2014 Copper Basin 300, Part One

There are a couple hundred photos here, and they’re good resolution, so please give them a couple of minutes to fully load. You can hover over any photo for a caption, or click on any photo to see it larger and go through them individually. There are several groups of photos here, keep scrolling down through them for the entire article about the race. 

Road Trip – Going to Glennallen

Denali

My friend Bonnie Foster and I and her retired leader, Denali, left her home around midmorning, headed for Glennallen. Nice day for a drive, a bit overcast, but the roads were good, and the scenery on the Glenn National Scenic Highway is always spectacular! We saw five moose, and a big semi truck in the ditch just as we got out of the mountains, looked like he got caught in the soft snow when turning into a pullout area.  Always makes me wince to see a trucker in trouble, as one of my sons drives a big rig over Alaskan roads. We found a bunch of caribou just before we got to Glennallen, beautiful animals and they just stood there watching us and let us photograph them for several minutes!

the Matanuska Glacier from the grade above Caribou Creek

When we got to Glennallen we pulled into the Caribou Hotel and saw our friend Susie Rogan hailing us from a window – she and Hans Gatt and their friend John King had driven over from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory for the race. The last time we’d seen Susie was last February in Fairbanks, when she finished her first 1,000 mile Yukon Quest. Of course it may have helped that her handler was four-time Yukon Quest champion Hans Gatt.

We checked in and Susie came over to visit with her sweet little husky sidekick, Goose. Bonnie broke out some goodies, we chatted for a bit and then Hans and John came to join us. So fun to see Hans and Susie again, and to meet John, who was from Australia, but originally from southern Great Britain, so he had a veddy British accent. He began running dogs in 2012, and has run the Yukon Quest 300, coming in 9th with a full team of healthy and happy dogs, and the Percy DeWolfe 200, coming in 7th with all dogs on the line again healthy and in good shape. His goal for the CB300 was to run a challenging 300 mile race trail successfully with his team, to qualify for the Iditarod.

Bonnie is a Yukon Quest veteran of sorts, not that she ran the race, but her dogs did, in 2012, a team made up of retired sled dogs from some of the best kennels, savvy distance dogs who may have been past their prime. but who still felt the thrill of the trail and leapt with excitement when the harnesses amd booties came out. Misha Pederson, the intrepid musher who determinedly drove Bonnie’s Moon Run Kennel team 1,000 miles across northern Alaska and the Yukon, joined us a bit later. Denali, who had co-lead much of the trip, seemed genuinely pleased to see her old friend again, and she spent the evening happily curled up beside her. Misha, a veteran of several mid-distance races, was conditioning a team for another friend, Vern Halter of Dream a Dream Kennels in Willow.

Musher’s Meeting

RIchard Dennis addresses the mushers

That evening we drove over to the Musher’s Meeting for the orientation. I enjoyed warm hugs from several friends I hadn’t seen since the last race season, and after a few minutes of visiting we settled in for the familiar program of greetings, introductions, trail reports, rules reminders, and what to expect at the start and the various checkpoints. Musher voices rang out in reply from around the large comfortable community college room as race marshall Zack Steer counted down the starting line-up.

Hans Gatt and John King

Looking around the circle of assembled mushers one could easily distill the knowing faces of the veterans from the bright excited rookies. There were several hardened veterans who’d been here many times before and know each creek by name, and eager rookies wondering what some of the more descriptive names mean in actuality and if the Gakona River open water seen on the video days before will prove troublesome. The carefully coiled enthusiasm of the rookie mushers reminded me of the dogs who stand in harness at the start chute literally vibrating with anticipation at the trail ahead. It wouldn’t be surprising to see one of them mimic the actions of the keyed-up sled dogs who will launch themselves vertically off the ground. The veterans are more restrained in their demeanor, but you can feel the tension building as they eye the fellow veterans they know will run some stiff competition out there. The lion in the room, arguably the best distance musher in the sport, isn’t expected to be in the running for first place this year. Hans Gatt is simply there to support his friend and client, John King.

The Start: Controlled Mayhem

Start morning in Glennallen

The next morning Bonnie and I navigate our way through a hotel full of mushers striding the halls and find the coffee and a hotel breakfast of peach yogurt and Jimmy Dean’s mini sausage biscuits. It’s almost showtime, so we dress quite a bit less than it seems like we should for a sled dog race and make our way across the hotel parking lot and toward the action.

Long gang lines are laid out everywhere, snaking across the ice to their respective dogtrucks. Huskies chained to their trucks are watching intently, waiting impatiently for their turn to be led to the line. As each team is readied a four wheeler or a snowmachine backs into place to help ease the the excited dogs across the ice, across the highway, and down to the start chute.

Ben Harper, Team Redington

Once in the chute, under the iron banner, the four wheeler detaches and backs away while the musher walks down the line scratching ears, moving dogs back under the gangline and into position, refastening clips, stopping to smile for a friend’s camera, and then at the 30 second signal and he sprints back to his sled for the countdown. Four, three, two, one.. He pulls the right-hand snow hook and says “all right” and they’re suddenly airborne, flying down the trail in hot pursuit of the team ahead as the next team eases into the chute.

