lead and was only 9 miles from the checkpoint at Elim.  Jeff King was stopped on the trail, six miles behind Seavey.  Ray Redington Jr. was closing fast, only 5 miles behind King and moving at over 7 mph.  Aliy Zirkle was maintaining very good position, less than a mile behind Redington and Aaron Burmeister was only three miles behind Aliy.  Jake Berkowitz and Joar Ulsom were running together about 10 miles behind Aaron.  At that time those were the only mushers that had checked out of Koyuk.

I doubt that any of these teams will stop long at Elim.  The next leg of the race, from Elim to White Mountain is pretty short (only 45 miles) and each team must spend a mandatory 8-hour layover at White Mountain, giving their dogs time to recover.  In this section, the trails turns inland to climb over the Kwiktalik Mountains, with a serious of long, moderately hard grades, including the 1,000 foot summit of Little McKinley.  That is considered to be the hardest climb in the last half of the race.

As I write (6:35 pm), Mitch Seavey seems to be holding on to his lead and is pulling in to Elim.  Aliy Zirkle is shown on the GPS tracker in second place, apparently having passed Ray Redington and Jeff King in just the past hour or so.  She is shown as being about 11 miles out, which translate into roughly an hour and 1/2 of run time.  Jeff is right on the tails of her runners, though.  He won't give up position easily at this point in the race.  Redington is only a couple of miles behind Aliy and Jeff and I'm sure he's giving it everything he and his dogs have to give. 

Aaron Burmeister hasn't capitulated by any means.  He is shown a mile behind Redington, but barely trudging along at only 4 1/2 mph.  Though probably too far back to challenge for the win, Jake Berkowitz is nonetheless still in the race, nine miles behind Burmeister.  He is followed within a couple of miles by Joar Ulsom, and Dallas Seavey seems determined to improve his position as he's only 3 miles behind Jake.

It looks like this race is going to be a nail-biter all the way to the burled arch in Nome.


Today was my last full day of work for this tour of duty.  I just put my laundry in the dryer and I'm organizing the stuff I need to pack for the trip home in the morning.  I’ll be getting off about 10:00 am, and by the time I drive to town and do my grocery shopping and I'll be lucky to pull into my own driveway by 1:00.   

This R&R will probably be my last opportunity to run the dogs on a sled this season.  We've been enjoying unseasonably warm temperatures, some days warm enough to start thawing.  I've been told the snow has already sloughed off the roof of the house.  It isn't anything like break-up yet, but it is a promise that break-up is coming quickly.  I'll try to keep y'all informed about my activities during the next two weeks of alleged "rest and recreation".  More often than not, I work harder during R&R than I do while at work.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Changing Leaders over the Kaltag Portage

When I checked on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this morning, there was no doubt in my mind that things are changing fast out on the trail, and at that point it was impossible to determine who is actually leading the race.  Mushers were leap-frogging each other all across the Kaltag portage.  Aliy Zirkle was the first to go through the checkpoint at Kaltag, but others followed in very short order.

As of 6:40 (ADST) this morning, I was able to identify 11 different teams that can assume the lead of this race.  Aaron Burmeister had taken over the lead and Mitch Seavey was only one mile behind him.  Martin Buser, Joar Ulsom and Jake Berkowitz were resting about 10 miles behind the leaders.  Aliy was approaching within a mile of that group, and moving at the fastest pace of any of the mushers then on the trail, with Sonny Lindner right on her heels.  DeeDee Jonrow, John Baker, Dallas Seavey. Jessie Royer and Paul Gebhardt were all running a group less than 20 miles behind Aaron.

That gives us 12 teams all in contention, and too closely grouped to identify a true “leader” in the race.

While I was busy doing my job, things changed yet again.  Mitch Seavey passed Aaron Burmeister to arrive first in Unalakleet, by only 15 minutes.  Jiff King passed a bunch of people to be third into the checkpoint at 1:21, not quite three hours later.  He was followed by Jake Berkowitz at 1:23.  Aliy Zirkle fell back into fourth place, arriving at 1:40 pm, with Ray Redington Jr. only 2 minutes behind her.  Joar Ulsom came in at 2:07 and DeeDee Jonrowe arrived at 4:02.

