TUSTEMENA 200 – 25 YEARS AND COUNTING

From its inception back in 1984, the race has been shrouded in folklore.Most people consider Dean Osmar, the 1984 Iditarod champion, responsible for its creation, but why he began it still varies considerably depending on who is asked. Some have claimed the race began as a beer run into the Caribou Hills. Several local mushers would use sleds and dog power to get to secluded areas in the hills where they could camp and party without any interruptions. The first one to the campsite won a case of beer, as the story goes. Others have claimed Osmar began the race for a different reason — to help his son Tim get sufficient miles under his belt to meet the 500-mile requirement for becoming an Iditarod contender. As to the rumor of the race being started to help his son, that’s not entirely true either, Osmar said. Contenders for The Last Great Race needed to be 18 years old. Tim was only 17 years old, but could be permitted to race if three veteran mushers vouched for his experience with their signatures. Tim was quickly able to get three signatures, and the more senior Osmar wasn’t even one of them.Instead of a bustle for booze or an act of nepotism, the race had a much more humble beginning, according to Dean. He said, “There was just a need for a 200-mile race here on the (Kenai) peninsula. Racers here needed a long, tough race to prepare them for the Iditarod and the T-200 is the toughest qualifying race in the state, if not the country.”Throughout the years, the race and its purse has continued to grow, largely due to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, sponsors and other participants, and in 1996 an official Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Association was formed with the purpose of organizing, arranging and conducting the race.The course of the race has also changed over time, to eliminate some of the more dangerous sections. Teams no longer have to cross Tustumena Lake, or go over Ptarmigan Head — the highest point in the Caribou Hills. The number of dogs mushers leave the starting chute with has also changed to ensure better safety to dogs and their drivers. In 1984, teams of 12 to 18 dogs were legal, four more than the maximum number of 14 dogs currently allowed.Tim Osmar of Ninilchik, AK, won the first T-200 after 28 hours, three minutes on the trail to claim a trophy and some dog food. He won the race again in 1985, 1990, 1992, 1993, and 1995, the latter of which was a particularly narrow victory for Osmar. Kasilof, AK musher Paul Gebhardt was in the lead late in the ’95 race and close to the finish line when he got a tangle. While straightening out the mess, one of Gebhardt’s male dogs locked up with a female in heat and the two remained “engaged” for 41 minutes, costing him first place. Osmar went on to win and was reported to have patted the entwined pair on the head, as well as jokingly saying “good dogs” as he passed on by Gebhardt. Osmar remains as the musher with the most wins in the history of the T-200, although there have been numerous mushers with multiple wins including Kasilof, AK, musher Dave Scheer (’86 and ’88), Paul Gebhardt also of Kasilof (’96 and ’97), Ramey Smyth of Big Lake, AK, (’98 and ’99), Jeff King of Denali Park, AK, (2000 and ’01) and Jessica Hendricks of Two Rivers, AK, (05 and 06). Hendricks was also the first woman to win the T-200, while that same year Rachael Scdoris of Bend, OR, became the first legally blind musher to compete in the race. She was led by Tyrell Seavey of Sterling, AK, the son of 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey.Terrain challenges: They don’t call the T-200 “the toughest 200 miles in Alaska” without good reason. It is a true 200-mile course most years and typically there are only about six miles of the race that are flat. The rest of the time teams are either traveling up or down hills, including many in the rugged Caribou Hills. Elevation gains and losses from 250-feet to more than 2,000 feet are numerous throughout the race, and sometimes both may occur within a 1-mile distance, such as when mushers drop down to the north fork of Deep Creek and then immediately make a steep climb back out.“You’ve got mountains, flat stretches, lakes, creeks – it’s a lot of country compressed into 200 miles,” Dean Osmar said.There are also a few miles of trail, between the Four Corners Checkpoint and the Caribou Lake Checkpoint, that are above treeline. This section of the course can be challenging since it is not a trail maintained throughout the winter. In good weather mushers may only encounter blown snow a few inches deep that does little more than slow down their overall speed, but in a storm several feet of snow can move in a matter of seconds forcing mushers to breakout their snowshoes. Also, since the rolling, snow-packed hills are treeless, storms in this section can disorient mushers, making it difficult for them to discern where the land in front of them ends and the sky begins in the featureless landscape. However, organizers do their best to mark this section to the best of their ability, and may send snowmachines out to break trail in front of the leaders in severe storms.In 2007, a 55,000-acre wildfire also dramatically altered the landscape of the Caribou Hills and much of the T-200 racecourse. It removed many of the easily recognizable landmarks, such as the cabin at the Four Corners checkpoint. Now, with many fewer trees, less brush standing, and no needles or branches on the charred black trunks that