FAIRBANKS — Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey was among 23 competitors heading to Eagle Thursday in a new sled dog race that pays tribute to an Eagle Village tribal chief who died earlier this year.
The inaugural Top of the World 350 kicked off Thursday morning in Tok, where the winner is expected to cross the finish line Sunday.
Hugh Neff, winner of the 2012 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, developed the idea with Jody Potts, a niece of Isaac Juneby, 71, who died July 1 in a car accident in Anchorage, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (http://is.gd/dru3DP.
Juneby, a musher, had been visiting his sister, who was hospitalized in Anchorage after she was severely beaten at a Fairbanks homeless camp in June. The sister, 58-year-old Ellen Rada, died from her injuries July 8.
“I had been traveling in Australia when I heard that her (Potts’) aunt and uncle had died within a week of each other,” Neff said Wednesday. “This is something I’ve wanted to do for the past few years. It’s a way to help people heal in a positive light, and I think Chief Isaac would be proud of what we’re doing.”
Juneby served for a number of years as chief of Eagle Village, his place of residence at the time of his death.
Mushers in the Top of the World 350 were carrying memorabilia of Juneby to present to Eagle Village residents. Race participants will spend Friday in the village, where a potlatch and traditional dance will be held at the village hall. A ceremony honoring Juneby also will be held at the hall.
Neff said he also wanted to develop the race in the region because of his love of the land near his hometown of Tok.
Other competitors in the race are Quest veterans Mike Ellis and Gerry Willomitzer, as well as Jake Berkowitz, the 2012 rookie of the year in the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and Michael Telpin, he recipient of the red lantern award for finishing last in the 2012 Quest.
The race will restart Saturday afternoon in Eagle, with a four-hour mandatory layover and time adjustments in Chicken.
“It’s one of the toughest mid-distance races in the world,” Neff said. “It’s old-school mushing at its finest. It’s not about the fancy gear and fancy dogs; it’s about being as good at the end as you were at the start.”
The purse amount will be determined when the mushers get to Eagle, according to Neff.
“It’s really not a race about the money. It’s more about spirit,” he said.
The entry fee for the race $200. Each team is limited to 14 dogs.