By the time DeeDee arrived, Mitch Seavey and Aaron Burmeister were back on the trail.  Having given their teams about five hours of rest, Seavey left at 3:10 and Aaron at 3:25.

Reports from the trail are that high winds caused heavy snow drifting, often obliterating the trail and forcing the teams to do a lot more trail breaking than was earlier expected.  This seems to be particularly tough work for Aliy Zirkle’s smaller dogs.  Apparently she had intended to run through to Tripod Cabin, but ended up camping considerably before there, allowing some of the teams to overtake her and break out a somewhat better trail. 

It appears that Jeff King has already started to make a move for a fast finish up the coast, hoping to collect pickup truck number 5.  Dallas Seavey and John Baker are also picking up the pace.  John always performs extremely well on the coast, and Seavey seems to be repeating the strategy that earned him the championship last year.  Meanwhile, Martin Buser’s team seems to have all but shut down on him.  At 5:00 he was running in 10th place, trudging along at only 4.5 miles per hour and still four miles out from the checkpoint.

Currently (6:30 pm), it looks like Jeff King left Unalakleet at 4:56, and Aliy pulled her snow hook at 1751, giving her team about 4 hours of rest.  Joar Ulsom followed Aliy by only 4 minutes. 

I'm afraid this 'spring ahead' for daylight savings time this morning is kickin' my butt.  My circadian rhythm is off pretty badly, and I need to get some sleep.  I'll just have to let the race play out for a few hours and try to catch up again in the morning. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Aliy is in First Place at Kaltag

Out on the Iditarod trail, the leading teams heading to Kaltag battled a tough trail today.  Because the bad weather has grounded air support for the past couple of days, trail-breakers on snow machines have been pressed into service hauling food and volunteers to the checkpoints.  One such volunteer reported there were at least 20 places with overflow completely across the trail, and that even on the packed dog trail one would sink to his or her knees if attempting to walk.  According to his report, it is impossible for mushers to pull off the trail to stop for a rest except on a couple of windblown stretches.

In spite of the poor trail conditions, Aliy Zirkle appeared to spend most of the day chipping away at Martin Busers huge lead.  Martin left the Eagle Island checkpoint at 2:41 this morning, and after resting her team about five hours, Aliy left at 5:51.  This means she had closed the gap by nearly 2 hours in just a single run.  In part, that’s probably because Aliy’s dogs were well rested during their 8 hour layover, but it also appears that Martin’s team has slowed quite a bit.  Breaking out a trail in sloppy conditions can take a heavy toll on a team of dogs.

 I checked the GPS Live Tracking at 11:35 this morning, and saw that Martin was traveling at only 5.2 mile per hour at mile 609.  Meanwhile, Aliy was closing at 9.0 mph (a good, solid trotting pace) only 11 miles behind him.  By 1:00 this afternoon she had gained even more ground, and was only six miles behind.  At about 3:00, it looked like Aliy had found a relatively dry, comfortable place to camp and rest her team, about an hour’s run outside of Kaltag.  That allowed several of the other front-running teams to pass her by, including Mitch Seavey, Aaron Burmeister, Jake Berkowitz, and Joar Ulsom.  I don't know how long Aliy rested her dogs, but at 5:52 this evening she checked into Kaltag, and at 6:20 she checked out again, heading across the Kaltag Portage toward Unalakleet.  As I write, she is the only musher to have left the checkpoint thus far.
I think things could get very interesting overnight.  All of these leading teams have had to travel a very long way on very little rest so I suspect most of these mushers will give their teams a good break at Kaltag before starting across the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet.  Last year Aliy had a lot of trouble on the portage.  She was working so hard, ski-poling, peddling and running beside her sled, that she nearly exhausted herself.  The portage slowed her progress enough that extremely athletic Dallas Seavey was able to catch up eventually win the race. 

