Copper Basin celebrates 30th birthday

Nic Petit won this year's Copper Basin 300 race.

The Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race began 30 years ago as a lodge race, running between local establishments in the Copper River Valley. In the early years the race alternated starting locations, keeping the route fresh and giving different lodges the ability to host the banquet and generate income from lodging mushers and handlers along with race fans. Over the years some lodges have been sold, some are permanently closed, others have burned, and some choose to close in the winter when few patrons are available to generate income.

The 2019 race was scheduled to begin in Glennallen on Saturday, January 12.  Due to warm weather and open water on local rivers, the race start was moved 20 miles up the trail to Gakona.

A typical deep freeze settled over Interior Alaska the week before the race.  Temperatures dropped to minus 50°F for several days and hovered around minus 25°F through most of Friday. A warmup was predicted during race weekend but evidenced by frosty dogs and mushers throughout the race, temperatures stayed below zero through Tuesday afternoon.

On race day, Jeff Reid was the first of 35 mushers out on the trail, and teams continued to leave the start line at 2-minute intervals.

Shortly after leaving the start line, mushers were prepared to encounter “the glacier”, an area of the Eagle trail with significant overflow that had glaciated into an impassable lump of green ice.  Bruce and Kari Rogers spent many hours prior to the race using chainsaws to cut out through the ice and bank the turn. Marley Mcloughlin lives near Gakona and volunteers at the Sourdough checkpoint each year. She watched the mushers navigate the glacier. While a few mushers made it across without mishap, most bit it and drug across, upended but able to regain their dignity at the other side, she observed.

Richard and Judy Dennis started setting up the Red Eagle Lodge in Chistochina on Friday afternoon. Richard brought chairs and tables out of storage, found the coolers and coffee pots, and packed down camping areas in his yard. He and other volunteers  marked the trail coming into and leaving the yard. Teams crossed the highway in sight of the lodge and passed his Cessna 182 parked on the runway. Richard estimates it costs him around $500 out of his pocket to host the event but he recognizes the excitement the CB300 brings to the community.

Checkpoint action was fast and furious as the mushers streamed in after a short 31-mile run from the start line in Gakona. Allen Moore arrived first at 1:06 pm. Only Sebastien Dos Santos Borges blew through. The last musher checked into Red Eagle at 2:53 pm, just before Robert Redington led the lead group back on the trail.

The last musher left Chistochina at 7:41 p.m. The front runners were already climbing “The Hump” in the Alaska range, just a few hours from the next checkpoint at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse. Brent Sass was first into Meier’s Lake. Robert Redington followed and thus began the string of mushers arriving throughout the night. Thirty-two of the 35 mushers in the race took their mandatory six-hour layover at Meier’s Lake.  Race marshal Greg Parvin was not surprised at the unfolding strategy. With only four checkpoints this year, most mushers will stop at each to gain a few hours of the mandatory 18 hours of rest. Meier’s Lake provided a warm cabin for mushers to sleep and has the only restaurant in the first half of the race.

Linda Fraley and her husband, daughter, and son-in-law purchased the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse in June of 2016. The kitchen closes for the winter months between hunting seasons due to the slowdown in traffic on the Richardson Highway but the hotel and gas pumps are always available for passing traffic. The Fraleys “inherited” their participation in the CB300 and look forward to the mid-winter event. They open the full service kitchen for as long as it takes to feed mushers, fans and volunteers. Linda loves the optimistic and upbeat nature of the mushing community and remembers the quote a Norwegian musher told her once: “If you are up to your neck in poop, don’t look down.” Whenever she gets a break from the kitchen she enjoys watching the dogs take off, barking and screaming to get back on the trail.

Nick Petit was the first to leave Meier’s Lake, followed by Brent Sass and Robert Redington. The kitchen was bustling, transitioning from burgers and soup to omelets and breakfast delicacies. Handlers for the lead teams started raking straw into the burn pile. Six mushers were still on the trail from Chistochina.

The race trail from Meier’s Lake to Sourdough is a short 38 miles. It is possibly the most technical part of the course. Steep climbs and steep descents through heavily treed areas are compounded by sharp turns at both the top and bottom. Many a tree has been notched and sleds have been broken on this section.  This year’s trail had low snow, which makes the trail fast and increases the need for driver skill. Less experienced mushers that have run the race before are gathering their courage to conquer the trail ahead. Rookies are oblivious to what awaits, in which case ignorance is indeed bliss.

The CB 300 has only been canceled twice in 30 years.

In 1996 the race was stopped at Chistochina as temperatures dropped to minus 67°F near Excelsior Creek. In 2012,  the race was halted and then canceled at Meier’s Lake as trailbreakers were unable to open the trail between Meier’s Lake and Sourdough due to deep snow. The lead teams stacked up behind the stalled snowmachines and the race was halted and then canceled. The only roadhouse that participated in the first race in 1990 and still remains a checkpoint today is the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse. Sourdough Lodge burned in 1992.  Summit Lake Lodge burned in 1993. The original Chistochina Lodge partially burned in 1986 (before the race was created) but was saved and rebuilt by the town.  It burned again in 1999 and the Red Eagle Lodge was built on the grounds. Lake Louise Lodge was one of the original lodges to host the race. Wolverine Lodge on Lake Louise hosted for many years and “Tree” Farmer was a well-known figure in the area. Wolverine Lodge is currently closed and for sale. Lake Louise has hosted the race off and on over the years depending on whether they are open at race time. Tolsona Lake Resort was one of the original lodges and served as a checkpoint as recently as 2013 and 2014 but is now closed in the winter. The large and rustic Paxson Lodge closed in 2013. The historic Gakona Lodge is now closed most winters. Mendeltna Lodge joined the CB300 family in 2015 but burned in December of 2017. The owners put up arctic oven tents and still hosted a checkpoint for the 2018 race but were unable to provide lodge type amenities.

