Wednesday, March 26, 2008

All Alaska Swepstakes begins

A special 100 year aniversary edition of the All Alaska Swepstakes dog sled race began at 7 am (AST) on March 26 with a field of 16 teams. The race is a winner take all format with the winner taking in $100,000 in cash. Here is the Leader Board

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bicknell puts out Iditarod lantern

Dog sled racing can trace its origin's back to the Alaska gold rush era when dog sled teams played an important role in transporting freight and mail through the remote stretches of Alaska. Those mushers relied on a series of roadhouses between their village destinations. Word was sent ahead to the roadhouses that a musher and team were on the trail, and a kerosene lamp was lit and hung outside the roadhouse to serve as a signal that a team or teams were somewhere out on the trail. The lamp was not extinguished until the musher safely reached his destination. Beginning in 1986, the Iditarod honored that tradition by hanging a "Red Lantern," on the burled arch in Nome. Each year the lantern is lit at the beginning of the race and remains lit while there are still teams on the trail. Once the last team crosses the line, that musher then extinguishes the lantern, signifying the official end of the race. Thus, the last musher in a race is called the "Red Lantern" musher.

The trail to an Iditarod finish in Nome has been anything but easy for 62 year old Deborah Bicknell of Auke Bay Alaska. Born in New Hampshire, her 50 years of dog sled racing experience began with a race when she was 11 and pulled by the family pet - a Saint Bernard. She later gained sprint race experience with New England and Lakes region sled dogs but had to put the sport on hold when she moved to southeast Alaska with her husband in 1981 given the lack of consistent snow cover in that region. After they purchased some land in the Yukon territory for maintaining and training dogs several years later, she was able to take up the sport again this time concentrating on distance racing, and by 2000 she finished the 1000 mile Yukon Quest winning the red lantern award for that race.

She would try the Yukon Quest again in 2002 and 2003 but ended up scratching both years. She decide to retire after that, but by 2006, she changed her mind setting her sights on the Iditarod after observing that year's race by flying to each checkpoint. She ultimately decided to enter the 2007 Iditarod race, which turned out to be the adventure of her life.

After waiting out a storm at the Rainy Point checkpoint while the rest of the teams pushed on, she found very little in the way of trail markers when she returned to the trail. She incorrectly ended up on Ptarmigan Pass following tracks laid down by the Irondog snowmobile race held prior to the Iditarod. Searchers worried about her spotted her from air on that pass the next day. The substantial detour along with spending the night hunkered down in a makeshift camp drying out from gear soaked from overflow had her team checking into Rohn 1 and 1/2 days later and a full 12 hours after the last musher had left that checkpoint. That ordeal left her no choice but to scratch and a renewed commitment to retirement. However, her husband signed her up for the 2008 race and soon she decided he was right and prepared in earnest for the race.

Bicknell is the winner of this years Iditarod Red Lantern award but is already on record stating that this will indeed be her last race. "I'm retiring after this no matter what happens," she said, adding that some friends and family don't necessarily believe her. "They say they've all heard that before."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ramey Smyth wins one for mom

Iditarod finisher Ramey Smyth has known dog sled racing his entire life thanks to his mushing parents Bud Smyth and the late Lolly Medley. Lolly became the second woman to cross the Iditarod finish line in Nome coming in 29 minutes after Mary Shields in the second running of the race in 1974. In addition to mushing Lolly, who home-schooled Ramey and was also was also a gifted harness maker, convinced the Iditarod Trail Committee in 1979 to begin awarding a Lolly Medley Golden Harness award to be presented to the most outstanding lead dog in the race as voted on by the mushers themselves. The prize consists of a custom embroidered dog harness and some cash. In the early years of the award, Lolly created the harnesses herself.