Perhaps she's battling the phantom of her memory as she once again starts breaking trail over this portion of the trail.  The Kaltag portage is about an 82 mile stretch.   Normally most Iditarod teams could easily do that in a single run after resting in the checkpoint. Given the heat and difficulties on the Yukon River today, and the fact that her team truly is running on very little rest, I am rather surprised that Aliy is starting that journey so quickly.  Fortunately there are some good cabins along this stretch where mushers can give their teams a nice camp if they wish to do so.  Although the weather forecast is for cooling temperatures and perhaps a few snow showers, it also calling for some stiff winds, especially on the Norton Sound side of the pass.

Martin Buser, or any four of the 5 teams that passed Aliy while she was camped, could give chase at any moment, so it's impossible to determine which of them might be running in which positions until they actually leave the checkpoint.  Jessie Royer is currently in Kaltag, but still owes the race an 8 hour mandatory layover, so she won't be leaving anytime particularly soon. 

So, we have a five-way tie for second place tonight between Martin Buser, Mitch Seavey, Aaron Burmeister, Jake Berkowitz and Joar Ulsom.  I'm usually willing to risk a bit of money on the outcome of a sled dog race, but right now I wouldn't bet against any of those guys.   
            Closer to home, it looks like Matt Hall is well on his way to winning the Two Rivers 200.  According to the GPS tracker he is running the big loop along the Chena River and should be arriving at the finish line within the next 45 minutes or so.  The leaderboard hasn't been updated for quite a while, because there is no Internet access from Angel Creek.  Nonetheless, it's obvious that none of his competitors are even close behind him.

Picking Up the Pace on the River

Last night Martin Buser had a 5 hour advantage over second place musher Aliy Zirkle in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  Early this morning I've noticed a significant change, perhaps a VERY significant change.  Martin pulled into the tent camp checkpoint of Eagle Island at 9:55 last night, and Aliy checked in at 1:42 this morning.  This means that Aliy has gained slightly more than an hour on the leader, in a single run.  Buser checked out at 2:41 this morning and, according to the GPS tracking system, Aliy is still resting at the checkpoint.

Meanwhile, Mitch Seavey has also enjoyed a smoking fast run up the river, arriving at Eagle River in Third Place at 2:11.  That puts him well withing striking range of the leaders as the race continues up to Kaltag today.

Also in Eagle Rivers as I write we have Joar Ulsum (most likely soon to be Rookie of the Year), Jeff King, Jessie Royer, Nicolas Petit, Jake Berkowitz and Aaron Burmeister.

In the Two Rivers 200, Matt Hall is clearly in the lead, arriving at the Pleasant Valley Store checkpoint at 10:00 last night.  He was chased out of the Two Rivers Lodge checkpoint by Mitch Seavey, Christian Turner, Greg Stoddard and Amanda Gecas.  Live GPS tracking shows the front runners in that race are resting at the Store.

It's time for me to slug down some more coffee and prepare for the workday.  I'm sure I'll have plenty more to share this evening.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Busy Trails

I am following two different sled dog races from the comfort of my quarters at work.  My laptop is having a hard time keeping up with the flow of data.

First, let's take a look at the Iditarod. 

Martin Buser served his mandatory 8 hour layover in Anvik, arriving to a gourmet meal and cash award as the first musher to reach the Yukon River.  While his team was resting, Aliy Zirkle blew by, and mushed on to the checkpoint at Grayling, where she spent the heat of the day doing her mandatory layover. 

Martin passed through Grayling at 12:52, running on the rain-soaked river trail.  Although the leader board doesn't show it yet, I have no doubt that Aliy left exactly on time.  Although she is the only musher out there with a realistic hope of catching the race leader, he nonetheless has a 5 hour lead.

I compared their run times for each leg of the race earlier today, and they are very evenly matched.  Both teams have been maintaining about the same speed nearly every inch of the race.  That means the only way Aliy can catch Martin is by running longer and resting less.  That can be a pretty risky strategy, and Aliy is not willing to take very many risks with her dogs, not even for the biggest race of the season.

On the other hand, few mushers have the kind of bond that Aliy has with her team and by all accounts her dogs are plenty energetic.  She may be willing to try a long run, similar to one Lance Mackey did a few years ago to win his first Iditarod.  That might allow her to catch up to Buser, but the effort could leave her with a rest deficit her dogs just can't overcome. 