The CB300 almost didn’t happen in 2013. After the aborted race in 2012 several members left the board of directors and corporate sponsorship was down. Richard Dennis from the Red Eagle Lodge assumed the presidency and recruited community members to the board.  The current race organization has worked hard to return the race to its prominence as the “Toughest 300 miles in Alaska.” Current board president and race manager Jason Severs was pleased to announce a $30,000 purse for the 30th anniversary race.

The checkpoint at Sourdough was the biggest challenge for race officials this year.  Because of the government shutdown, the staff for the campground was on leave. One essential employee was able to gain access, unlock the gates, dig out stored supplies, and plow and pack snow as needed. Volunteers constructed a new tent and organized a checkpoint.

Nick Petit beat Brent Sass into Sourdough by five minutes. Robert Redington followed 30 minutes later. Mushers continued to pour into Sourdough throughout the morning as the middle of the pack trickled out of Meier’s Lake.

The race field was quite spread out by this time. Nick Petit left Sourdough at 1:21 p.m. Robert Redington, Brent Sass, Michelle Phillips and Matt Failor all hit the trail toward Lake Louise as the final musher left Meier’s Lake at 2:35 p.m. Linda Fraley and the crew at Meier’s Lake turned off the cookstove and the lights. Race volunteers at Sourdough alternated huddling around the bonfire and congregating in the makeshift tent. Temperatures remained below zero throughout the day and dropped lower Sunday night.

Ken Hobbs and his family bought The Point Lodge at Lake Louise in June of 2018 and agreed to host the race this year. Ken and family hail from Texas and have lots of experience with stock cars but none with dog mushing. At the driver’s meeting giggles were heard when all were instructed to remove their boots at the door of the lodge and park them on the plastic-covered carpet next to the door. There was plenty of room for boots and even a few tables and chairs on the plastic for those who did not want to remove boots. The Point Lodge has a beautiful view of the lake and the surrounding mountain range. Fans, race officials, and handlers could sit around the fireplace or cozy up to the bar for a beverage and watch the action on the lake. Nick Petit’s approaching headlamp was seen for 15 minutes before he arrived at the checkpoint first, followed by Brent Sass, Michelle Phillips, Robert Redington, and Matt Failor rounded out the top 5.

The Point Lodge was the last checkpoint for mushers to accumulate their mandatory rest. Petit and Sass both had five hours left while Phillips, Redington and Failor had to stay 5.5 hours. Matt Hall and Sven Haltman only had to stay four hours, and Allen Moore needed 3.5 hours to complete his mandatory rest time. By this point in the race, the front runners efficiently did chores and grabbed a nap.

Jim Davis has competed in the CB300 several times and is currently a race judge. He said that in early years the lodge that hosted the start would also host the finish banquet. Whichever lodge was 100 miles from the start would host a mass restart 24 hours after the start. Faster teams would get more rest waiting for the restart. Alyeska contributed significant monies to the purse.

Jason Severs moved his family to Glennallen in 2011 from North Carolina. He is the pastor of Old Paths Baptist Church and chief of the Gakona Volunteer Fire Department. His sons help put in the trail and check in mushers at the finish line.

When race canceled in 2012 it really hurt the lodges that were counting on that business. The CB300 is the last great winter event in the Copper River Basin.  When the race was on the verge of not happening in 2013, a local businessman rallied support and Severs answered. He has been the board president the last four years and assumed the role of race manager two years ago.  He loves to see community members volunteer and come back year after year, although he has never run a dog team. While mushers worry about wrapping sleds and dog teams around trees, Severs and trail boss Jamey Kemp have a few stories about wrapping the groomer around trees, thus launching the driver into a “Peter Pan” over the handlebars.

Severs knew this year’s race would be fast and he was pleasantly surprised that there was only one scratch, Hugh Wakker.  The race mileage was a short 263 miles and there were no significant weather events to slow down teams. Severs greeted Nick Petit at the finish line Monday morning at 7:07 a.m. as Petit won the CB300 for the second consecutive year. Brent Sass crossed the finish line next, followed by Matt Hall, Sven Haltman and Michelle Phillips, all finishing before 9 a.m.  Allen Moore and Robert Redington finished by 10 a.m., and Matt Failor received rookie of the year honors with his eighth place finish. Paige Drobny and Tristen Kohnert rounded out the top 10, all earning a paycheck this year as Jason Severs and the board not only raised $30,000 for the purse but expanded the payout to include the top 10. Mushers continued to finish during every hour with red lantern Kailyn Davis off the trail on Tuesday, 5:14 a.m.

Jim Lanier and Matt Paveglio crossed the finish line in Glennallen and got the news that their dogtruck was still in Lake Louise. The handler team tried to leave on the road less traveled and buried the truck on a snowmachine trail leading to the lake. In true CB300 fashion, other handlers transported one of Lanier’s handlers along with coolers of food and gear for the mushers.

Ernesto’s Restaurant in Glennallen hosted the finish banquet. Every musher finishing the race and stayed for the banquet received a crisp $100 bill for their efforts. Kailyn Davis received a “working” red lantern, Matt Hall was awarded the Vet’s Choice award, and Ryne Olsen and Robert Redington shared the sportsmanship award.  Team Lanier received the Golden Rake award for their helpfulness at all the checkpoints.

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