SHAKEDOWN AT SHEEP MOUNTAIN

Mushers can be meticulous, methodical, and on occasion a few are down right obsessive.Just ask Zack Steer, race director for the Sheep Mountain 150 Sled Dog Race in Sutton, AK, who again this year heard the familiar sound of his fax machine beeping and spitting out paper at 12:01 a.m. on October 1—the first day to sign-up for the event.“It was the same deal as last year, a few people stayed up until midnight and to be the first to fax in their entries,” Steer said.While the SM150—which starts and ends at the Sheep Mountain Lodge—doesn’t begin until noon on Saturday, December 15, mushers leave the starting chute in the order they send in their entries, which is the incentive for many to sign-up early. By 6 a.m. Steer had a dozen entries on the floor under his fax machine, 25 by noon, 45 by the day’s end, and had filled the 50th and final position, before the end of the week. “It’s encouraging to know so many people are looking forward to it,” he said.The now popular race was started by Steer just four years ago, and he initially limited the field to 30 teams, but quickly saw this was not enough to meet the demand of mushers interested in competing in the 150 mile course through the rugged Talkeetna and Sheep Mountains.“The first year we had 30, then the second year we opened it up to 40, then last year we bumped it up to 50, but that will be it, since 50 is about the maximum number of teams you can park at Eureka (Lodge),” he said, referring to the one checkpoint in the race where mushers take two, mandatory, five-hour layovers.This year, in addition to the Alaskan mushers, the competition includes two teams from the Lower 48 (one from Oregon the other from New Hampshire), 12 teams from Canada, and one from Germany.Yukon musher, Sebastian Schneulle, has signed up for this year’s race which will be his fourth time competing in the event. He placed sixth in 2004, second in 2005, and in 2006 after being the first musher to leave the chute due to sending in an early morning entry, he placed fourth.“Gerry (Willomitzer) and I both started hitting ‘send’ on our machines at midnight, but mine got there first,” he said, in regard to last year’s race.Schnuelle was not so fortunate this year, though. He said he lost track of the days and forgot about signing up until 10 a.m. when he checked a message on his answering machine from Willomitzer who said he had already signed up.“This year he’s going out first and I’m going out 39th, so I have been hearing about it a little,” he said.As to what draws so many mushers to a 12-dog race with a modest $4,450 purse that is split between the first five finishers, Schnuelle said it comes down to that Steer knows how to put on a professional event, which is why he never struggles to fill the race field.“It’s amazing really because some races have a hard time getting 20 mushers, but it’s so well organized and so well run. There’s no guess work and no nasty surprises. Zack, being a musher, knows how to put on a good show,” he said.Also, unlike January, when distance mushers have numerous races throughout the month to choose from, Schnuelle said December is a good time of year and a good time in the training season for the race.“It’s early in the season when everyone is dying to race, and I think 50 miles is what dogs can do at that time. It’s not too long to ask them to do this, but it’s definitely a good tune-up for anyone doing longer races later in the year,” he said.Ed Hopkins, from Tagish, Yukon, also signed up again this year, after placing sixth last year. Like Schneulle, he said the race gets the dogs into the right groove.“It’s nice to get the dogs into a 5-on/5-off schedule. It’s a good stepping stone for later races,” Hopkins said.Hopkins wife, Michelle Phillips, also signed up this year, and is looking forward to using this, her first, SM150 to asses her dogs for the much longer Yukon Quest later in the racing season.“I think it’ll be perfect. It’s pretty hilly and the Quest is hilly, so it should be good training, and I can see if anybody is weak on the hills. It’ll be a good way to see how the dogs look compared to other teams at that time of year,” she said.Steer said this was exactly how he hoped mushers would use the race when he first decided to hold the event.“My purpose was to make a fun, friendly, early season shake-down for mushers to test themselves and their dogs before doing an Iditarod qualifier or other bigger races. There’s a time and a place for intense competition, but I discourage hyper-competition at this race. This is for mushers to come, be social, relax, learn and have fun,” he said.That’s not to say the race is easy by any means, though. Steer himself uses the course to train his own team, which placed third in last season’s Iditarod.“It’s a challenging course. If, like a lot of people say, the Copper Basin 300 is a mini-Iditarod, this is a mini-Copper Basin. It’ll prepare you for any race out there. But while it’s a tough 150 miles, it’s easy to bale out because the checkpoint is along the road system,” he said.Despite that the race is designed for novices to learn the basics of racing, and for those that already know how to race to come and have fun, the SM150 still draws some of the best mushers in the sport. It annually has past champions from numerous other mid-distance and long distance races. This year will be the fourth SM150 for Lance Mackey, the current champion of both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. He has twice won the SM150, and is the defending champion from last season.“You do see top mushers like Lance and Ken (Anderson, the 2005 SM150 champion), but right there next to them will be a guy from Talkeetna who is in his first year running dogs,” Steer said.Whether rookies or seasoned professionals, Steer said everyone that enters will get to enjoy mushing through some of the most aesthetically pleasing real estate around. Most of the course is above 3,000 feet in elevation so enough snow is rarely a problem, and even at the lower elevations there has been a good base every year since the race’s inception.“It’s a beautiful route for traveling with dogs, just ideal mushing,” he said.Perhaps Schnuelle summed it up best, when he said “It’s just spectacular country. Every year I run it, I think ‘I should really move out this way.’” For more information on the SM150, visit Steer’s Web site at www.sheepmountain.com or call the Sheep Mountain Lodge at 877-645-5121 or 907-745-5121.Joseph Robertia is an outdoor reporter for the Peninsula Clarion newspaper in Kenai, AK., and he and his wife run Rogues Gallery Kennel, a mid-distance racing kennel in Kasilof, Alaska.

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