We'll just have to see how the game plays out over the next few days.  It's very few days indeed, though.  At this point I'm not sure Aliy has enough trail left on which to pass Martin Buser.

Aaron Burmeister will be leaving from his 8 hour layover momentarily and will be followed half an hour later by Jake Berkowitz.  Aaron also has a very fast team and has been consistently posting really good run times, but he's also been taking plenty of rest.  Berkowitz is a workman on the trail, and this year is proving his mettle as a serious contender in the long-distance sled dog racing game.  Both men have lots of dogs in their teams, too.  Aaron has 15 on the gangline, and Jake still has the full compliment of 16.

There is a bit of gap between Jake and the next group of racers, which includes Sonny Lindner, Jessie Royer, Mitch Seavey, DeeDee Jonrowe and Paul Gebhart.  Mitch has already finished his 8 hour layover, so he's likely to be the first of this group to leave Grayling.  He could put some pressure on Jake and Aaron, but I doubt he'll be able to catch up to Aliy with anything short of a big, surprising move.

Chatanika Challenge:
As I noted this morning, the Chatanika Challenge (aka Two Rivers 200/100/50) started at noon today. The 50 mile race goes from Chatanika to Two Rivers Lodge.  The 100 milers race around many of the local trails in our little community (50 miles worth) and finish their race at Pleasant Valley Store.  The 200 mile racers go from the store out to Angel Creek Lodge checkpoint, and then return to finish at the Store. 

Sound confusing?  Wait until you see the map (below):

Chatanika Challenge Trail Map
Most of the mushers appear to be resting at the first checkpoint, Two Rivers Lodge, as I write.  Matt Hall, however, is apparently moving on to take an early big lead.  Perhaps he's borrowing a page from Martin Buser's playbook.  In any event, he will owe a total of ten hours of mandatory layover time that must be taken at checkpoints.  As he spent little time at the Lodge, he may decide to divide that as 5 hours each at Pleasant Valley and Angle Creek.  In any event, he'll need to have spent at least 10 hours in checkpoints before he'll be allowed to leave Angle Creek for the final leg of the race. 

You can learn more about the Chatanika Challenge on the Two Rivers Dog Musher's Association website by clicking HERE, and you can follow the race in near real time through our newest GPS tracking feature.

Also this weekend, in Fairbanks, those high-speed sprint dogs are competing in the Alaska Dog Musher's Associations Limited North American Championship race. 

Here are the results of the first day of high speed action at the ADMA Dog Musher's Association track:


2013 Limited North American Championship

March 8, 2013

8-dog  11.0 MILES TEMP:  43
TRAIL:  fast

811 Christian Taveau 8-2
35:06.9 1
810 Angie Fitch 8-2
35:14.8 2
802 Hynundoul "Nikki" Seo 8-2
35:54.4 3
803 Dawn Brown 8-2
36:43.2 4
804 Brooke Hartum 8-2
36:43.7 5
809 Mari Hoe-Raitto 8-2
37:46.7 6
805 Beth Callis 8-2
39:55.0 7
801 Dalton Baines 7-2
41:41.4 8
806 Lisbeth Brax Olofsson 8-2
42:57.5 9
808 Steve Demolen 8-2
44:22.7 10
807 Dan Kaushagen 8-2
46:34.4 11


6-DOG 6.2 miles TEMP:  43 F
TRAIL:  Fast

608 Jessica Doherty 6-2
17:35.3 1
614 Greg Sellentin 6-2
18:30.9 2
606 Kourosh Partow 6-2
18:57.8 3
607 Grace Bailey 6-2
19:06.0 4
609 Ami Gjetson 6-2
19:10.7 5
612 Dawn Brown 6-2
19:18.8 6
605 Bonnie Borba 6-2
20:05.2 7
602 Ken Bernard 6-2
20:17.0 8
610 Brooke Hartum 6-2
20:39.8 9
603 Amanda Byrd 6-2
20:58.5 10
613 Andrea Swingley 6-2
21:23.4 11
615 Ron Bernard 6-2
21:32.1 12
604 Ed Arobio 6-2
23:24.2 13
611 Amy Maclean 6-2
24:09.9 14
601 Thera Scarber 5-2
24:25.2 15


