Yet again, warm weather may wipe out Tustumena 200 sled dog race

SOLDOTNA — While the vain sometimes pretend they’re 29 for many years afterward, the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race seems to be legitimately stuck at that age.“This would be the third attempt to have the 30th anniversary of the T200,” said race director Tami Murray.This year’s race, the biggest distance race on the Kenai Peninsula, is still scheduled for Jan. 30 and has a full field of 50 mushers entered. But with slabs of ice rather than snow at lower elevations and more rain expected next week, it’s not certain if the race will happen.“There’s no final decision yet,” Murray said. “I’m hopeful but also realistic.”Other races around the state have faced their own tough decisions this season. The Knik 200 Joe Redington Sr. Memorial Sled Dog Race was canceled last month due to a lack of snow and thin ice on lakes. Last week, the Copper Basin 300 had to move the official start of its race 20 miles to contend with low snow and open water crossings in the Glennallen area.Murray said the T200 is facing similar challenges. There is powder at high elevations, but it gets thin quick near sea level. From the Kasilof start/finish line to the halfway point in Homer, there is a lot of glare ice and water crossings that remain open and flowing.“We have folks looking at all options,” she said “The Homer option is pretty much out and Caribou Lake is a boggy mess, so any trail would be on this side of the (Caribou) hills. We’ve done many alternate trails before, and starting at Freddie’s Roadhouse (typically a checkpoint in the Caribou Hills) is under consideration, but we need a little help from Mother Nature. We need some major snow and cold temps.” On Tuesday night race organizers got a little assistance. Roughly two inches of snow fell at lower elevations in Kasilof.Dean Osmar of Kasilof, the 1984 Iditarod champ who is considered the father of the T200, said the race has changed significantly since he and others organized the event. Many of those changes were weather related.“The first two years, we took off from the Decanter Inn (Mile 107 Sterling Highway), and ran along the shore of Tustumena Lake to a lodge, and then crossed the middle of the lake,” he said. “A couple years later, we used to go completely around the lake, but neither of those options will be happening any time soon.” Osmar said when he won the Iditarod nearly three decades ago, he was able to do all of his training locally, but in recent years that hasn’t been possible.“Up until a month ago, it was going OK,” he said. “We were doing about 80 percent of our training on the beach (of Cook Inlet) and 20 percent on the trails in Cohoe Loop (elevation 125 feet), but then things iced up. Then we were having to load and truck the dogs, driving an hour and 1,500 feet in elevation to run in the Caribou Hills. We also trucked to Sheep Mountain, Eureka, Paxson — chasing snow all over the state — which gets expensive and is a lot of wear and tear on the truck.”Osmar said he’s keeping his fingers crossed that a major snow pattern would move into the area, even if it dumped just enough to start the race at Freddie’s Roadhouse.“It might be better to start up high and do a few loops … than to not have a race at all,” he said.If the weather pattern does change in the next two weeks, some mushers who can’t leave their day jobs to go where the snow is say it would be too little too late for them, because for weeks training around Kasilof has been limited and at times impossible.“It’s very frustrating and depressing. This is not what I expected when I moved to Alaska,” said Kasilof musher Leon Mensch, who moved to Alaska five years ago and immediately embraced the mushing lifestyle, acquiring dogs and running the Tustumena 100 in 2013, the last time it was held.Mensch was hoping to train longer distances and possibly enter the T200 within the next few years, but that was three winters ago.“Even if the T200 is held this year, I won’t be ready for it,” he said. “I was also planning on doing an expedition this season, re-tracing the original Serum Run from Nenana to Nome. That was my real goal and I’m going to have to withdraw from that also.”Typically, Mensch — like most serious mushers — starts training his dogs as early as August. Mushers have the dogs pull a four-wheeler a mile or two, building up to longer distances over the next few months when the snow typically flies.But once again this year, after months of good early-season training, Mensch was faced with too little snow to take out a sled yet too much ice to safely control a four-wheeler pulled by a team of dogs.“It seems like this area is no longer a good spot for having sled dogs,” he said. “If you want to run dogs and live here, you need to be able to travel north for extended amounts of time.”Over three years, Mensch explained, dogs have missed out on a lot. Young dogs have missed critical periods of fresh snowfall where they figure out how to break trail and learn commands of control like gee and haw.“My team is actually getting old,” he said. “My main leaders are 8 years old now. This was going to be their year for some fun, but it’s turning out to be worse than last year. I feel terrible for the dogs. They live for winter and we don’t have winter here anymore.” Mensch also worries that so many cancellations may affect race organizers and volunteers.“It’s great having a local race. I hope they don’t stop trying to run it because of the weather, but I don’t know how many years they can plan a race, just to have to cancel it,” he said.Murray agreed a changing of the guard may happen, because officials only serve terms of a couple of years.“We might lose a few key people over the next couple of years, but hopefully the T200 will be around for many years to come,” she said, adding that the race has always had a thriving body of volunteers who helped hatch the event.If it happens, the race will offer a $50,000 purse, an extravagant amount for a race of its length. In years when the race didn’t happened, some of the money raised for the purse was donated to other nonprofits. The race also gave $5,000 to the Help Willow Mushers Rebuild fund after several mushers in that region lost their homes in a June wildfire, according to Murray.Organizers will meet Monday to make a decision on whether to cancel or not.The last time the race was held, temperatures were unusually high — more than 40 degrees during the day — and two dogs died during the event, unusual for a race so short. The memory of that will weigh on the decision.“One thing we won’t do is have an unsafe race,” Murray said. Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer who lives in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx, where they operate Rogues Gallery Kennel.For full article:


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