Thursday, February 28, 2008

Reporting From The Trail

CVIB is gearing up for on-the-scene Iditarod coverage from the McGrath checkpoint this year. Making the 350 mile one-way trip along the Kuskokwim river from Crow Village to McGrath will be 4 adults, 3 children, 4 snowmachines and 3 sleds for the gear. The tentative plan calls for a Sunday morning departure with an overnight and refuel stop in Sleetmute. Part of the gear includes a new 10x12 wall tent and stove. The children are hoping the logistics coordinator takes the lead from Paul Gebhardt and will also pack cheeseburgers and twinkies!

Last winter Tom Feyereisen and David Phillips made the 150 mile snowmachine ride to Sleetmute to pick up a birch basket sled from Roy Carlson so they know what to expect for the first half of the journey. With any luck, they will have nice trails to follow for the second part and the snow is will not be too deep. Hopefully we will be able to share plenty of pictures, video and audio from McGrath checkpoint for the blog.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Still the Same Old Coat

Some Iditarod mushers get new fancy new coats each year decorated with numerous sponsor patches. Zack Steer states that the only patches on his well worn coat are the ones covering up the holes. When he crossed the Iditarod finish line last year in 3rd place, he proudly proclaimed, "I like to be able to compete with the big boys, score one for the dirty jackets this year," said Steer. "Lance and I seemed to do pretty well. We like to beat those clean-coat guys."

Although this will be Steer's 5th Iditarod race, he doesn't consider himself a professional musher. His main source of income is from the Sheep Mountain Lodge that he and his wife Anjanette manage located 2 hours northeast of Anchorage Alaska. He says he shares a kennel there with about 30 dogs "if you count the three-legged ones" with fellow Iditarod musher Robert Bundtzen. It was Bundtzen that introduced Steer to mushing back in 1996 when Steer volunteered to work in Bundtzen's Anchorage kennel as a dog handler. Steer must have impressed the boss since he found himself running Bundtzen's team in the 1998 Iditarod finishing an impressive 22nd as a rookie.

Steer was managing a guiding business at the time for sailing and sea kayaking trips in the Prince William Sound during the summer and the rest of the year he would substitute teach and help Bundtzen with the kennel. Bundtzen, a long time family friend, once again raced the kennel's team in 1999, but Steer got a chance to run the team again in 2000 finishing 14th. Steer would take a hiatus from competitive mushing after the 2000 race when he and his new wife moved away from Anchorage to live at and manage the Steer Mountain Lodge which they had just purchased.

It didn't take too long for Steer to figure out that the area around Sheep Mountain was ideal territory for mushing dogs, and soon he would start developing his own modest kennel there. He developed an extensive trail system and by 2004 he had created the Sheep Mountain 150 dogsled race which utilized those trails. He also utilized the trail himself as he began the task of grooming some dogs to hopefully enable him to race in the Iditarod again.

Steer still has his day job and the summers at Sheep Mountain Lodge are a very busy time, but he has found that he has some spare time in the off season to train dogs. He decided once again to try the Iditarod in 2005. He would scratch in that race, but in the process he figured out that he was very capable of fielding a competitive team. He was back at the Iditarod in 2007 shocking everybody except himself by finishing 3rd. He credits his success to putting together a plan and sticking with it while maintaining enough flexibility to deal with changes to weather, trail and the team. He will not adjust his plan based on what other teams are doing. He says this philosophy works best when racing under adverse conditions like those encountered in the 2007 race. If the conditions are adverse in the race this year, look for Steer to be contending for the lead. He'll be the one with the dirty coat.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Musher Powered by Twinkies and Cheeseburgers

A little known fact about Twinkies is that they don't freeze solid like the other food groups in the food pyramid even at 50 below zero. That's one reason Paul Gebhardt keeps plenty on hand while driving his sled in the Iditarod. The other reason is that he really likes them. He really likes cheeseburgers as well. As part of his pre-race preparation, he will vacuum seal dozens of them for the trail. When using hot water to prepare the dogs meals, he will plop the cheeseburger into the water, and in a matter of minutes his favorite meal will be ready to eat.
Part of Gebhardt's dogsled racing strategy is to spend a considerable amount of time running behind the sled to lessen the load on his dog team. He figures that over the 1100 miles of the Iditarod trail he will run 300 of them. With that kind of workout, he quickly burns off those excess calories from that special diet. He eats plenty of peanuts and drinks lots of juice along the way as well.
Gebhardt has top 3 finishes in the Iditarod 3 times now with a second place finish in 2000, and 2007 and a 3rd place finish in 2006. Some bad luck has kept him out of the top spot. In 2000, he was in command of the race during the second half only to be passed by the faster running team of Doug Swingley on the Bering Sea coast.
In 2006, he was leading as the race approached the mid point when a spill separated him from his team and he found himself on foot until Doug Swingley and his team caught up and gave him a lift. The ordeal cost him about 3 hours and considerable momentum, and he finished the race in 3rd. In last year's race he was in hot pursuit of race leader Lance Mackey on the coast when a broken sled and near-pneumonia caused him to take an unscheduled 3 hour stop in Shaktoolik where Mackey was able to give him the slip to win.
In an effort to counter any bad luck he might run into, Gebhardt concentrates on the things that he can control. This season he has a new found commitment to meticulous planning. According to his wife Evy, he is calculating everything about the race like he has never done in the past. This is his 12th go at the Iditarod, and he is hoping this is the one that he will finally win. If he does so, at 52 he will become the oldest musher to ever win the fabled race. He would also be the first winner to celebrate with a Twinkie and cheeseburger!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Crossing paths in the IditaQuest

In this years running of the 1000 mile Yukon Quest dogsled race, Ken Anderson and Lance Mackey have been trading places at the front of the pack since early on in the race. They have crossed paths on the trail, at the dog drops and at the checkpoints. This isn't the first time their paths have crossed and it may not be the last as both are likely to contend for top spots in next month's Iditarod race.

Anderson and Mackey have been next door neighbors in Fox Alaska ever since Mackey relocated his family and dogs there in the summer of 2006. They use the same trails to train on, and frequently cross paths. They crossed paths before as young adults when Anderson moved in next to Dick Mackey's home when son Lance was still home in the mid 90s, and the two of them found similar interests. Once again, they find their interests are aligned. Mackey would like to repeat his stunning feat from last year when he won both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod and coined the phrase Iditaquest. Anderson believes he is every bit as capable as Mackey to pull off the Iditaquest victory.

Anderson is no stranger to mushing growing up in Minnesota where his parents took him a on a dogsled ride in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in sub zero temperatures when Ken was still in diapers. Later, he would work as a handler for Arleigh Jorgensen where he met his future wife Gwen Holdmann who also handled dogs for Jorgensen. They decide to move to Alaska to "live the dream".

Ken ran his first Iditarod in 1999 and finished a respectable 26th. He had a top 10 finish in 2003 (5th) and 2007 (7th), but he hopes to do better this year following a strategy that was successful for Mackey last year in racing both the Quest and the Iditarod. Anderson likes to use smaller dogs and females since they eat less and are less prone to injury at the expense of raw power. This seems to be holding true in the Yukon Quest where his team is faster on the flats, and Mackey's is faster on the hills.