4-DOG 4.8 miles TEMP:  41

408 Lena Boysen Hillestad 4 7 13:26.3 1
406 Elin Bjork 4 6 13:59.4 2
404 Catrina Sodersten 4 4 14:15.0 3
410 Lily Stewart 4 10 14:18.8 4
405 Sussie Gronberg 4 5 14:19.3 5
403 Jay Olmstead Jr. 4 3 15:28.5 6
402 Grace Bailey 4 2 15:41.7 7
413 Kourosh Partow 4 13 15:44.3 8
414 Mya Hartum 4 14 15:45.5 9
409 Ken Bernard 4 9 15:45.6 10
401 Patricia Hnatuik 4 1 15:47.9 11
411 Clint Graham 4 11 16:31.9 12
412 Jacob Witkop 4 12 16:42.8 13
407 Carol Kaynor 4 8 17:33.5 14

SKIJORING 4.8 miles TEMP:  37
TRAIL:  fast

Lt Snow
110 Yvette Hoel 2 8 13:51.6 1
102 Jamie Johnson 3 2 14:31.4 1
104 Kelley McGrath 2 3 14:48.1 2
112 Greg Jurek 2 11 14:59.7 3
121 Sven Ivar Moen 1 19 15:16.0 1
105 Kale Casey 2 5 15:20.3 4
119 Yngve Hoel 1 18 15:20.3 2
114 Jeff Brannen 2 14 15:26.5 5
123 Mike Christman 1 21 15:32.8 3
113 Mona Moen 2 13 15:42.4 6
111 Jim Herriges 2 10 16:04.2 7
101 Sara Elzey 3 1 16:28.0 2
109 Jesse Warwick 2 9 16:33.4 8
118 Karen Koehler 1 17 16:41.4 4
116 Rebecca Knight 2 15 16:49.7 9
106 Janet Saxon 2 6 16:55.1 10
120 Kriya Dunlap 1 20 17:36.9 5
117 Becky Voris 2 16 17:43.5 11
107 Sunnifer Deehr 2 7 17:48.8 12
103 Andy Warwick 3 4 17:58.6 3
125 Van Levey 2 23 18:11.0 13
122 Kirsten Lippman 1 22 21:50.9 6
124 David Ballard 1 24 22:17.5 7
108 Larry Nichzolodov 2 12 23:15.1 14
126 Steve Levey 2 25 24:24.3 15
115 Christina Turman 2 Scratch - -

That's it from me tonight.  I need to get some sleep so I can start all over again, way too early tomorrow morning.

Reaching the River

3:30 am, and of course my first act of the new day is to check on happenings out in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  The leading teams today will be traveling up the Yukon River.  With weather conditions continuing to be thawing temperatures and very windy I'd be surprised to see smoking fast trail times on the river this year.

Here's a photo, from Mushing TV, that shows one of the weather related challenges the teams have had to overcome.
Jim Lanier's team en route to Iditarod checkpoint

Martin Buser continues to lead the race, having pulled into the checkpoint of Anvik at 2:17 this morning.  That wasn't all that long ago.  According to the GPS tracking feature Mitch Seavey and Jake Berkowitz have arrived at Shagaluk. Nicolas Petit and Aliy Zirkle seem to be running closely together about 5 miles out from the checkpoint.  Aliy may catch the former before they reach the checkpoint, as her speed is a full mile per hour faster than that of Nicolas.

Other mushers are running closely behind in a tightly packed group, including Peter Kaiser, Aaron Burmeister, Ulsum Leifseth, Paul Gebhardt, Ray Redington Jr., Jessie Royer, Dallas Seavey, and Sonny Lindner, DeeDee Jonrowe and Lance Mackey. 

The 25 mile run from Shagaluk and Anvik is described as "straight forward", mostly through open country. 

