As the sled dog teams line up in Wasilla for today's restart of the Iditirod Trail Sled Dog Race, the more than 1,000 dogs hitched up to the teams will each have thousands of miles of training just from this winter alone.
But for many of the dogs, the summers are spent lazing around the kennel when not running a few laps on the dog wheel or being hitched up to a team that pulls a four-wheeler down a trail.
However, when Linwood Fiedler's team leaves the line in Wasilla, it will be able to call upon its Juneau advantage. Fiedler's Juneau advantage helped him finish second to four-time champion Doug Swingley in last year's Iditarod, establishing the Willow-based musher as one of the leading contenders to win this year's 1,160-mile race to Nome.
"Juneau feels like a second home to me, and I tell people it's my second home," Fiedler said. "I love the community."
Fiedler, 48, runs Alaska Heli-Mush in partnership with ERA Helicopters each summer on Norris Glacier, which is off the Taku Inlet just south of Juneau. From mid-May to the end of August, tourists are flown in helicopters to the glacier where Fiedler has about 150 dogs and 20 staff members leading short sled dog tours.
His Juneau advantage means Fiedler is able to run his dogs on snow for all but one or two months of the year when most teams maybe have six or more months of downtime. He started running the tours to make money, but his team got an added bonus of being able to train all year with the summers spent running at 3,000 to 4,000 feet in altitude.
"It's wonderful for them," Fiedler said by phone Friday from his Willow-based Dawn Breaker Kennel/home. "They're doing what they want to do. The worst thing to do is hitch them to chains all summer and not let them run. This way, when we go into our fall training they've all got a good depth of training and a strong base."
In the summer most mushers are struggling with their teams to move four-wheelers or old trucks down dirt roads, or running their dogs in a dogwheel (a device similar to a merry-go-round, which spins as the tethered dogs run laps). But Fielder's got his dogs running the way they were meant to be, pulling sleds on snow.
Fiedler said a large proportion of the dogs he has on the glacier have Iditarod experience -- from members of his current race team to retired veterans participating in what Fiedler called their "401K plan." Some of his staff members are budding mushers, so they bring their own dogs to the glacier. His musher/guides live in tents on the glacier, each rotating back to Juneau every couple of days to a week for short breaks.
"The reason we have so many dogs is we like to keep the teams fresh and ready to go," Fiedler said. "We want them to be enthusiastic, and that requires a lot of dogs. We don't want them being like the ponies in a pony-ride."
The tourists are flown past three other glaciers before they arrive at Norris Glacier, where they'll spend an hour learning about the dogs and taking a 2-mile-long ride in the sleds. Fiedler said that on a busy day his staff will give as many as nine tours a day, with four helicopters each carrying as many as 24 passengers per tour. Amy Windred, the Juneau base manager for ERA, said over the course of a summer 9,000 people will be flown to the glacier, each paying $349 for the tour this year.
"He's been running the camp, I think this will be his fourth summer running it but he's been up there with the dogs about five years," Windred said, adding that Fiedler is the second musher to run the tours (Bob Kling of Willow was the first) and that she hopes he stays a long time.
"He's a wonderful human being," Windred said. "I'm hoping he wins. I like him so much, it would make me happy to see all his hard work pay off. He's a nice, kind person."
On the Iditarod Trail, Fiedler is known for his easy-going personality and is considered one of the race's truly nice guys.
He won the Iditarod's sportsmanship award in 1989, the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award in 1999 and last year he won the Spirit of Alaska Award. When he won $3,500 last year for being the first musher to reach the Yukon River, Fiedler donated $2,000 of his prize money to the four Yukon River checkpoint villages so they could buy books for their school libraries.
When he was a rookie in 1989, Fiedler had a good team and was running just behind the lead pack. But he lost a day in the race when he and five other mushers came across another competitor, Mike Madden, in distress. Madden was delirious from a case of salmonella poisoning and he'd chopped into his leg with an ax whil trying to cut meat for his dogs.
