Iditarod champion King returns to racing roots

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2000

Bicknell still out on trail

Deborah Bicknell should arrive in Takhini Hot Springs, Yukon Territory, late tonight to close out the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Bicknell, a 54-year-old Quest rookie from Juneau, left the Carmacks checkpoint about 7:30 a.m. Alaska time Saturday with seven dogs in harness. She was expected to arrive in the Braeburn checkpoint late Saturday night or early this morning, and must complete mandatory eight-hour layover before she can hit the trail again.

Bicknell is one of just three mushers still out on the trail, but the other two had already arrived in Braeburn by Saturday night and were completing their layovers. Phillipe Russell arrived at 12:14 p.m. with nine dogs, and was packing up to start his run for the finish line Saturday night. Bruce Milne arrived in Braeburn at 5:51 p.m. with 10 dogs. The earliest he can leave is at 1:51 a.m. Sunday.

There were 29 mushers who started the race, and eight ended up scratching. Bicknell is currently running in 21st place, and should be a lock to win the Red Lantern Award which is given to the last musher to finish the race.

Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers became the first woman in the 17-year history of the race to claim the championship when she crossed the finish line of the weather-shortened race at 9:59 a.m. Wednesday morning, giving her a winning time of 10 days, 22 hours, 57 minutes. Zirkle won $30,000 of the race's $125,000 purse.

KENAI -- In the increasingly modern world of competitive dog mushing, a three-time Iditarod champion is looking to the sport's old ways for an advantage this year.

As today's high-profile mushers ready their high-tech gear and bred-for-speed dogs for another go at the 1,100-mile trail between Anchorage and Nome, Jeff King is putting the final miles on a team of dogs that includes five with bloodlines rooted deep in mushing's historical past.

Those five -- along with nine kennel mates -- came courtesy of King's friend Joe Garnie. The Inupiat Eskimo musher and Iditarod veteran is sitting out this year's race. He has a kennel that is descended from dogs raised by his parents and grandparents as working dogs in the Northwest Alaska village of Teller, located north of Nome on the Seward Peninsula.

And their owner is not bashful about talking them up.

``I've had sled dogs since the day I got out of high school,'' said the 46-year-old Garnie, who has three top-five Iditarod finishes to his credit. ``They're from my parents, who got them from their parents. It's a pure strain of village dog. I feel they're the best there is.''

With good reason. Garnie's dogs come from a time when sled dogs were used for everything from hauling water and firewood to running traplines. Today, many top racing kennels have dogs with bloodlines in the villages. They are the legacy of the numerous Native mushers who once populated the Iditarod's lineup.

As the race changed, however - and got more expensive to run - fewer Natives were able to join the annual event. Garnie among them.

He has entered just three races in the last seven years, finishing 17th last year and 16th in 1998. He said he looks forward to racing again next year, but in the meantime, he doesn't want to see a yard full of racing dogs in their prime go to waste.

So he called King.

``My dogs are at the age that they have about four more races in them. It would be a shame if they couldn't go out,'' Garnie said by telephone from his home in Teller. ``I wouldn't lease my dogs to just anyone. But Jeff has excellent dog care. I trust the guy. And it ain't everybody I trust.''

King said he had mixed emotions when Garnie called with the offer.

``I was disappointed when he said he wasn't racing, but I was glad to have his dogs,'' he said. ``Joe and I have been friends a long time. I feel privileged that he thought of me this way.''

Not that the Denali Park musher needs to look any farther than his own dog yard for the ingredients of another winning team. He has raised a kennel of about 80 of his own championship stock dogs that have helped him become one of mushing's most successful figures.

In addition to all the Iditarod success, King's dogs have pulled him into the winner's circle of that other mushing marathon - the grueling 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. They also have claimed victory in many mid-distance races over the years, including this year's Tustumena 200 and Knik 200.

So what could he possibly need more good dogs for?

``These are 14 of the best Garnie dogs he's put together in his life. They represent years of work on his part,'' King said. ``(And) I've got an insatiable appetite for trying to orchestrate the best team. What's the saying? `There's no such thing as a car too fast, a girl too cute or too many lead dogs.'''

And the singular qualities of village dogs make them valuable assets to any team, King said.

``One of the most common things about them is their incredible feet and good coats. They're just really sound,'' he said. ``(And) the weather's different up there (in the Northwest part of the state). Occasionally we grow a few wimps. They don't grow any wimps up there.''

Among the five Garnie dogs that made the final cut in King's team is a 5-year-old named Harley, who paced every step of last month's winning Knik 200 effort in lead harness for handler Morton Fonseca. As optimistic as he is about the team he will line up with Saturday at the Iditarod's ceremonial start in Anchorage, the King emphasized that in a race as long and unpredictable as the Iditarod, there are no certainties.

``If I win, it won't be (just) because of Joe's dogs,'' he said. ``And if I lose, it won't be because of Joe's dogs.''

Still, King said, with the addition of Garnie's dogs to his team, he likes his chances of joining Susan Butcher as a four-time Iditarod champion.

``(My chances) certainly are better now than they were before - and they were pretty good then.''

Garnie, too, has high hopes for King and his team.

``Jeff is always right up there (in front). If you take the best of somebody else's kennel, too, you're definitely knocking on that door,'' Garnie said. ``I'm pretty comfortable in saying, without a bit of hesitation or doubt, that Jeff is the most fine candidate for winning.''

King welcomed the endorsement.

``I got a hunch there's only one guy who has higher hopes for the team than Joe, and that's me,'' he said. ``It will be really fun to share good news with Joe at the end of the race.''

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