I believe the river will tell us a lot about the leading teams.  As I noted earlier, the weather isn't particularly favorable and, from a dog's perspective, the river is a boring highway to run.  I guess sort of like driving I-70 across eastern Colorado and Kansas.  Not a lot to see, and just mile after mile of more miles and miles.  With the wind blowing in their faces, slogging along a potentially punchy trail, I can't see it being a whole lot of fun.  The teams will traveling around 140 miles or so of those conditions.  The run to Grayling is relatively short, only 18 miles or so.  From there it's 62 miles to the tent-camp checkpoint of Eagle River, and another 60 to the village of Kaltag.

Chatanika Challenge (Two Rivers 200) Starts Today:

Closer to home, or it would be if I were home rather than at work, the Chatanika Challenge (aka Two Rivers 200) starts at noon today.  This year we can follow the race with a live tracking feature, new to our local club.  You can get more information along with access to features to follow the race at

Mushers signed up for the 200 mile race include:
  1. Alyssa Komac
  2. Amanda Gecas
  3. Greg Stoddard
  4. Nicole Faille
  5. Christian Turner
  6. Matt Hall
  7. Rick Swenson
  8. Tony Angelo
  9. Wayne Curtis
  10. Jjay Levy
  11. Leila Javadi
  12. Shaynee Seipke
  13. Jesse Brattrud
  14. Lev Shvartz
  15. Mandy Nauman
  16. Kevin Currier

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Weather Issues on the I'rod Trail

Weather conditions along the Iditarod trail have not been very favorable today, and it is evident in the performance of some of the front running teams.  By 8:30 this morning winds were reported at 30 knots, and the temperature was rising rapidly.  Shortly after 5:00 pm the temperature in the area around Iditarod and also at Shageluk was 40 degrees above zero.  Even on a good trail those temperatures create slow, punchy conditions that can lead to joint injuries in dogs.

 Trail conditions between Iditarod and Shagaluk described as “primitive” and the only traffic on them all winter being the trail breakers for this race.  The trail passes over big rolling hills, fully exposed to that wind.  Combined with near or above freezing temperatures the wet, relatively heavy snow is likely to accumulate in drifts that will be hard to break through.

At this point it’s pretty clear that Martin Buser is being hard pressed to maintain his hard earned lead.  Having rested his team only 5 hours, he left the checkpoint of Iditarod at 2:00 this afternoon, less than an hour and a half after Aaron Burmeister’s 12:46 arrival and only 18 minutes before Mitch Seavey pulled into the checkpoint.

Aliy Zirkle apparently decided to camp in between Ophir and Iditarod rather than pushing her dogs through the hot part of the day.  Her trail time between the checkpoints was pretty slow as a result, but she blew through Iditarod, staying only 10 minutes, to claim the second place position.  Aaron Burmeister, who was resting when Aliy arrived, left the checkpoint about 40 minutes behind her.

Having delayed the inevitable, Lance Mackey, Sonny Lindner and Jeff King all appear to be serving their 24 hour layovers at the checkpoint of Iditarod.  Lance will be able to rejoin the race sometime between 9:00 and 9:30 tonight, Sonny right around 10:00, and Jeff between 1:30 and 2:00 this morning, if my math estimation is reasonably close.  Unless forced to drop some dogs, that should put Lance in a pretty reasonable position.

At this point it looks like the greatest challenge facing the mushers the next couple of days will be the weather, with very warm temperatures and high winds being the rule all they way out to the coast.

At the moment, the top-10 list, consisting of mushers who have completed their mandatory layovers,  looks something like this:

Martin Buser
Aliy Zirkle
Aaron Burmeister
Mitch Seavey
Jake Berkowitz
Nicolas Petit
Joar Ulsum
Ray Redington Jr.
Paul Gebhardt

I think it's going to be very interesting to see how the various teams cope with the warm, thawing and very windy weather out there.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Break time for most, but....