Typically, the Golden Harness award is won by one of the lead dogs from the winning team, it would take a very special dog for 3rd place finisher Ramey Smyth to take home the award named after his mother. Ramey's lead dog Babe is indeed very special. Canines have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, and sled dogs are no different. As Babe approaches 11 years of age she was certainly considered a senior citizen of the race as sled dogs typically are in their prime between ages 3 and 7. This was Babe's 9th Iditarod, 8 of which she was in the lead coming across the finish line in Nome.

At first when Ramey was presented the award, the emotion he was feeling left him speechless. After placing the special harness on his loyal companion and bringing her up to the stage with him he was able to return to the stage and thank everyone for the award. Undoubtedly, his mother would have been proud.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mackey looking over his shoulder again

Lance Mackey doesn't have a sit down sled, but if he ever gets one, he might consider putting a swivel seat on it. After all he has been looking over his shoulder a lot lately. It happened last month he won the Yukon Quest 1000 mile sled dog race. "I think my heads on backwards. I've been looking over my shoulder for the last 100 miles." Mackey stated referring to his slim lead over Ken Anderson in the latter stages of that race. With 77 miles left to the Iditarod finish, Mackey has to worry about 4 time Iditarod winner Jeff King catching up to him as he waits out his mandatory 8 hour layover at the White Mountain checkpoint.

King has been hounding Mackey since the race entered the Yukon River a bit past the half way point. He has admitted passing Mackey's team on a few occasions while Mackey had pulled off to rest, but he has only entered one checkpoint in front of him at Unalakleet. King has been letting Mackey rest a bit longer at the checkpoints and then catching up to him with a faster paced team on the trail. That strategy failed him at the Elim checkpoint however as it was reported that Mackey successfully snuck out of that checkpoint without King knowing about it. Mackey was on the trail for 70 minutes before King woke up and was able to depart, and he was not able to make up much of that difference as the trail worked its way over the 1,000-foot Kwiktalik Mountain summit that mushers call "Little McKinley." King arrived at the White mountain checkpoint 57 minutes after Mackey.

Both teams will be off their layover at White mountain later tonight with Mackey enjoying a 57 minute lead on the departure. While that lead is significant, King has not given up yet. He will likely drop 2 dogs leaving him with 14 compared to Mackey's 11. King hopes that will translate into a faster pace as they still need to negotiate the pass over the Topkok Hills. Either way, Mackey will still be looking over his shoulder.

Owens on Iditarod home stretch

The dog team of 18 year old Melissa Owens naturally picked up speed as they crested the Kaltag portage looking down into Unalakleet. “The lights looked like Nome and I think they knew were getting closer,” she said. The Bering Sea coast should look familiar to Owen's team. She lives and trains in Nome within earshot of the Iditarod finish line. Perhaps this familiarity will help spur her team to the finish line quickly enough to earn her rookie of the year honors.

Owens turned 18 just 3 weeks ago making her the youngest female to ever to compete in the Iditarod - a race that requires its human competitors to be at least 18 years old. She has literally been involved in dogsledding her entire life. Her father first raced the Iditarod in 1987 and he brought the infant Melissa up to the stage with him when he drew his number. Melissa and her brother Michael raise and train their own dogs including some that can trace their lineage to her fathers teams in the '87 and '90 Iditarods.

Owens left the Shaktoolik checkpoint with 200 miles till her hometown finish line as the highest placed rookie in 24th place overall. She gained that spot during a run of more then 100 miles from Nulato to Unalakleet. Perhaps sensing the home stretch her dogs picked up speed the whole way so she decided to just keep going through Kaltag, then past Tripod Flats, and Old Woman Cabin on into Unalakleet. Her closest competitor for Rookie of the Year honors is 48 year old William Kleedehn who left Shaktoolik more then 3 and 1/2 hours after Owens.

