The only sled dog race that involves a Southeast Alaska community may not be run this year due to a lack of mushers.
Race organizers want at least 15 entries by Jan. 31 or they will cancel the 4th Annual Trail of '98 Sled Dog Race, scheduled to begin with a ceremonial start in Skagway on Feb. 16.
Seven mushers had signed up as of this morning.
Despite a warm and wet winter in Alaska, lack of snow does not appear to be a problem for an international event with a finish line in Whitehorse, capital city of the Yukon Territory.
"The trails are in excellent shape and the conditions are the best we've ever had, but we can't have a race without mushers," event organizer Jo Hopkins said from Whitehorse.
She believes the low interest is the result of an error in Team and Trail, an American sled dog racing publication, which reported the purse at $5,000 Canadian instead of $15,000, about $10,000 in U.S. currency.
Race organizers contacted media outlets last week about the correct purse amount, which
includes $4,000 for the winner and prize money for the top eight finishers this year. The entry fee is $250 Canadian, or $175 U.S.
"After public broadcasting ran the story this week all over Alaska, people called in a panic because they suddenly realized it's a good purse," Hopkins said today. "We've got seven for sure and apparently more are coming."
The staged race covers about 120 miles over three days. Following a ceremonial start in Skagway - with snow trucked in from the White Pass summit if necessary - the teams are transported along the Klondike Highway to the Yukon town of Carcross to begin the three legs.
The race peaked with 20 mushers during its inaugural run in 1998 and dropped to a low of 14 in 2000.
More than half of last year's field included Alaskans, such as former Iditarod champion Dean Osmar and two-time Yukon Quest winner John Schandelmeier.
Last year, about 10 mushers signed up by Dec. 31. This year, only half as many had committed by Jan. 10.
"I'm in for sure," said Jim Stanford of Haines, who won the sportsmanship award and was Southeast's only musher in the 2000 race.
Stanford finished 12th out of 14 with a total time of 10 hours, 56 minutes and 7 seconds. Brian MacDougall of Whitehorse won last year's race in 7:23:31.
Stanford loves the event, calling the scenery spectacular and volunteers wonderful on both sides of the border.
"It is a fabulous little race," Stanford said. "Some of the lakes are absolutely beautiful and the involvement of the Skagway, Carcross and Tagish communities is phenomenal."
He believes the delayed interest in this year's event may be the result of musher strategy.
"They could be waiting to see if any real big guns show up from Alaska," he said. "You never know, it can be a little psychological game with mushers waiting until the last minute to sign up."
Stanford also thinks some mushers have a conflict with the Yukon Quest 250 starting on Feb. 11 in Whitehorse. The 250 is an important qualifier for mushers wanting to run the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, which are both more than 1,000 miles long.
Deb Boettcher, a Skagway race volunteer, considers the Trail of '98 a great learning tool for children who can witness a winter sport that defines Alaska to many in the Lower 48.
"We get to experience all the excitement of a sled dog race firsthand instead of watching other people experience it on television," Boettcher said. "We get to be there with the mushers, see them put booties on the dogs, harness their teams, and hook them up to sleds.
"But best of all, we get an opportunity to participate in the race ourselves as dog handlers and volunteers."
Anyone interested in signing up for the event can contact Hopkins at (867) 333-1345.
Mike Sica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.