It was an exceptionally busy day for me at work, leaving little time to follow the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  Fortunately, it was not a busy day out on the Iditarod trail, as the majority of mushers settled in to take their required 24 hour (plus start differential) layovers.  Today Martin Buser took advantage of his early layover by marching past the majority of his competitors.  Even the most conservative mushers believe Martin has gained at least a four-hour advantage over the next closest team.  On the other hand, he dropped 2 of his 16 dogs at Takotna before mushing on Ophir, where he settled in for a bit of rest at the checkpoint.

Lance Mackey, Sonny Lindner and Jeff King have delayed their layovers.  There is speculation that Lance is racing for some of the midway prizes to help make up some of the money he lost by scratching from last month’s Yukon Quest.  If he is first to the Yukon River at Anvik, he can earn $7000.00 and a gourmet meal sponsored by the Millenium Hotel. He left Ophir, technically in first place, at 5:45 this morning, but of course he still owes the race those 24 hours.  

Aaron Burmeister will be eligible to leave Takotna sometime around 9:00 tonight, and Aliy Zirkle will be less than an hour behind him.  She will be pursued, too closely for comfort, by Mitch Seavey who has consistently been posting faster run times than she.  The fact is, there are so many formidable teams all grouped together and scheduled to leave very closely together that it is still impossible to declare any of them as having a distinct advantage.  This is turning out to be a very close race indeed.

There is some sad news to report tonight.  On Monday a Cessna 182 piloted by Ted Smith of Eagle River departed for the Iditarod checkpoint of Takotna where the passengers, Carolyn Sorvoja and her 10 year old daughter, Rosemarie, hoped to volunteer.  The aircraft only made it as far as Rainy Pass.  Yesterday the wreckage was spotted at about the 4,000 foot level of the pass.  All of the occupants were killed.

Spreading Out a Bit

Yesterday the leading mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were running closely together, all bunched up in a dynamic group.  This morning they are starting to spread out a bit as the various mushers start thinking about serving their mandatory 24 hour layovers.  That will create it's own brand of confusion for a while until things finally settle down out there on the trail.

At the front of the pack we have Jake Berkowitz sitting in Ophir since about 1:15 this morning.  Nicholas Petit and Sonny Lindner are both en route from Takotna to Ophir.  Apparently settled in at Takotna we have most of the teams that are considered major contenders in this race.  Here is the break down:

4 Aaron Burmeister 24 Takotna  3/5 20:48:00

5 Aliy Zirkle 27 Takotna  3/5 21:35:00

6 Lance Mackey 5 Takotna  3/5 21:36:00

7 Mitch Seavey 36 Takotna  3/5 21:45:00

8 Jessie Royer 30 Takotna  3/5 23:19:00

9 DeeDee Jonrowe 28 Takotna  3/5 23:21:00

10 Dallas Seavey 19 Takotna  3/5 23:21:00

11 Peter Kaiser 10 Takotna  3/5 23:21:00

12 Paul Gebhardt 11 Takotna  3/5 23:25:00

13 Ray Redington Jr 52 Takotna  3/5 23:39:00

14 Joar Leifseth Ulsom (r) 32 Takotna  3/5 23:47:00

15 Michelle Phillips 7 Takotna  3/5 23:50:00

16 Ken Anderson 6 Takotna  3/6 00:25:00

17 Jeff King 18 Takotna  3/6 01:11:00

18 John Baker 13 Takotna  3/6 01:25:00

19 Cim Smyth 51 Takotna  3/6 01:49:00

20 • Gerry Willomitzer 21 Takotna  3/6 02:37:00

21 • Brent Sass 62 Takotna  3/6 02:39:00

When we consider the start differential, Aaron Burmeister and Aliy Zirkle are running pretty closely together.  Lance is further behind Aliy than their arrival time at Takotna would indicate.  All of these teams are in a great position to make a move toward winning this race.

Having already completed their 24 hour layover, Martin Buser and Matt Failor are back on the trail, and we can expect them to be passing most, if not all, of these teams over the next day or so.  Currently Martin has already cleared the checkpoint of Nikolai, and Matt is most likely approaching it pretty closely.  By this time tomorrow I'm betting that Martin Buser will emerge as the leader, and will be the team to chase and, if they can, overcome.