On the Road Again

IMG_8108

With all of the teams out on the trail, Bonnie and I headed down to Race Central at the American Legion post and enjoyed a bowl of chili, provided by longtime race sponsor Crowley Fuel. Race judge Kelley Griffin was there and came over to chat while we ate, mostly comparing notes with Bonnie about their chicken herds. We spent a few minutes browsing the posters, then stopped by the grocery store for some last-minute trail food before heading north, hop-scotching the teams and stopping to photograph them at key points such as the Gulkana River bridge, the Mt. Drum pullout overlooking the Copper River, and the historic Gakona Lodge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Established in 1904, it is one of the few original roadhouses on the old Valdez-to-Eagle Trail.

Michelle Phillip's beautiful fur parka ruff

Following the mushers by watching for trail stakes alongside the road, we happen upon two large moose, and then we spot something up ahead, apparently dashing along over the snow in an undulating motion. A weasel? A badger? Wow, it’s a wolverine! I start scrambling for my camera, keeping an eye on the creature bobbling along ahead of us, and then Bonnie starts laughing – we were seeing the beautiful huge ruff on Michelle Phillips’ parka as she ran in the ditch alongside the road! We had a good hearty chortle at ourselves, and then spotted John Schandelmeier up ahead of us…

First Checkpoint: Red Eagle Lodge at Chistochina

Red Eagle Lodge checkpoint number one

We pulled into the Red Eagle Lodge at Chistochina and watched Nicolas Petit bedding down his team a few yards away. He’d been the third team out of the start chute, and the first one into this first checkpoint. It was beginning to get dark as we watched John Schandelmeier come in and circle wide, then two more teams arrived, and we decided to head over to the check-in point for photographs before John and Hans arrived.

Drop bags lined the chute as teams came in

The lodge had a nice set-up for arriving teams, and we chatted with Kelley and a few other friends as team after team came in, loaded their drop bags onto their sleds, and headed for their rest areas. Someone built a fiercely roaring fire in a small round fire ring, but it soon began snapping and hissing in a scary sort of way, huge yellow flames blazing and leaping toward the gathered crowd, who stepped backwards and agreed there must be some type of greasy fuel in the bottom of the fire ring. The somewhat menacing flames spread a cheery glow to the surroundings and soon settled down to allow the crowd to gather close again.

Dragging drop bags

Team after team rounds the turn out in the woods and pulls into the checkpoint to murmurs of approval from the dozen or so people gathered. As handlers and volunteers steady the team and the sled the musher zips open his bag to show his ax, sleeping bag, cooker, etc., then the checker announces “Time?” and another volunteer notes the official arrival time. Someone identifies the musher’s drop bags among those piled to either side of the trail and the musher, handlers, and volunteers advance the team to where they are, the musher loads them onto his sled and then he’s led to a parking place amongst he other teams.

Bonnie and I watch the headlamps wander across the snowy field where the teams are lined out to rest. Four hours, six hours, and then it’s time to wake the sleeping team, feed and booty and check the harnesses of each dog, and then check out, go back and call up the team and glide out of the checkpoint, turn north alongside the Glenn Highway and follow it to Sinona Creek where they cross under the highway, through the closed Posty’s Trading Post, and into the woods, headed over The Hump across county to the Meier’s Lake checkpoint 75 miles away.

Sourdough Creek and Meiers Lake Checkpoints

Brent's dogs at the Sourdough Checkpoint

The next morning when Bonnie and I checked in at race central we were surprised to see that Hans had scratched at the Meiers Lake checkpoint. We headed north, stopping at the historic log lodge at Sourdough Creek, one of the first roadhouses built to accommodate early travelers along the Valdez-to-Eagle Trail, just in time to watch Brent Sass arrive. He pulled into this third race checkpoint with a smile, his big dogs looking great, gathered his drop bags and followed the directions of volunteers to a snowy resting place beside the highway.

Bonnie and I drove north, through the snowy hills carpeted with spiky little twisted trees, to the Meiers Lake checkpoint, where we met up with Vern and Susie. We ate lunch at the lodge and learned the trail had been re-routed because of overflow. We took a few photos of the picturesque and historic Meiers Lake log church, built in 1920, then drove back to Sourdough Creek to watch the teams arriving from up north.

We secured a parking space nosed into a snow berm right in front of the Arctic Oven tents and the drop bags, an excellent vantage point from which to watch the teams checking in. Friends would come by with updates and information, or just to chat, Susie and Hans joined us for crackers and cheese and some fascinating race analysis, and we enjoyed having a ringside seat to the whole show. Eventually we decided to head back to Glennallen and get some sleep. Stopped at race headquarters for an update, chatted a bit, then back to the hotel.

The next post, 2014 Copper Basin 300, Part Two, is just photos from the trail.

 

Advertisements

About Helen Hegener

I write books about Alaskan history, and titles currently available include Alaskan Roadhouses, The First Iditarod, The All Alaska Sweepstakes, The Yukon Quest Trail, The Matanuska Colony Barns, and others. I am currently researching and writing a book on the early history and construction of the Alaska Railroad. You can contact me via email at helenhegener@gmail.com
This entry was posted in Races and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.