Friday, February 20, 2015

Iditarod Fairbanks Start

I promised to research this. In doing so, I found  the move is much more rare than I had realized. It only happened once before, in 2003. Following an article from the Anchorage paper's on line edition, I read some snide comments by various armchair quarterbacks who have lots of "opinions" (mostly not based on fact or concern for the welfare of the dogs and their drivers!) Most I would take with a grain of salt. They do not seem to know jack about the real race.

There were more of the same by  global warming fanatics and that ilk. Really, what relevance does fossil fuel use --or limitation--have on the lives of racing sled dogs and this most prestigious race?? Please, take your dang soapbox somewhere else and leave this arena alone. No, I am not going there. I do not question that there are climate changes although I may question the proclaimed causes--which I am pretty sure are a lot broader and more complex than popular opinion tends to credit --but that political type discussion does not belong here. I will say no more nor accept any comments about it unless they clearly tie directly to the race issues. There is not enough snow; the temperatures have varied wildly this winter. Enough said. Too bad they cannot run in Massachusetts!

At any rate, the entire current ITC voted unanimously to move the race. That is good enough for me. The board consists of experienced mushers and people with long association with the race who flew out to look at the trail including the notorious Dalzell Gorge and Farewell Burn areas and pronounced them impassible. Sled dogs have to have snow; well, the sleds especially as the dogs can run on bare ground, of course!

Like the committee, I feel  we do not need to potentially kill or maim dogs and mushers out of some stubborn adherence to tradition or the financial concerns of certain villages and checkpoints on the normal trail. I think even the late great Joe Reddington would go along with that, may he RIP. The Committee announced the change now so the logistics could be managed and everything made ready for the official start on March 9 in Fairbanks. There is trail marking and some grooming, checkpoints to be set up, musher drop bags to be distributed and so on. It's a big, no a huge, logistical job. I for one applaud their decision and will definitely not try to second guess them.

It is going to make for a different and interesting race I am sure. Good mushers and good teams will do well as they always do. Perhaps without the terrible conditions of the last two runs to contend with, even the rookies and those who do not try to win but merely run for the adventure and experience will fare better as well. There will still be hard areas, ice, weather and all the normal issues to contend with. I'm sure it will not be a sissy race! It never is and pray never becomes so. If there is ever a 1000 mile paved and plowed road for the trail, I will lose interest fast!

Anyway that's the facts, ma'am, as far as the northern start goes. I think I got my data from reliable sources and I have no complaints. The race will head off in the opposite direction--south and west--from that which the Yukon Quest follows--out in even years and in for odd ones, like this year, on the Chena River. The Iditarod will follow the Tenana River for the initial route. The influx of visitors will be a boost for Fairbanks' economy, at least. Oh darn, but I want to be there!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Yukon Quest Wrap-up

It's over although not all the racers are in. It'll be another day or two--maybe even more. Of the twenty five starters, forty percent scratched at various points along the trail, most citing the welfare of their teams. It was a very tough race with brutal cold for the first half-plus and then a sudden rise in temperatures to near or above freezing.

The leaders--two teams-- got in to Fairbanks late last night (right behind the site of my background photo here!) at temps in the upper twenties with freezing rain/snow mixed slushing down on them. Brent Sass got his win; I cannot begrudge him. He ran a fine race and was in the lead much of the time. Allen Moore came in second. He was briefly ahead but could not hold the place. The next two are far behind and will be in late this evening--Ed Hopkins who is "Mr. Michelle Phillips" and a guy I do not know or had not previously heard of although he may be a regular racer in Canada. He's not been on the Iditarod roster that I can recall. Hugh Neff is a distant fifth place.

Slower than the Iditarod, this race crosses several mountain ranges and is known for the brutal cold. At times it has been as low as 60 below zero. It wasn't quite there this year but the cold lasted--very little easing even during daylight hours. The run time was just under ten days for the two top places. I think that is about par for the last few years. I'll have to research the speed record.

Moore and the Black Team ran a good race. I can't armchair quarterback but I do have a theory. The last checkpoint and stop was at Two Rivers, the community north and a bit west of Fairbanks where Allen and Aliy have their kennel. Although the stop was not right there, the dogs had to know with their keen sense of place and direction that they were not far from home. They were tired and had already run some 950 tough miles. Why was Dad asking them to get up and go some more?