remain, there is also nothing to block even the slightest windgusts from moving snow around, even well below the treeline. As arduous as all of these conditions may sound, mushers may be wallowing through waist deep snow for the entire race. The Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers, a local snowmachine club, maintains 250 miles of trails in the Caribou Hills for public use all winter, and in any given year they may groom one-quarter to one-third of the T-200 racecourse with their large industrial grooming machine. Well-packed trails, 20-feet wide and without moguls are the norm where these groomers have gone through, which can make for miles of the course being perfect for passing or pulling over to snack a team.Snowmachines with tow-behind trail groomers are utilized for putting in the remainder of the trail, and in the week prior to the start of the T-200, organizers will run these smaller groomers over the course daily to build a solid base for race weekend. Many remote sections of the seldom-groomed pieces of trail are also used for training purposes by the numerous mushers that live in the surrounding area, which can also help establish a bit of a trail base, and leave a scent for dogs to follow.Elemental challenges: Mushers should expect the unexpected in regard to weather. The T-200 has seen numerous blizzards during race weekend over the years, including a storm that stopped the race in progress in 1985, and resulted in the winner, Tim Osmar, not crossing the finish line for three days. In 2000, another big blizzard blew in dropping four feet of snow in 48 hours. Musher Rod Boyce, of Fairbanks, AK, got lost in the storm and remained missing for six days. The Kenai Peninsula is often warmer through the winter than many interior Alaska locations, which can also be challenging or even detrimental to teams from further north, where dogs may be more accustomed to running in minus temperatures. During the 2007 race, the mercury soared to 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and mushers left the starting chute in rain, that changed to snow at higher elevations, and then back to rain as they dropped back down to the race’s halfway point in Clam Gulch, AK. Several mushers came in, literally, pouring water out of their mittens, and a few dog drivers were on the verge of hypothermia as their gear, and back up gear, had become soaked to the point that it offered little in regard to insulation or warmth. Because of the warm weather, scant snow at lower elevations can occasionally be a problem, particularly near the starting line and for the first 10-miles of the course. On a few occasions race organizers have postponed the start of the race to wait for more snow, which eventually did come, with the exception of 2003 when the race was called off due to insufficient snow to guarantee the safety of dogs and mushers.While warm weather is more the norm, extreme cold is also a possibility during the T-200. Standing temperatures of minus 20 to minus 40 Fahrenheit have been recorded during several races and during the 1999 race, a wind-chill of minus 60 degrees was recorded when a cold weather front packing powerful wind forced the mercury down.Marking and Organization:Already sleep-deprived and contending with sideways blowing snow, above treeline and in the dark of night, the last thing a musher wants is to wonder where the trail is. T-200 race organizers — many of whom are mushers, or past mushers — know this and pride themselves in ensuring racers with a well-marked trail. They typically will place over 1,000 markers, a significant numbers for what equates to 100-miles of trail, since the course is out-and-back. By comparison, organizers of the Knik 200 Sled Dog Race — which also features an out-and-back course — typically only utilizes around 500 markers.Kevin Fulton, a former T-200 competitor turned trail groomer and marker in recent years, has said “We saturate corners and have lots on top of hills that might be bad so mushers know to be on the brake. In the swamps and open areas where it could be tough to see, we put markers about 100 feet apart.” Since the average 14-dog team is roughly 70 feet long, having markers placed this close together means that as a musher is passing one marker, his or her lead dogs should be almost up to the next one.Markers can occasionally be buried by snow in the section of trail that moves above treeline, or blown out on always windy Caribou Lake despite organizers going so far as to use a chainsaw to cut holes in the ice to place them. Mushers that encounter either of these scenarios can do little more than chalk it up to dog racing in Alaska.As stated, many mushers and past mushers assist with putting in the trail, so racers can count on a challenging course, but not one that is overtly treacherous. Dangerous sections are frequently rerouted, while dicey, yet still doable, sections of trail are marked conspicuously in some way that is reviewed during the prerace meeting mandatory for all mushers. The location of the race start can be icy but snow machines are utilized to bring fresh teams up to the chute. There is also a road crossing within the first 1,000 yards, but volunteers stop vehicle traffic, hold out a snow fence curtain to dissuade dogs from running down the road, and shovel snow across the asphalt to preserve new plastic on sled runners.Checkpoints and Dog Drops:In recent years, the T-200 has had four checkpoints, and while the specific locations do change, their proximity from the start/finish has