2015 Northern Lights 300

Section of an artwork at Happy Trails Kennel. [Photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media]

Panel section of an artwork piece at Happy Trails Kennel. [Photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media]

The 2015 Northern Lights 300 sled dog race from Big Lake to Finger Lake drew a diverse field of mushers from many areas of Alaska, with some mushers racing to qualify for the long distance Iditarod and Yukon Quest races, some putting training runs on teams they were entering in the bigger races, some just putting more miles on themselves, and a few simply out to have a good time on the trail with their teams and their fellow mushers.

Northern Lights 300 trail stake. [Photo by Lou Schrader]

A Northern Lights 300 trail marker.         [Photo by Lou Schrader]

After several worrisome weeks of warm weather and no snow, conditions which necessitated the cancellation of the 2014 Northern Lights 300 and had already affected other 2015 races, the planets finally aligned and a few days of snow and colder temperatures left the trail in good condition for the race. Trailmaster Lou Schrader made numerous trips to secure and safety-check the trail before the race, and he placed over 1,500 stakes to mark the route for the mushers, noting in a report that the line of stakes crossing Flathorn Lake “looked like a picket fence.”

Hauling straw on the Yentna River. [Photo by Barry Munsell, who says they're available to haul straw and supplies for other races]

Hauling straw on the Yentna River. [Photo by Barry Munsell, they’re available to haul straw and supplies for other races]

Volunteers swung into action during the week before the start, hauling supplies to the remote checkpoints at Yentna Station, Talvista Lodge, and Finger Lake, spaced approximately 50 miles apart. Roger Phillips reported that he and his wife hauled nearly 8,000 pounds of food, gear, tents, heaters, and cases of Heet with two snowmachines and five freight sleds, a herculean effort pulled off by just the two of them. Three huge freight sleds loaded with bales of hay were freighted to the checkpoints by Barry Munsell and his friends Richard Place and Stan Smith, and all of the details which lead up to running a mid-distance sled dog race into remote country were taken care of by the experienced race crew under the direction of longtime Race Manager Sue Allen.

A dog gets a vet check the day before the race. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

A dog gets a vet check the day before the race. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

Veterinarians checked the health and well-being of the dogs the day before the race start, and early on the morning of Friday, January 23, the mushers gathered in the visitor’s center at Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake for the mandatory drivers’ pre-race roll call and race briefing. Martin Buser welcomed everyone to his marvelous musher-friendly facility, and the race officials shared last-minute comments and information, a rundown of the trail conditions, and what to expect at the checkpoints. There was an interesting twist to the race: During the meeting, each musher submitted their projected finish time in total hours and minutes, and the musher who came closest to their projected finish time would receive a full refund of their entry fee. The point was to help mushers learn to plan their race ahead of time, and many would come very close to their estimated arrival times.

The dogs are ready to race! [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

The dogs are ready to race! [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

At noon the first team, driven by Noah Pereira, ran under the Start banner and headed west, across the Little Susitna River, over the broad frozen expanse of Flathorn Lake, and onto the Big Susitna River for the run north to the Yentna River and the first checkpoint at Yentna Station. That night a notice was posted to the race’s web site and Facebook page at 10:40 pm: “Due to very poor trail conditions north of Talvista, with deep fresh snow and winds, the race has been placed on hold in Yentna Station until the trail conditions can be further assessed and the race marshal can decide how we shall proceed.” For an hour the families, handlers, fans and other race-watchers held their collective breath. Then finally came the decision: “Race Marshall Bud Smyth evaluated trail conditions, which included deep fresh snow and high winds along the trail north of Talvista overnight Jan. 23, and gave the OK for teams to head back on the trail at 12:50 a.m., Jan. 24.”

Race Marshal Kevin Saiki helps bring a team into the checkpoint [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

Through blowing and swirling snow, Race Marshal Kevin Saiki helps bring a team into the Finger Lake checkpoint [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

The race was back on. Race officials decided the teams’ wait time in Yentna would count toward their required 15 hours of rest, but mandatory six-hour stops were still required at Finger Lake and Yentna Station on the return run. The teams checked through Talvista Lodge and then settled into the third leg of the race, a 50-mile run to the halfway point at Finger Lake. At 3:25 am the race’s Facebook page announced, “We are not receiving updates from the Finger Lake checkpoint because they have shut down their generator for the evening, a point we had not factored into our race plans!