Funding for Owens journey to the famous burled arches of her home town was made easier when she became the recipient of the 2008 Seppala Heritage Grant. The grant founded by the Seppala Family comes with a $10,000 donation and a four-year commitment of $10,000 per year per recipient. Earlier this year, Owens picked up the Humanitarian Award at the Kuskokwim 300 race. The Humanitarian Award, which is chosen by the veterinary staff and presented to the musher who, in their opinion, takes the most outstanding care of their dog team based on their level of experience.

Owens is the only musher in this year's race that lives and trains in Nome. Understandably, she greatly anticipates crossing under the finish line in front of her friends and family. “I’m curious to see how the crowd in Nome reacts to me coming in versus the winner, being the hometown musher—and a young one at that,” she said.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Setting up for a photo finish

The closest Iditarod finish ever was in 1979 when Dick Mackey outlasted Rick Swenson by 1 second. The 2008 race has Dick's son Lance pitted against Jeff King in perhaps the tightest race for the lead since that legendary finish. With the teams working their way up the Bering Sea coast to the mandatory 8 hour layover at White Mountain, the leaders have arrived at checkpoints within 1/2 hour of each other since the Koyuk checkpoint on the Yukon River.

Mackey admits that his team is traveling slower then King's team. In order to keep pace with King he has chosen to cut his rest periods shorter. King appears a bit tired in some videos at the checkpoints, but obviously he is alert enough to calculate his rest period length so that his faster paced team catches up to Mackey's by the next checkpoint. Look for both teams to make a push all the way to White Mountain after there rest at Koyuk. Mackey knows he will have to leave the Koyuk checkpoint first to maintain his chances. A key point will be at the Elim checkpoint where a new mandatory vet check will require additional time for King's 16 dog team. Both teams have GPS trackers, so race fans will certainly be watching closely if the race remains tight.

Meanwhile, an increasingly large pack of teams are now battling it out for the 3rd place finish assuming the gap to Mackey and King is top large to overcome at this point. Ken Anderson, Ramey Smyth, Martin Buser, Hans Gatt, Paul Gebhardt, Mitch Seavey, and Kjetil Backen all are in contention having departed the Shaktoolik checkpoint. Each will need to take at least one significant rest on the way into White Mountain.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Deja Vu for Mackey and King

As the leaders of the Iditarod dogsled race depart Unalakleet and head up the Bering Sea coast, 2007 Iditarod winner Lance Mackey and 2006 Iditarod winner Jeff King have distanced themselves from the pack and continue to swap places at the front. Mackey left the Kaltag checkpoint for the 90 mile jaunt over the pass to the coast at Unalakleet first and King departed 4 hours later, however Mackey did not rest his team at Kaltag and King did. Mackey likey chose to rest along the trail, and by the time they reached Unalakleet King was out front by 30 minutes. Both teams were treated to some spectacular northern lights duing the early morning hours. Mackey chose to cut rest short at Unalakleet, and was on the trail in the lead again after 2 hours 45 minutes of rest. King chose to take 5 hours of rest spotting Mackey a 42 minute lead.

And 40 miles separate top 14

There is a new rabbit to chase. Jeff King has pulled ahead of Lance Mackey during the first half of the run from Kaltag to Unalakleet. This 80+ mile leg will take mushers a dozen or so hours and there are many still hungry for the win -- whether it be their 6th, 5th, 2nd, or 1st. One of the places that folks sometimes stop to break the run up is the Old Woman Cabin. This was a favorite of Susan Butcher and last year some of her ashes were left by her husband and daughter. The Kaltag-Unalakleet leg has it all: woods, steep hills, river crossings, open tundra. The last 10 miles of the trail near Unalakleet often becomes dodgy with markers and is sometimes difficult to follow if coastal winds cause the trail to drift over.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

17 miles separate top 6

With half the Yukon River leg complete and less then 400 miles left in the Iditarod, race leader Lance Mackey is 17 miles past the Nulato checkpoint according to the GPS unit he has on board his sled. The GPS for Jeff King shows his team 9 miles behind Mackey. 6 more teams are resting in Nulato including Mitch Seavey, Paul Gebhardt, Rick Swenson, Hans Gatt, Kjetil Backen, and John Baker.

