GIN GIN 2008: THE FIRST 200 MILER OF THE 08-09 RACING SEASON

It sure didn’t seem that way at Paxson as daybreak came to the morning of the Gin Gin 200 start; just above zero with bluebird skies and absolute calm. The bustle of mushers, handlers and race personnel checking sleds and equipment and the restless barking of nearly five hundred dogs brought the Lodge parking lot in this tiny community to frenzied life. Handlers, trail breakers, organizers, checkpoint volunteers, even the Army National Guard—they are all here; excited to be a part of the first long race of the season. Forty –five mushers have arrived in Paxson on this first Saturday after Christmas to take part in the 2008 Gin Gin. It is the largest field in the four year history of this race. The weather forecast promises cold for the next week and diminishing winds; 2007 Gin Gin champion, Jodi Bailey is a little nervous, “I don’t mind the cold, I hate the wind. It scares me.” “How’s the trail over thirteen-mile? Is there pavement?” Darrin Lee of Chistochina queries. He’s trained dogs up there and has been stuck in Denali Highway gales before. The Gin Gin runs on the road for the first thirty miles, and though it has not been plowed since September, the winds can blow it clean in sections. Jeff King rides his snowmachine into Paxson a couple hours before race time; he has sent his truck, handlers and team by the highway route—he has ridden 135 miles across the Denali on race morning so he could spend one more evening with his family during the Christmas holiday. “There’s some wind here and there, he understates…Thirteen-miles’ the worst, looks like the trail is blown out on the Sue too.”One by one the teams are brought to the starting chute; the Army Guard has snowmobiles and troops; they bring the teams forward using the snowhook on a loop of rope through the bumper. Silence. The teams are gone. The first won’t return until late Sunday night.While handlers clean-up around the trucks and the race veterinarians, Sarah Love and Renee Rember, prepare for their trip to the Maclaren checkpoint, drama is unfolding out on the Denali. It is indeed blowing forty, many of the teams are blown off of the rock hard trail and over the edge of the road. Several turn back but most sort out the tangles of dogs and move forward. In just a few miles the wind is silent and the temperature begins to drop. It is thirty below now. Teams begin to scatter into Maclaren River Lodge, the first checkpoint; the fastest in 5-1/2 hours, a full hour slower than previous years. Jodi has the fastest time, Jeff King and Judy Currier are within five minutes. The temperature continues to drop as the teams take their mandatory six hour layover at Maclaren. By the time the trail crew returns from the loop trail it is forty below. They report it to be “at least fifty below” on the lower portions of the Susitna River. Several more teams make the decision to return to Paxson, but most continue on. The checkers, Chris Walker and his fiancé, Becca, get a very welcome break—they have been outside with teams for over eight hours!It takes the fastest team just over thirteen hours to do the 112 mile loop. Again, Jodi Bailey is the first to arrive at Maclaren, “The trail is good, a little overflow here and there; but it’s cold!” Teams trickle in throughout the afternoon. Most take between fifteen and eighteen hours. Trail reports vary. Agreement is unanimous about one thing—it’s cold! Jeff King, who has one of the faster times to this point, scratches. His second team’s driver, Jason Reppart, has frost-bitten feet. Jeff and Jason decide to make shorter runs from camp to camp toward home on the Cantwell end of the Denali. No one is a hurry to leave the checkpoint at Maclaren. It is warm and comfortable. The trail report from 13-Mile Hill is: still windy. Jodi Bailey, Brent Sass and Coleen Robertia leave at the end of their mandatory six. No one else moves. “I thought this would be an easy race. You know, on the highway, a nice flat river run. So we brought our handler to run a team. And now, Oh wow, what did I get her into?” Michelle Phillips says. Marie Claude, running a team for Michelle and her husband Ed Hopkins, crashed face first into the only open water hole on the entire race—on the Susitna River not far below the Denali Highway bridge. Many teams took a break on the Maclaren/Susitna loop near the half-way point where the trail crew had cut a pile of firewood. Teams reported that their sled thermometers were bottomed at fifty there. Sonny Lindner was smarter. He took a break with his son, Chad, and daughter, Ava, after reaching the Denali and climbing several hundred feet above the river system. It was a balmy minus twenty. It is nearly daylight on day two of the Gin Gin before most teams start making preparations to leave Maclaren. Michelle and Ed leave together at 2:00 am. The majority of the rest are out between 5:30 and 9:00 am. Just before 5:00, Jillian Rogers walks into Maclaren disoriented. She had parked her team where they took an offshoot trail. She backtracked to the highway and walked to the checkpoint. A quick search finds her team less than a quarter mile from the Lodge on the incoming trail where it leaves the Denali. She takes a long break at Maclaren, cares for her dogs and brings them to the finish alone and unassisted.While mushers at Maclaren are still sleeping, Jodi Bailey has finished at Paxson. “I was really nervous about the wind, scared, but I knew I had to go anyway.” she tells the Paxson checkers. Coleen Robertia is the second woman to finish—well over an hour later at 01:28. She is followed 30 minutes later by the first of the men’s division: Brent Sass. The Gin Gin has two divisions and both sets of times are kept separately. Ken Anderson is the second guy in at half-past four. Michelle and Ed arrive together just before daylight to round out the top three in each division. Teams arrive in Paxson throughout late morning and early afternoon. The award ceremony is set back from 2:00 pm until almost 5:00 to accommodate later teams. All but Rogers make the short ceremony. Colleen Robertia received the Vet’s award for superior dog care. Iris Sutton, who scratched, received the Sportsmanship award for helping teams through the wind on the outbound leg. Jason Reppart got an honorable mention for carrying in a loose dog from Christina Roaloff’s team, as did Darrin Lee, for giving out some extra dog food at Maclaren.All teams are to be congratulated on finishing one of the tougher 200s in recent memory. Dog care was exemplary—only 35 dropped dogs out of 450. The Gin Gin purse payout was $10,000 in 2008, with an increase of $2,000 from the previous year. ●

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