Interior mushers cope with lean snow conditions

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

FAIRBANKS - The aesthetics of training a team of huskies with a four-wheeler aren't quite the same as using a dog sled.

The mechanical "putt-putt-putt" of an engine doesn't compare to the romantic "shush" of sled runners sliding over the snow.

Or as Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle put it, "The smell of gasoline as you're cruising along with the dogs isn't the same as dog poop."

Besides, she said, "A sled is fun; a four-wheeler is a pain in the butt, literally."

Welcome to the winter of 2001 in the dog mushing capital of the world.

"There's no snow," Zirkle, who became the first woman to win the Yukon Quest in 2000, said during a lunch break between back-to-back 20-mile runs on a four-wheeler recently.

While mushers in Southcentral Alaska were the beneficiaries of abundant early snowfall that dumped 2 feet of snow in mushing meccas like the Mat-Su Borough and the Kenai Peninsula, mushers throughout much of the Interior have endured another in a series of early season snow droughts.

Most mushers are still hooking their dogs to four-wheelers and other motorized means to train their canine athletes due to the lack of snow.

"It's terrible," said Yukon Quest veteran Tony Blanford. "This is the roughest season I've ever had."

Blanford is using a four-wheeler and sometimes even a snowmachine to run dogs out of his Two Rivers kennel.

"I'm destroying them pretty much," Blanford said of his two four-wheelers. "I'm constantly taking them in for repair."

Blanford, a psychiatrist, moved to Fairbanks from Vermont five years ago because the mushing conditions were better here, or so he thought.

"I've been here five years and we've never had a good snow year," he said.

With only about 7 inches of snow so far in Fairbanks, there is not enough snow for mushers to anchor snow hooks to stop their teams unless they can hook onto a tree next to the trail. Neither is there enough snow to cover the tree stumps, roots and frozen ruts that proliferate on most trails.

Zirkle tried running a sled earlier this week and decided a four-wheeler was safer for both musher and dogs.

"I ran on a sled (Monday) and it was fun, but it was rough as hell," Zirkle said. "You're more worried about breaking sleds and legs than running dogs."

One of the biggest concerns for mushers training on snow-barren trails is that dogs will get injured from running on rock-hard trails.

"They do so much better if they have some cushioning underneath them," Zirkle said.

Five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers is still using four-wheelers to train his dogs. "Normally you can at least be running 10 dogs on a sled by now."

Swenson has even resorted to using a Kawasaki Mule, a bigger version of a four-wheeler with a small box on the back, as well as a roof and windshield. It looks like a cross between a golf cart and a mini dump truck. Two people can ride in it side by side.

"We're short a four-wheeler so we're using this instead," said Swenson, who is training almost 90 dogs. "We use it around the kennel all the time doing chores."

Swenson's rig has raised some eyebrows on the trail from both dogs and mushers.

"It freaks the dogs out the first few times they see it," said Blanford, who has encountered Swenson several times in the mule. "They think it's a car coming at them."

Iditarod and Yukon Quest veteran Bill Cotter is training on a sled in Nenana but that's more out of necessity than choice. He "kind of wrecked" his four-wheeler when it tipped over during a recent run. He's already broken one sled and is using a backup now.

"It's just crazy," said Cotter, who is running seven-dog teams. "You can only run your really good leaders because you've got to stay out of trouble. You've got to kind of look where to put a hook on a tussock."

At this point, not only is a four-wheeler safer than a sled but it's more time efficient, too. Mushers can run bigger teams on a four-wheeler than on a sled, which means they don't have to run as many teams.

"If I was training on a sled I'd have to run three six-dog teams and I don't have time for that," said George Carroll of Two Rivers, who is training for the Yukon Quest while holding down a full-time job as a mechanic.

Another advantage sleds have over four-wheelers is that sleds don't need fuel to run, which is something to consider with gas costing more than $1.50 a gallon.

"When you start doing those longer runs you start eating up a lot of gasoline," Carroll said. "A sled is free."

There is also the boredom factor. Driving a four-wheeler down the trail at 12 or 14 mph for two hours at a time isn't nearly as fun as riding the sled runners.

Two Rivers musher Joran Freeman is somewhat of an enigma among competitive mushers in that he doesn't own a four-wheeler. Freeman has been training with a sled since early September, after he crashed while running dogs with his mountain bike.

"I hit a root and it collapsed my front wheel so I decided to go to a sled," he said.

At first, when there was no snow and he was running over mud, roots and ruts, "it was a white-knuckle experience," he said.

Now, with a little snow on the ground, "it's just a matter of holding on and manipulating the sled," said Freeman, who is running his dogs as long as 25 miles. He puts 135 pounds in the sled for ballast.

Freeman, who managed to win Rookie of the Year honors by placing fourth in last year's Yukon Quest on a shoestring budget, has never felt the urge to buy a four-wheeler.

"I try to make the best with what I have," said Freeman. "I figure if I start buying dogs and expensive equipment that takes money to operate and maintain it won't be as much fun and will take away from my lifestyle. It's a lot funner for me on a sled."

Trail conditions are better in Healy and Denali Park than they are in Fairbanks.

Curtis Erhart has been trucking his dogs 100 miles south to Healy to train with Ramy Brooks. Both Brooks and Erhart are training on sleds.

"I just got done running 60 miles today, three teams 20 miles each," Erhart said last week. "It's pretty good. We're running 10 and 12 dog teams. You just have to be careful and pick the areas to hook down."

In Denali Park, 130 miles south of Fairbanks, conditions are slightly better than in the Fairbanks areas. Two-time Iditarod champ Jeff King has been training on a sled for about a month and is up to almost 40-mile runs.

"There's a few rocks and roots but it's not too bad," King said of conditions in Denali Park, where there is about a foot of snow.

King has also been running dogs on the Denali Highway, using both a sled and his pickup truck.

"You can't hook down but you don't touch any gravel," King said of conditions on the highway, which is not maintained in the winter.

Despite the skimpy snow conditions, Interior mushers don't feel like they're falling behind their southern counterparts in terms of training. They're still putting in the same miles they would be if they were on sleds.

The rough trails do serve a training purpose, too, Cotter believes.

"For the Iditarod they need to get used to all kinds of trails," said Cotter. "It was just like this all the way across the (Farewell) Burn last year, with tussocks sticking up everywhere. On rough trails like this they learn to slow down. They start looking where they're stepping."

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