Twenty mushing teams took off Saturday with hopes of taking home the win in the Tustumena 200.
The Tustumena 200 is a qualifying race for the Iditarod, and many big names in the world of dog mushing converge on the Kenai Peninsula this time of year to gain access to the Iditarod field or to tune up their teams for a winning run.
Over the course of the weekend, mushers and their dogs follow a winding course through the Caribou Hills — beginning at Freddie’s Roadhouse in Ninilchik and continuing to a checkpoint east of Homer, and then back north toward Kasilof, until finishing up at the roadhouse.
First in to the checkpoint at McNeil Canyon Elementary School East of Homer was Cim Smyth, who won the race four times, most recently in 2017. Smyth said he planned to rest his team there for about three hours before hitting the trail back up to Freddie’s Roadhouse.
From there, it’s on to the northernmost checkpoint at Centennial Lake in Kasilof, before finishing by returning once more to Freddie’s.
After taking last year off from the T200, Smyth said he definitely has his eye on first place this year.
“It’s been all right,” he said of the roughly 40 miles of trail from the starting line to McNeil. “There was some slow stuff and some icy stuff, but up on top there was so much snow it made up for all the icy stuff earlier.”
Smyth said the fact that the racecourse was changed may actually bode well for him, since it comes up short of an actual 200 miles.
“Actually that’s probably good for me, more to my advantage,” he said. “Actually, maybe more to Dave Turner’s advantage.”
Turner, who cruised into the checkpoint just minutes behind Smyth, has taken third in the last two sled dog races. The 2017 race was his first time ever competing in the T200.
As for Smyth, he said his dogs don’t have a lot of miles on them yet this year.
“I’m kind of low-miled, and it’s nice to have it shorter probably,” he said.
Smyth, now in his seventh year participating in the race, said he still comes back because it’s a great one.
“I love this part of the country,” he said. “It’s always well organized, marked.”
Smyth, Turner and about a dozen other mushers lined their teams up in the field behind McNeil Canyon to bed down, eat and rest for a few hours. As Nordic skiers from Soldotna High School cruised by in the distance, the crowd of sled dogs made sure to alert their mushers something was up.
A few lines down from Smyth, Kristy Berington put hay down for her dogs and fed them, while her sister Anna did the same next to her. She’s lost track of how many times the twins have run the T200, she said.
“I mean, we’re having a race and that’s the best part,” she said of this year’s different route. “If we came to Homer three times (in the same race), you know, that’s fine with me — we’re having a dog sled race. Because some of the other ones are in jeopardy of being canceled.”
Berington said she’s just happy to be traveling on a trail with a sled. She said other than conditions being a little warm, the first leg of the trail was good, and her dogs had a good time.
Both sisters will run the Iditarod this year. Berington said her dogs are more consistent than fast.
“I’ve got quite a few young dogs that are king of being tested out to see how they’ll do in races,” she said. “A lot of them, this is their first time being bedded down on straw with other dog teams.”
Berington said the trails in the Caribou Hills hold a lot of meaning and memories for her.
“When I first moved up to Alaska, this is where I trained and learned from Dean Osmar and Paul Gebhardt and stuff, so it just feels like a coming home,” she said.
Prepping for the race
Before the race got underway Saturday, each team and musher was required to make a stop Friday in Soldotna to get their dog teams checked. The vets inspected each dog to make certain they were capable of completing 200 miles without issue, keeping close to the acronym HAWL, which stands for heart, attitude, weight and lungs, according to head veterinarian Pam May-Ross.
“We need to make sure their heart is beating normal and they’re well hydrated,” May-Ross said. “They need to have a good attitude, looking happy and hungry … They need to be of a good weight … and we check their lungs to make sure they sound clear.”
May-Ross led the vet checks Friday for each team with help from several assistants, and with 16 years of veterinarian experience under her belt, holds the prerequisites to inspecting canines for any problems. May-Ross lives in Hope but works in Anchorage at The Pet Stop vet clinic, and said 2019 would be her third time since 2012 presiding over the vet checks.
Among the teams that got the green light were those owned by 2013 champion Mitch Seavey. Seavey said his vet checks went without a hitch, and sat relaxed in the hospitality meeting room at the Sports Complex in preparation for what could be a hairy race.
Temperatures around the central peninsula Friday ranged in the mid-30s and a decent rainfall cast fears of a slick, icy trail for the race.
Jeff Deeter, 30, of Fairbanks described the rainfall on the drive down to the peninsula Friday as an Alaskan monsoon.
“We had the wipers going at hyper speed,” Deeter said. “We were thinking, ‘Huh, wonder if we’ll see this in the race?’”
Seavey, however, said as bad as conditions looked at sea level, the snow up above 1,000 feet elevation is likely a different story.
“It’s not going to be that bad in the hills,” Seavey said.
The Sterling veteran races four teams out of his kennel, and even with over 25 years of training on the peninsula, said the T-200 can be the most troublesome to prepare for among the top mushing events in the state due to the “microclimates” the Kenai Peninsula tends to produce. Seavey explained that weather patterns pushing up from the Gulf of Alaska are unpredictable and could either drop rain on Homer and snow in the hills, or snow in Homer and nothing in the hills.
“I’m comfortable with what’s all there,” he said. “I like to rely on the experience.”
His dog teams are one of Seavey’s utmost concerns, and the sourdough musher said he won’t push the team faster than conditions allow.
“The goal is to have them ready for the Iditarod,” he said.
Deeter, a two-time Iditarod finisher running his first T-200, operates Black Spruce Dog Sledding with his wife, and said Friday’s check is mostly a formality for race teams.
“Every musher should be completely in tune with their dogs,” Deeter said. “If you don’t know there’s something wrong with your dogs, you maybe shouldn’t be doing this.”
Grayson Bruton is a handler of Seavey’s teams and a T-200 racer this weekend, and echoed Seavey’s thought about the trails, noting that the warm conditions are something the teams are prepared for.
“All winter long we train them and make sure they’re healthy, they have the feet to run,” Bruton said.
Bruton, 23, is already a veteran of two Junior Iditarods, the Willow 300 and the Copper Basin 300 events, and said working and training with the high-energy breeds consumes every aspect of his life.
“It’s a 24-hour job,” Bruton said. “And I love it.”