They are good loyal and willing dogs and they went but their hearts could not have been 110% in it. Also, Quito was leading, I think. She is an amazing dog but she is Aliy's dog and many of these huskies are very much one-person dogs. She works well for Allen but maybe not with that tiny extra bit of will. Then, as a YQ multi-winner, I doubt that Allen was quite as hungry for that win as Brent was plus for Brent's dogs it was just another checkpoint. Who knows? That's just my very amateur analysis.

So we've  one big one down and the other to go. The Iditarod Trail Committee has recently announced that the official start will be in Fairbanks this year. They will do the normal ceremonial start in Anchorage but then take an extra day to trek north because the area around Wasilla and Willow and even farther north and west just does not have any snow. This has been done a few times before--I'll know exactly by the time I report again--so is not unprecedented but it will put a very different twist on the race as about a third to half the trail will not be the familiar one. How this will impact the top ten or fifteen racers and teams who know the normal route well remains to be seen. More on that in the next couple of weeks!

Anyway my congratulations to Brent Sass--who is single, gals, if you have ambitions to move to Alaska and get involved with mushing! He's 34 and lives in Eureka, AK although originally from Minnesota. His kennel is called Wild and Free and he's working hard to make a name for it and himself. Congratulations as well to Allen Moore and the Black Team, many members of which will be running in Aliy's Red Team in three weeks. The real start of the Iditarod will be on March 9. There is little doubt second place in these big races is no small feat and deserves serious kudos IMHO! Anyone who finishes in whatever order is a real champ; it's something so many could and would never even try. So no second place finisher needs to hang his or her head!

Here's a shot of Allen last August when I visited SP Kennel. He was talking about dogs and racing and equipment, all subjects clearly near, dear and very important to him! He is a really nice guy, kind of droll but as charming in his quiet way as is Aliy. They are just great folks! I feel so honored to have met and talked with them and hope to do so again. Hike, hike!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

YQ Update

Aliy and the Red Team finished the YQ300 in second place, behind Michelle Phillips, another fine lady musher. The Yukon is Michelle's home and she knows that area well. She deserved a win and I can't begrudge her!! Her husband, like Aliy's, is running the full YQ and the men have the best, toughest dogs for their teams. Aliy was running some young and less experienced dogs but they did an awesome job with a couple of veterans to help them stay on track. This was one tough race, temperatures well below zero the entire time, a lot of ice, and just generally a hard course. Congrats to both ladies! Women mushers rock!!

Meanwhile Allen and Ed Hopkins, Michelle's hubby, are trucking along not too far from the Alaska/International Border in the top ten pack which seem to be running a pretty tight grouping and probably yelling a lot of "on by" as they ask for the trail to pass one another. Near the halfway point and the race could be anyone's in that group when they reach Fairbanks later in the week. Right now Brent Sass is in the lead; he was ahead when he had to scratch due to an accident last year. But Allen and Ed are close behind as are Hugh Neff and Jeff King. Must be pretty exciting! Five racers have scratched so far. I expect unless there are accidents most now running will finish the race.

This is a photo by Aliy's support team (copyrighted I know but it's too pretty not to share).  She and the Red Team were leaving Pelly, the "final" turnaround YQ300 checkpoint, at midday yesterday. Like the old Johnny Horton song said, "When it's springtime in Alaska it's 40 below." Yukon Territory too. It might have been just -30 about this time...but it looks like a Christmas card!! I  notice Aliy is not ski-poling here as she usually does in the Iditarod. I think because it is icy and fast.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Listen for the howls!

Excitement is ramping up as the YQ start is only a day and hours away now! Just waiting for that "Ready, hike!" command.

From the SP Kennel's page I know for sure that Aliy is running the YQ300 while Allen will be defending his championship in the big one. It starts first and then the 300 miler a few hours later.

It's cold but I can just feel the tension and urgency from White Horse as they racers get ready, the press, fans and camp followers gather and food and drink flow freely! I won't know which SP dogs are running in the Black (Allen's) and Red (Aliy's) teams until after the race is on probably, but I hope some of my favorite dogs will be among them. I met several this summer and some are real characters. Quito, of course, plus Chica, the SPK Ginger's and the four other pups mom and Olivia and Willie and Waylon and --well, just a bunch of awesome marvelous canines!

I can't share pictures from the YQ or the SPK site but you can go there and look. Here is one of me with Olivia, anyway! It was her birthday when I was there in August. She's a sweetie.