Fiedler and veteran musher Jerry Austin were sent up the trail to get help. Then they waited for the other mushers who helped Madden to catch up so all six teams could finish together in Nome, where a recovering Madden met them at the finish line.
Fiedler was 26th his rookie year, but the next year he posted the first of his eighth-place finishes. Over the next few years Fiedler struggled to finish in the money, which until 2000 went only to the top-20 finishes (it now goes to the top 30). He finished 25th twice, 17th three times, 18th and 13th before posting another eighth-place finish in 1998. He took 13th again in 1999 and was 19th in 2000.
But last year's second-place finish was his breakthrough race. Fiedler ran a social work practice specializing in children and families until four years ago, when he retired to concentrate fulltime on mushing. He'd had help with the dogs from his family, including son Dalton who was scheduled to run the Iditarod as an 18-year-old in 1999 before breaking his leg in a snowmachine accident just prior to the race, but he had too many distractions.
"It was hard having to focus in the winter," Fiedler said. "I had a pretty full plate, and to be competitive in the Iditarod you can't have a 9-5 job."
Fiedler defied the Iditarod's conventional wisdom last year when he pushed the pace early and chose to take his mandatory 24-hour layover further down the trail than most contenders ever had taken their required break. Eventual winner Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., took his layover in the ghost town of Iditarod and most of the other top teams took their breaks even earlier along the trail. But Fiedler made a bold move and pushed his way to Anvik, 90 miles up the trail from Iditarod.
Many of the race's top competitors worried that Fiedler might be burning out his team before the final run to Nome. But three-time defending champion Swingley, who has only one finish out of the top-two places since 1995, was the lone musher to catch Fiedler.
Swingley holds five of the 20 fastest times ever posted in the race, including his 2000 record of 9 days, 58 minutes. For now, Swingley's the Iditarod's main musher.
"Everybody's got their sights on him," said Fiedler, who used to live in Montana and buy meat for his dogs from Swingley when the current champ was a mink rancher and hadn't yet hooked up a team. "The spectators may want someone new. But he's the man right now. What he's done to learn and dominate this sport in such a short amount of time is amazing."
There are other leading contenders, including three-time champions Jeff King of Denali Park and Martin Buser of Big Lake who have shared all 10 titles with Swingley for the past decade. Also in the race is five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers and former champion Jerry Riley of Nenana, plus a whole host of up-and-coming mushers like Kotzebue's John Baker, Willow's DeeDee Jonrowe, Nenana's Ramy Brooks, Seward's Mitch Seavey, Big Lake's Ramey Smyth and Manley's Charlie Boulding.
But when Fiedler runs the race, he tries not to let what other mushers are doing influence his strategy. That's one reason he pushed his team so far up the trail before taking his 24-hour layover last year. He also didn't enter any of the early winter mid-distance races, where mushers can test young dogs to see how they pull in competitive situations. Fiedler said he already knew his dogs, and he didn't want to risk injuring them before the Iditarod.
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"I've got to focus on my own dog team and not get too worried about anyone else," Fiedler said. "There's a lot of good competition out there, and this is where we all see who has the best teams. But I like to get my team away from the hub-bub, where they can rest better. As a consequence I've got to push a little more, but I'm also away from potential bugs that can sweep through a dog team."
As he prepared for this year's race, Fiedler gained another advantage. Paul Gebhardt, who finished fifth last year and second in 2000, decided to take a break from competitive mushing and sold his Iditarod team to Fiedler, who mixed them into his own team in the hope he might be able to gain the speed needed to run with Swingley.
"I'm feeling pretty good about my chances," Fiedler said. "I've got a lot of leaders. A dog I really like is Crazy, who's a big male. Another dog I like is Weasel, a small female. They look kind of oddball running together, but they get us down the trail pretty fast. I've got a lot of depth and a lot of returners. My job is to peak for the Iditarod, and my goal is to get to the starting line with healthy dogs."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.
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