Iditarod's fountain of youth

With the Iditarod sled dog race lead pack now negotiating the Yukon River section of the trail, an ageless group of mushers are demonstrating that they still have what it takes to keep up with the youngsters in the field. Race leader Lance Mackey at 36 years of age is the baby of the crowd. He is being hotly pursued by the team of 51 year old Jeff King. 52 year old Paul Gebhardt has worked himself back into 3rd place after having a disastrous run into the halfway point at Cripple. Rounding out the top 10 are 47 year old Mitch Seavey, the ageless 67 year old Jim Lanier, 54 year old Ed Iten, 38 years young Kjetil Backen, 49 year old Hans Gatt, and 49 year old John Baker. The average age of the top 10 mushers at this point is 49.8 years old.

A couple unanswered questions

What happened to Martin Buser's GPS tracker? We know the practical joker gave it to one of the pilots to fly around while he was taking his 24hr in Cripple, but it appears he never returned it. It is understandable that he would want to ditch the 2 lbs of unnecessary excess baggage. But has Dee Dee Jonrowe picked up where he left off? She is now broadcasting a GPS position whereas she never did before.

Does Paul Gebhart have some rocket boosters on his sled? Records indicate he made the trip from Ruby to Galena in 3h6m averaging a speed of 16.77mph. That is 2x as fast as any of the other competitors this year including Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Ed Iten, Kjetil Backen, or Mitch Seavey. This leg can be a fast one, but that appears like a record speed. Mackey is still leading the race over 2nd place King, but it appears his speed is declining whereas as King's is increasing. Both King and Iten still have 16 dogs on the team, whereas as Mitch Seavey is down to 11. However, as we continue on the trail, often teams look to lighten the load to make care of the dogs more manageable as the fatigue of the race takes hold.

Rohn Buser looks to be favored contender for ROTY. His dogs are continuing to run strong with a 10.43mph pace from Cripple to Ruby during the hot part of the day. Look for him to take his 8hr in Ruby like his father and post a fast run up the Yukon.

Update: Looks like has updated its records and corrected the out time for Gebhardt from Ruby. He snuck out at 20:25, not 00:47 at they previously reported. His arrival time into Galena remains the same and he is still in 3rd.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Mackey pushes Iditarod pace

Perhaps taking a page from his 2007 Iditarod victory, Lance Mackey has pushed his well seasoned dogsled team to the front of the pack as the lead teams begin to take on the second half of the Iditarod race. With the top 14 teams now leading on the trail having completed their mandatory 24 hour layovers, the status of teams becomes much easier to follow, and Mackey arrived at the Ruby checkpoint first at 7:32 this morning.

Ruby is the first checkpoint on the Yukon River, thus Mackey is the recipient of the "First to the Yukon" award. A gourmet seven course meal cooked on a camp stove and a cache of 3500 crisp $1 bills comprise the award, and Mackey has frequently commented that he has hunger for both.

With temperatures hovering just below freezing, the trail which follows the Yukon river now has set up to be fast, but that could change depending on the heat of the day. Mackey will have plenty of company at the front as his competitors are leery of letting him get out of reach based on his past performance. There have been multiple lead changes over the past 48 hours and there will likely be more as teams are required to take at least one 8 hour layover at one of the checkpoints along the Yukon river. Closely pursuing Mackey are Hans Gatt, 4 time Iditarod winner Jeff King, 5 time Iditarod winner Rick Swenson, and Kjetil Backen.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

DeeDee Jonrowe in Iditarod lead

The checkpoint personnel at the remote Cripple checkpoint were expecting Paul Gebhardt, but when they spotted the pink harnesses on the team coming in, they knew it wasn't him. At 6:22 this morning, DeeDee Jonrowe pulled by the fake palm trees into the makeshift checkpoint to claim the first position in this year's Iditarod. She was taken aback when she was told she was the first team to check in. "No no. Isn't Paul here?" she asked. "Your kidding!" she said and she had to grab a seat on her sled to let it sink in. "You better get the pink hats ready" she joked.

