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Yup'ik Musher Heads to Anchorage With Two Major Pre-Iditarod Wins

Richard Walker

All of the season’s majors and qualifiers have been raced. Mushers and dogs have put their training and preparation to the test. Now, all eyes turn to Anchorage and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race – aka the Last Great Race on Earth – which begins on March 5.

2016 season winners and runners-up racing in this year’s Iditarod: Pete Kaiser, Yup’ik, winner of the Kuskokwim 300 and the 226-mile Denali Doubles; Ryan Redington, Inupiat, winner of the Northern Lights 300; Wade Marrs, winner of the Gin Gin 200; Ryne Olson, No. 2 finisher in the Copper Basin 300; and Aliy Zirkle, No. 2 finisher in the Two Rivers 200 (and three-time Iditarod runner-up); Hugh Neff, winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest; and Brent Sass, Yukon Quest past champion and this year’s runner-up.

Copper Basin 300 winner Matt Hall and Two Rivers 200 winner Will Rhodes are not registered for the Iditarod.

The 2016 Iditarod field includes three-time champion Dallas Seavey, and his father, Mitch, a two-time champion; John Baker, the first Inupiat to win the race; four-time champions Martin Buser, Lance Mackey and Jeff King; and two-time champion Robert Sorlie.

But some of the biggest challenges may lie in the trail conditions. If you’re a climate-change doubter, visit Alaska, where snowfall is below average in most parts – at this writing, 50 inches below average in Haines in the southeast; 12 inches below average in Anchorage in south-central; 5 inches below average in Fairbanks in the interior; and 6 inches below average in Barrow in the far north.

Two races were canceled this season because of poor trail conditions and lack of snow: the Tustumena 200, January 30, on the Kenai Peninsula; and the Knik 200, January 31, in Willow. It was the second consecutive year the T-200 was canceled because of poor trail conditions and lack of snow.

Warmer-than-average temperatures are exacting a toll in other parts of the year as well. In September, veteran musher Mike Williams Sr. – father of 2016 contender Mike Williams Jr. – almost lost several dogs when a 50-foot chunk of his property in Akiak fell into the Kuskokwim River. Chris Maio, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told KYUK Public Media that when temperatures rise, the permafrost binding Akiak’s silty riverbanks melts, leading to erosion. According to KYUK, U.S. Corps of Engineers study revealed that Akiak loses about an acre of land a year to erosion.

Even though his hometown of Bethel had some good snow earlier in the season, a downturn forced Kaiser and his team to head to Fairbanks for some pre-Iditarod training.

“It’s been a fairly crappy winter for western Alaska,” Kaiser said. “The snowfall is marginal at best [in Bethel]. It was pretty good up to a couple of weeks before Christmas, but then it went to heck again … It’s been mild in Fairbanks -- more wintry than in Bethel, but milder than average.”

Looking ahead to the Last Great Race on Earth

Kaiser, 28, who has two top-10 finishes in six Iditarods, is pleased with his team’s performance in the weeks leading up to the Last Great Race on Earth.

“It’s still a pretty young team, mostly four-year-olds,” he said. “But they have some experience and they’re coming into their prime. They’re enthusiastic and fairly speedy and they’ve performed real well in less-than-ideal conditions.”

He’s not taking any of his competition for granted. “There are probably 30 teams that could finish in the top 10,” he said.

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