Thursday, March 6, 2014

I'm home, and the race continues.

Sorry I didn't post last night. By the time I got back to town, Trish and I did our shopping and errands, got that stuff put away, spent time with the dogs and then got our own supper it was quite late. We were delayed by about an hour and a half due to a "quick" stop at the Yukon Quest headquarters building in Fairbanks. When I renewed my Mileage Club membership this year I opted to also replace my 'official' jacket with this year's version, and it was ready to pick up. Does it really take an hour and 1/2 to pick up a jacket? Well, not really, but it does take an hour and a half to talk dogs with Quest director Marty Steury, new staff member Neil (a very nice young man who is head over heals in love with all things involving sled dogs) and Brent Sass' father, who happened to be hanging around.

Brent's family and friends decided he needed to take a vacation - seriously - because hanging out at home just wasn't consistent with the "rest and relaxation" prescribed by his neurologists. Brent can't be around his kennel and dogs without working in his kennel and with his dogs. So, they all got together and sent him to Hawaii for a week or so, and from there sent him off to Tennessee to visit with other family members and hopefully slow down a little so he can heal. Having now met Mark, I can see that Brent's seemingly boundless energy and love for adventure is a heritable family trait.

When Trish and I went to the lodge we found a nearly full house, including a large table to dog mushers and handlers, all talking about old trails run, new trails to come, great old dogs of the past and new litters planned for the future. Matt Hall was there, as was Teddy Kirby and a few others we know. Obviously this year's I'rod was a major topic of conversation, with all of us rooting for the home-town teams of Aliy Zirkle and Sonny Lindner.

With some of the leading mushers having completed their mandatory 24-hour layovers, we are able to get a more clear picture of who is doing what out there. The improved trail conditions in the boreal region between the Alaska Range and Yukon River is apparently well appreciated as some of the folks who were laying low early have shoveled some coal into the boilers and picked up their pace.

Currently in the lead, Jeff King and Sonny Lindner are racing head to head towards Ruby, the first checkpoint on the Yukon River. Both King and Lindner now have 14 dogs on their ganglines. (They started with 16 each.) The GPS trackers shows a big gap between Jeff and Sonny and their closest rivals. On the same stretch of trail we have Aaron Burmeister, Paul Gebhardt and Martin Buser. The only one in this group who has completed his mandatory 24-hour layover is Buser. He's running a blistering pace this year and still has 15 of his original 16 dogs pulling on the gangline.

Since Martin has finished his 24, he is actually in the lead in this race. It is not uncontested, however. There are 13 mushers behind him on the trail between Ophir and his current location of Cripple, and all 13 have also completed their layovers. Because of the layover requirement, these 14 are the true leaders in the race and include Kelly Maixner, Hugh Neff, Robert Sorlie, Aliy Zirkle, Hans Gatt, Mitch Seavey, Ray Redington Jr., Dallas Seavey, Michael Williams Jr., Cym Smyth, Jessie Royer, Ken Anderson and Kristy Berington.

In a brief article on the Iditarod web site, Sebastian (Sab) Schnuelle noted that those who are doing best so far all have big strings of dogs, having dropped very few. Going by dog count alone, Hugh Neff is down to 10, and Michael Williams Jr., has only 9. All the others are running teams that number in the double-digits. Nicholas Petit, Robert Sorlie, Hans Gatt, and Jessie Royer are all running the full teams they started with. Given the trail conditions back over the Alaska Range, that is truly remarkable. Equally remarkable is that no one has scratched from the race beyond Rohn. Those who made it over the bad spot have been enjoying a relatively trouble free trail.

This year's trail conditions have revitalized an old argument among dog mushers. Over the past decade the vast majority of racing sleds on the trails have had virtually no resemblance at all to the traditional wooden sleds of history. Constructed of metals, mostly aluminum but some of exotic and light weight but exceedingly strong composites. Hockey sticks are a fairly popular sled building material for stanchions (uprights) because of their easy availability and light weight composite construction. In the I'rod, about the only traditional wooden sleds seen at all are used only during the ceremonial start in (Los) Anchorage.

The downside to metals and composites is that they are not nearly so flexible as wood. Every time a metal sled runner fixes (as it must over bumps and moguls), it stresses the molecular structure of the material, making it harder (work hardened) and more brittle and prone to breakage. This is particularly problematic at brackets used to bolt sleds together. Jake Berkowitz was forced to scratch when an overworked runner stressed at an overworked stanchion bracket snapped, leaving him stranded with no way to repair the damage in the field.

Wood is far more flexible, and wooden sleds are literally tied together - historically with rawhide thongs called "babiche" and more recently with nylon mason's twine, which can stretch up to 45% it's original length before breaking. There is great strength in flexibility, and when something does break one can usually jerry-rig a repair in the field. Had Jake been running a wooden sled, a bit of work with an axe and some mason's twice or even duct tape could have had him back on the trail within just a couple of hours.

The down-side to wood is that it weighs more than metals.

I've seen some interesting and innovative tricks used to try to increase the flexibility of metal sleds, especially by those who prefer the longer "sit down" type sleds that have become popular in the long-distance races. Each trick seems to bring along it's own unique set of problems.

In any event, within the past two years the debate had seemed to have been settled. "Everyone" was running metals and plastics. Now folks seem to be revisiting the issue. Since my own equipment is historically authentic wood, tied together with string, babiche or a combination of the two, I find it interesting that the "big names" are also revisiting the issue.

That's all for now. I have dogs ready for their breakfast, and Trish and I are planning to get out on the trail ourselves.

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