Jonrowe has yet to take her mandatory 24 hour layover yet, and she may well do that at Cripple. Within 20 minutes, Paul Gebhardt, Zack Steer, and Martin Buser also arrived at the checkpoint. None of these have taken there 24 hr stop yet either, and some or all of them may choose to do so here.

Gebhardt saw his nearly 6 hour lead over Jonrowe at the Ophir checkpoint disappear in what he has termed as his worst run ever. Shortly after leaving Ophir he was forced to begin packing a 60 pound male dog which slowed his team down, and then he ran into heavy snow, which slowed him even more. He turned around at one point when he thought he had passed the checkpoint, and that is where Jonrowe passed him.

Further back are a pack of fresh teams just coming of their 24 hour layovers and storming down the trail. Leading this charge is Norwegian Kjetil Backen who breezed through the Ophir chekpoint about 12 hours later then Jonrowe passed through there, so if he keeps a similar pace he will pass Jonrowe while she is on the 24 hour break. Within 45 minutes of Backen all with their 24s completed are Lance Mackey, Jeff King, and Hans Gatt. It appears at this juncture that those teams who chose to take their mandatory breaks earlier now have the upper hand.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Gebhardt grabs Iditarod lead

With the Iditarod sled dog race approaching the halfway point at the Cripple checkpoint, some of the lead teams are choosing to take their 24 hour layover which is mandated by race rules to be taken at some point during the race. Paul Gebhardt has chosen to keep moving on however, and this strategy has put him in the lead for now, as all the teams who were ahead of him on the trail have apparently pulled over to take their 24s. This is not a new strategy for Gebhardt given that he took late layovers in the 2006 and 2007 races and that strategy was leveraged for high finishes of 3rd and 2nd respectively in those races.

How far will Gebhardt go before he takes his 24 and will that strategy work? With the warm weather along the trail, and more warm weather predicted for tomorrow, the river portions of the trail promise to be a slow go with heavy snow and plenty of overflow. The trail from Ophir through Cripple on to Ruby is light on river travel, so the trail could be firmer especially for the first teams through. If he chooses to 24 at Ruby, there is a chance that he will have a better trail on the Yukon River out of that checkpoint for his well rested team if the weather turns cooler. Gebhardt reported to is wife Evy this morning that the team was gobbling up everything in sight, so he will certainly require a large drop of dog food where ever he choose to stop.

Other teams are following Gebhardt's lead of delaying the layover although Gebhardt has a good lead on them and a high bib number which lessens his delay tacked on to the 24. These teams include Hugh Neff, Zack Steer, and the surprising Sylvia Willis. Meanwhile, back at Takotna taking their 24s are former front runners of the race Lance Mackey, Jeff King, and Kjetil Backen. These 3 will come charging down the trail with refreshed teams in the early morning hours with Backen leaving first courtesy of his higher bib number. Only time will tell if they can recapture the lead before Gebhardt finishes his 24.

Warm weather plays into strategies

As unseasonably warm weather has moved into the Kuskokwim River valley, the Iditarod trail has softened, and teams are being forced to make adjustments to their strategies. Some of the teams have the benefit of running the Kuskokwim 300 (K300) race back in January in western Alaska on similar trails where warm weather had a major impact on the race outcome. Current Iditarod race leader, Mitch Seavey won that race. He indicated he was able to succeed by continually swapping out his lead dogs to keep them interested in moving forward through wet snow and plenty of overflow. He says having most of his team able to lead at any time gives him this option.