remained relatively constant, give or take a mile or two. From the race start at the Tustumena Lodge, located at Mile 111 of the Sterling Highway, mushers travel 25 miles to the “Four Corners” checkpoint. Until the wildfire of 2007, the Four Corners checkpoint consisted of a small cabin located at an intersection of several of the more heavily traveled winter trails in the Caribou Hills, but as a result of the burn the cabin was lost and so this checkpoint has been moved to a gravel pad at the end of Oil Well Road, just a couple of miles away. Instead of a cabin, race organizers erect a wall tent each year for mushers to get out of the elements that T-200 competitors typically pass through. This is required so that race officials and fans can have an idea of how fast teams are moving, and extrapolate when they may arrive at the next checkpoint when headed out-bound, or at the finish when headed in-bound. As of 2008, Four Corners also became a dog drop location, since dogs could be loaded directly into dog trucks parked at the gravel pad, rather than having to be kenneled and then carried out by snowmachines as would have been the only option from the former Four Corners cabin checkpoint.Traveling another 20 miles, and located 45 miles from the race start, mushers will make their way to the Caribou Lake checkpoint. As mushers that live in the area can attest to, even when the weather is good everywhere else, it’s still usually cold and windy at Caribou Lake. As a result, the lake may have the snow blown clean, with just hard, smooth, ice remaining behind. It seems that every couple of years there is at least one musher that can’t quite stop their team at the right location, so they do a few extra laps around the lake until the teeth of their brake bar can get a good bite. There is usually a veterinarian available at Caribou Lake. There is a cabin at the edge of the lake where mushers can go inside and get warm, and there is an outhouse nearby. There is also a hole drilled in the ice out front so mushers don’t have to melt snow if they want to give their teams some water or a brothy, food mix. However, mushers are only required to sign-in before continuing on, which is what most competitive teams will do. After another 25 miles, 70 miles from the start, mushers arrive at Rocky’s Straight-In Lodge. Until 2008, race rules had required mushers to take four hours of “floating” rest at this checkpoint. It was up to them to determine when they took the rest, so mushers could pull over for one, two, three or four hours, either out bound or inbound, depending on their race strategy, the weather and trail conditions and the strength of their teams. However, all of these decisions were made for them in 2008, and thereafter, when race organizers decided for logistical reason that mushers would no longer be required to take mandatory rest at this checkpoint. Still mushers can send out food drops/straw to Rocky’s, hot water is available and dogs can be dropped. There is usually a veterinarian available. If the grill is on, mushers may also be able to purchase a burger or something else to eat.Running primarily downhill out of the Caribou Hills for 30 more miles, 100 miles from the race start, T-200 mushers are finally at the Clam Shell Lodge, their halfway point. Located at Mile 118 of the Sterling Highway, the Clam Shell is a good location for mushers to get, and give their teams, some much needed rest. As a result of the 2008 decision to drop the mandatory four hours of rest at Rocky’s, race organizers also amended the rules for rest at the Clam Shell. Instead of six hours of mandatory rest as it had been, they bumped it up to eight hours of mandatory rest. Mushers can send out food drops/straw to the Clam Shell, hot water is available and dogs can be dropped. There is almost always a veterinarian available.The parking area for the dogs is decent. It is at a lower elevation than most of the race course, so it is often a few degrees warmer than some of the other checkpoints, but it is on a bluff overlooking Cook Inlet, so windy weather off the water can occasionally occur. The parking area consists of a large level area that may, or may not, be plowed behind the lodge itself. When plowed, hooking out teams can be difficult, but usually there are areas nearby that haven’t been plowed where mushers can park their teams on snow. Race organizers attempt to park teams side by side, facing the exit trail, in the order they arrive, but the main parking area can fill up in years with a large race field. Back of the packers can find themselves parked on uneven snow banks or in the willows. Getting to the parking area usually isn’t difficult, since most teams will be tired from having run 100 miles. Also, there are race officials that help teams cross the Sterling Highway safely to get to the Clam Shell, and once at the lodge a local troop of Boy Scouts has for many years helped guide teams to their parking spots. After the rest is another story, though. From the parking area, teams must move back past the bar over a plowed and always icy vehicle parking lot, and then cross the highway again. It can be tough for teams to slow down and stop, but organizers do their best to have extra volunteers available to help guide teams and hold them back when necessary.For mushers, the Clam Shell also provides two free rooms, with several beds in each room, for weary competitors to grab a few winks. Mushers should pack ear plugs, though, since the quarters are tight and can be loud if someone is