DENALI DOUBLES – THE FIRST OF ITS KIND

It almost always seems to be the case in this sport of ours that the same people show up for race after race, year after year. For many, it’s like a family reunion. Mushers come out of the woodwork to gather, to showcase their teams and to test their dog driving skills against each other as they reveal their strategies on the trail after months of training and very little social contact. The Denali Doubles Race was not any different in those aspects, however, to participate there was an eligibility requirement that stated musher number one of the two musher teams must have had a previous top five finish, have received a humanitarian award in a previous race or have been a past rookie of the year. This requirement afforded the race some very competitive teams and some very familiar faces. It also allowed for the second musher to be someone of lesser experience with an opportunity to learn. Although the inaugural edition of The Denali Doubles Race was not the first mid distance race of the season, it had the feeling that it was. It’s probable that the race format promoted that feeling of the season’s first competition by being the first of it’s kind. Leave it to Jeff King, the race founder and organizer, to be behind something first and new in this pastime and lifestyle. Jeff, being known for his creative and innovative approach to training, racing and equipment, inspired thirty-six mushers, making up eighteen teams to stage themselves at the starting line. The rules implied that a team must consist of between twelve and twenty dogs, two mushers in contact or attached by means of a single sled, tandem sleds, Gee Pole configuration or attached as a skier to the dog team to start the race. This allowed two kennels to combine dogs for a great performance. Naturally, the interpretation of the equipment portion of the rule had as many similarities as it had differences. We saw variations of two sleds connected in tandem. The idea of another team was to bolt two sleds together in parallel fashion while others utilized just one sled with two mushers on the runners or one on the sled while the second musher rode in the bag. The common denominator shared by all of the teams and their individual setup was strategy. As always at a dog race, strategy was a big topic for discussion. Spectators and competitors alike strolled from truck to truck in the staging area prior to the race start inspecting the handy work of each musher team and their mode of transport. Debates centered around the pros and cons of the individual sled designs stimulating a coffee table like atmosphere.The teams got under way in Cantwell, beginning at five o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, headlining a brilliant pink alpen glow as they chased the horizon and headed across The Denali Highway bound for The Paxson Lodge, 130 miles into the race. The field was led by team Cim Smyth/Schmidt, followed two minutes later by Paul Gebhard/Kristy Berington, both of which driving the full contingent of 20 dogs. The last and 18th team out of the starting chute was the 2009 Yukon Quest Champion Sebastian Schnuelle with his running partner Klaus Klein from Australia. While Paul and Kristy shared one sled, the same way other competitive teams such as Dallas Seavey/Benedikt Beisch had chosen to do, most other teams drove a tandem sled. The team of Seavey/Beisch started with 15 dogs and that number made them the smallest team in the race. Allen Moore, Aily Zirkle and Sebastian Schnuelle had come up with custom designs to join both sleds into one unit. Although both sleds were equipped with a brake and drag mat, they could be driven and steered as one sled. The team of Zoya Denure/Chojnacka also consisted of two sleds and they were joined into one unit, however their configuration was not modeled in a tandem style but rather side by side. The design of Denures sported three aluminum runners as its chassis.The fastest team sprinted to the first checkpoint of Alpine Creek, 68 miles into the hilly course in 5hrs and 35 minutes and was driven by mushing partners Dan Kaduce and Jody Baily, followed by Team Gebhardt in 5hrs and 49 minutes.While most teams chose to rest anywhere between 1 and 3.5hrs at Alpine Creek , some teams pushed into the checkpoint of MacLaren, another 26 miles further down the trail, bringing their first run total up to 92 miles. Most teams chose to do their mandatory eight hour rest at Maclaren on the way out. A total of sixteen hours of mandatory rest was required, of which eight hours had to be taken at the MacLaren Lodge checkpoint either on the way out or on the way in. The other eight remaining hours could be taken at any one of the three checkpoint in 30 minute intervals.The next leg of the trail continued along the route of The Denali Highway all the way to Paxson where the teams reversed direction and began their return journey to Cantwell for the finish but not before the teams faced some challenging trail. The normally snow covered Denali Highway had only a dusting of snow between mile 9 and 17, an area notorious for strong winds. Until a few days before the race started, other options like a turnaround at mile 17 were discussed, but after all the little snow there was allowed to racers to continue all the way Paxson, a checkpoint which has been used in the 300 Mile Copper Basin for many years. All checkpoints had hot water available for the mushers and a cooker was not on the mandatory equipment list. The checkpoints were complimented by the mushers after the race, especially The Alpine Creek Lodge, which acted as a race checkpoint for the first timeTeams were allowed to drop dogs at Alpine Creek and at Maclaren on the way out and to pick them back up on the way in. This option was utilized by many of the teams and all that did enjoyed well rested team members for their dash to the finish line. Some mushers had dogs in their team, which they knew were not ready for a full 265 miles while others dropped dogs purely for strategic reasons. The duo of Clint Warnke/Scott Smith, both experienced Iditarod Mushers, had chose to drop two dogs each in Alpine and MacLaren to be picked up on the way home, to add some speed to their already nicely moving team.The dash to the finish line indeed was going to become a real dash for several teams. Although team Bailey/Kaduce had enjoyed being in the lead for the majority of the race, they were passed on the last run by team Decaro/Sheftel, driving a team owned by no other than race founder Jeff King. This was the 3rd consecutive win of Goose Lake Kennel in the 2009/10 race season, every race entered. This has proven that Dave Decaro has developed into a fine racer under the guidance of 4 time Iditarod Champion Jeff King, clearly out to win his 5th title this upcoming March. Allan Moore/Bridget Watkins a father and daughter team, were challenged during the last miles by no other than Cim Cmyth/Schmidt, who is known for strong dashes to the finish. Cim has proven this true once again, edging out team Moore for 3rd place in a photo finish. It was an impressive sight, seeing 39 dogs , 4 sleds and 2 mushers fly at near 20 miles an hour towards the finish line. The top five was rounded out by team Warnke/Smith getting all of their 20 dogs safely back to Cantwell. The red lantern in the event went to Zoya Denure’s team and for her finish she was awarded the Cabelas Parka which acted as the sign in roster at the finish line. Each musher had signed one of Jeff’s trade mark Cabela’s parkas for that role and it now complements the memorablia section of Crazy dog kennels.All of the teams had finished by Saturday evening and all within six hours of the winner. The race boasted a sixteen thousand dollar purse, paying the top ten finishers with ten thousand dollars going to the winner. All of the participating teams were very enthusiastic about the race format, the organization of the race, the proficiency of the volunteers and the fact that the race was put on by a musher. As Jeff said at the banquet, “It was something different than plain vanilla.“

Share:

More Posts