Some of the mushers have indicated they are having trouble figuring out which dog should lead including last year's Iditarod winner Lance Mackey. Hobo and Larry, two of Mackey's more dependable lead dogs got into a fight prior to the Rohn checkpoint. Larry apparently won that fight and Hobo was dropped at the Rohn checkpoint. Larry won the golden harness award at the 2007 Iditarod, and Hobo won the golden harness at the majority of Mackey's Yukon Quest 4 victories.

With the race now entering the middle stage and teams starting to take their 24 hour layovers, the view of who is leading becomes difficult to determine. Mitch Seavey appears to be in the driver seat with the lead and some rest in the bank at McGrath and the experience from the Kuskowim race for him and his team to bank on. With high bib numbers Kjetil Backen, Paul Gebhardt, and John Baker are looking good given they will have less additional time tacked on to their 24 hour layover. Gebhardt and Baker also had the experience of this year's K300.

Two other teams that ran in theK300 are the Martin and Rohn Buser. This father/son duet has been running close to each other. Kathy Chapoton who is wife to Martin and mother to Rohn thinks this is a good thing for Martin since it keeps him from pacing to fast and burning his team out for the later stages.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Virtual Tie Between Backen and Gebhardt

According to the Iditarod Tracker Kjetil Backen was the first into Nikolai. However, Paul Gebhardt checked in 54 minutes behind him. Gebhart's out time from Willow with bib 69 was 54min after Backen's bib 42 start. That time will be accounted for during the 24hour mandatory, so taking that into account, they are arrived at the Nikolai checkpoint in a virtual tie for 1st place. Both chose to rest in Nikolai. In looking at the GPS tracking, it appears that Martin Buser and Ed Iten may be resting a bit 10 miles shy of Nikolai. Buser likes to rest at s spot there called Salmon River, and it is certainly possible that his 18 year old son Rohn running his rookie Iditarod race has arrived to that point and is resting there as well, however Rohn is not wearing the tracking device so we don't know for sure.

CVIB trail reporters will not make it to McGrath after all. They had to turn back down the Kuskokwim and return to home base because of poor and deteriorating trail conditions in addition to the concern of rain in the forecast.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Enroute to McGrath

In 2002, wearing bib no. 14, Martin Buser was first to McGrath and first to Nome. In 2004, Jeff King,wearing bib 13, arrived 1st into McGrath and 2nd into Nome (Seavey was 7th into McGrath and 1st into Nome). And in 2006, Jeff King arrived 2nd into McGrath, but 1st into Nome. Along with everyone else, I'll be very curious as to who #1 and #2 are into McGrath. Norwegian? Kjetil and Team Norway are undoubtedly hungry for another win. Twinkie eater? (although it looks like he has been taking it easy on the cheeseburgers and Twinkies by his buff appearance at the start). This may be the magical year for Paul. Will Mackey repeat the IditaQuest? What about the King? Jeff is happy with how his team is running in sync. Martin? The Buser kennels are nothing but impressive and Martin wants #5. Dirty coat? Has Zach put together the winning team by selecting some of the best of the best of his friend's dogs? Moderate temps with continued chance of snow in the forecast suggest that the early ones through the trail theoretically gain a couple miles per hour in addition being easier on the joints.
CVIB field reporters are delayed on their snowmachine journey enroute to McGrath at the 100 person town of Sleetmute. The journey up the Kuskokwim River thus far has been uneventful discounting a few busted sled hitches and a couple snowmachine swampings.
Break in Crooked Creek

The trail from Sleetmute to McGrath is reportedly not so good with deep snow and numerous places of overflow on the Kuskokwim (please, no repeat of KuskoSwim!). There are a couple locals that are leaving Tuesday for McGrath via snowmachine and CVIB will follow them. In the meantime, they have set-up camp and uploaded the few pics from the Sleetmute Community Center. We wish them a safe and efficient journey to McGrath and I am confident they will make it in plenty of time to catch the first arrivers.

CVIB Campsite on an island near Sleetmute