A team comes into the Finger Lake checkpoint. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

A team comes into the Finger Lake checkpoint. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

Yukon Quest and Iditarod veteran musher Jodi Bailey was putting a training run on some young dogs from her Dew Claw Kennel, in Chatanika, and she wrote a good assessment of the trail on her blog after the race, saying it was “….a good challenge for the young dogs. In 300 miles they got a little taste of what the Iditarod has to offer them. Varying trail conditions, from low snow to blown in drifts, icy conditions on vast lakes, twisty turny technical trail on the way into Finger Lake, headwinds, tail winds, warm afternoons and cold nights. Busy checkpoints with teams parked together, coming and  going, resting on different schedules.  I could not have asked for a better smorgasbord of situations for my team.”

Teams at Finger Lake. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

Teams resting on the lake at the Finger Lake checkpoint. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

The teams began leaving the Finger Lake halfway point early Saturday evening, heading back down the river to Talvista Lodge and Yentna Station. The front-running teams were Darrin Lee of Chistochina; the Berington sisters, Anna and Kristy, of Kasilof on the Kenai Peninsula; Charley Bejna, a self-described adventurer, born and raised in Addison, Illinois, who has raced and finished several mid- and long-distance races, including the 2014 Iditarod; and Chatanika musher Jodi Bailey. As the mushers left the halfway point headed for home, it was remarked that there were very few dropped dogs, and the trail was well-marked and in good condition, both reports which race organizers like to hear.

Dropped dogs at Finger Lake awaiting their ride home. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

Dropped dogs at Finger Lake awaiting their ride home. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

Race fans were treated to dozens of beautiful photographs taken by Alaskan adventure guide Albert Marquez, of Planet Earth Adventures, who flew to Finger Lake and captured dynamic images at the checkpoint of the teams crossing the windblown lake, the mushers hauling drop bags, boiling water and tending to their dogs, tired dogs resting on straw beds, dropped dogs being loaded into planes for the trip home, and the faces of the mushers at the halfway point in the race. Albert’s superb photographs added an exciting dimension to the race for everyone involved, and the spike in Facebook activity was notable, with over 70,000 interactions on the race’s Facebook page.

Northern lights over the Yentna River. [Photo by Tom Jamgochian]

Northern lights over the Yentna River, Yentna Station checkpoint. [Photo by Tom Jamgochian]

Another splendid photographer was on the trail with his camera, Tom Jamgochian of Nome, who captured a breathtaking photo of the northern lights over the Yentna River at the Yentna Station checkpoint. Tom wrote about the photo: “The view today at 1:30 am at Yentna Station. My dogs were resting after a 76 mile run from Finger Lake. I had to wake them up shortly for the last 50+ mile push. It was 24 below and dropping – most were none too happy to be aroused from their straw beds.”

Mt. Susitna glows pink in the sunrise as Tom Jamgochian approaches the finish line. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

Mt. Susitna glows pink in the sunrise as Christine Roalofs approaches the finish line. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

The run back down the Yentna River put the first teams into Yentna Station at 3:08 Sunday morning: Anna Berington, followed by her twin sister Kristy one minute later, and Charley Bejna six minutes later. Half an hour later Darrin Lee arrived, and twenty minutes after him were Jodi Bailey and her team of youngsters. Robert Redington was the sixth team into the last checkpoint, and then it would be three hours before the next team arrived. At 7:42 am, after a 4 hour and 34 minute rest, Anna Berington left the checkpoint with 11 dogs, followed by Charley five minutes later with 10 dogs and her sister Kristy a minute after him with 11. Somewhere on the trail Kristy would pass her sister Anna to take first place, with Anna placing second two minutes later and Charley coming in a half hour after her for third place, a nice sweep for the twin sisters and their close friend.

First place musher Kristy Berington gives one of her dogs a kiss. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

First place musher Kristy Berington gives one of her dogs a kiss. [Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures]

Teams continued arriving at the finish at Happy Trails Kennel throughout the day, that evening, and well into Monday. Finally, at 4:25 pm Monday afternoon, three-time Northern Lights 300 veteran Ellen Halverson of Wasilla drove her team across the finish line. The race was over. Race Manager Sue Allen put her thoughts into words with a post to the race’s Facebook page: “How do I thank the hundreds of you that made this such an awesome race… Mushers, Kathy and Martin, trail breakers, trail sweeps, trail stake/ tent pole/dog tag makers, lodge owners/staff, vets, checkers, pilots, dropped dog helpers, website and update people, food prepares, photographers, start helpers, application takers, and dozens or others, handlers and the dogs who are so awesome to do what they do! There is nothing I can do to truly thank you but to say it…’Thank you.'” Complete race statistics can be found at the Northern Lights 300 website.

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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
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