snoring. Since the T-200 is an Iditarod and Yukon Quest qualifier, there is an emphasis on self-reliance or utilizing what is available, so mushers may not rent private rooms to sleep in while in the race. As for food, the Clam Shell’s cook usually will stay late during race weekend to provide a hearty meal to mushers only, but the bar, which also stays open later during the race, will sell alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to anyone. In the back room of the Clam Shell, there are public bathrooms and washing machines and dryers that run on quarters, which can be a real asset to mushers trying to dry out gear, particularly during years with wet snow or rain.Purse: As purses go, the T-200 offers one of the larger purses, particularly for a mid-distance race of this length. However, as Anjanette Steer, of Sheep Mountain said after the 2008 race, “it’s the least amount of money you’ll ever make considering the work you’ll have to do to earn it.” Still, the race pays well and it pays deep. The race typically has an annual purse of at least $25,000, which is distributed to the Top 10 finishers, and income generated from year-round pulltabs and musher entry fees frequently allow the race organizers to pay past 10th position, allowing all finishers to go home with at least a little money in their pocket. For several years this race paid $10,000 (40 percent of the total purse) to the first place finisher, but after several mushers voiced concern that the pay rift was too great between the first place and the second through 10 place finishers, the race organization restructured the pay out to be $7,500 (30 percent) for first place. The second place finisher receives $5,000 (20 percent), third place receives $3,750 (15 percent), fourth receives $2,500 (10 percent), fifth receives $2,000 (8 percent), sixth receives $1,500 (6 percent), seventh receives $1,250 (5 percent), eighth receives $750 (3 percent), ninth receives $500 (2 percent), and tenth gets $250 (1 percent).While the purse may be a draw for some to enter, mushers may have to pass a lot of folks to earn their money. The T-200 is also an Iditarod and Yukon Quest qualifier, so the race annually has a diverse field of 20 to 30 mushers, a mix of rookies and seasoned professionals. And, there seems to always be a least a few past Iditarod or Yukon Quest champions that enter.Awards: The T-200 annually presents two awards. A Sportsmanship Award is given to the musher that best embodies the spirit of cooperation, as voted on by all mushers in the event. A Sarah-Armstrong Memorial Humanitarian Award is also given to the musher that displays the best dog care during the race, and at the checkpoints. Both awards come with a framed piece of artwork and $250. Concurrent races:Running simultaneously to the T-200 is a 100-mile out-and-back race that began in 1997 as a race for amateurs. It was originally dubbed the “Little T,” but in 2006 the race had its named changed to the “Tustumena 100” officially, or T-100 for short as a result of musher consensus that, “There’s nothing little about that race,” as Big Lake musher Martin Buser said so eloquently during a finishing banquet speech in 2004. While Buser himself was not in the T-100, he acknowledged that the challenges of this race make up for the 100 miles less in distance. As opposed to the 14-dogs allowed in the T-200, the T-100 has an eight-dog minimum and 10-dog maximum. T-100 mushers must also carry all their food and gear with them rather than relying on drop bags at their half-way point like T-200 mushers. The race follows the same course as the T-200, but rather than continuing on from Caribou Lake, T-100 mushers take their mandatory rest there. Rules require teams to rest for a minimum of four-hours, and no longer than six hours, before returning to the start/finish. While the T-100 began for amateurs, in recent years the lines between the two races have blurred as more professional mushers have started to use the race for taking out teams of young dogs. Also, not wanting something quite as grueling as the 200, some mushers run the 100 looking to gain race experience for their adult teams and to provide conservative training for larger races, such as the Yukon Quest which is just weeks later. The T-100 has a $1,000 purse. The pay out of this purse is based on number of entrants and is announced at the pre-race musher’s meeting, but it typically pays out to the first through the fifth place finishers.In 2007, a new race was for young mushers, called the “Junior T” was also added to the venue. Merissa Osmar, granddaughter of Dean Osmar, proposed the event as a way to provide mushers, 12 to 17 years old, with race experience. The Jr. T is a 50-mile, out and back course, with the T-200’s Four Corners checkpoint serving as the halfway point where young mushers take a mandatory three hour rest with their teams of six to eight dogs.The Future:Dean Osmar said he’s not surprised the T-200 has endured for 25 years. “It’s well-managed, well-run, and at a good time of year,” he said, but as to if the race will endure for another 25 years to celebrate its golden anniversary, Osmar said time will tell. “It all depends on the management, the volunteers and how much civilization encroaches on the wilderness, but I hope it does.” Joseph Robertia is an Outdoor reporter for the Peninsula Clarion newspaper in Kenai, AK. He and his wife, Colleen, own Rogues Gallery Kennel, a rescue/distance racing kennel in Kasilof, AK.

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