The Denali Highway goes to the dog mushers in the winter

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2007

FAIRBANKS - In the summer, the Denali Highway is a popular tourist destination.

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The crude 135-mile "highway" intersects with Alaska's two major highways - the Parks and Richardson - and cuts through the heart of the Alaska Range, offering spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and alpine tundra.

There is not another road in Alaska like it, at least that is open to the public. The only thing close would be the 92-mile Denali Park Road in Denali National Park and Preserve.

In the winter, however, the Denali Highway goes to the dogs. More and more dog mushers are driving to the Denali Highway to drive their dogs, especially with several recent low-snow years.

Unmaintained by the state Department of Transportation from October to May, the snow-covered Denali Highway offers prime training terrain for mushers. The 135-mile trail from Cantwell to Paxson is packed by snowmachine traffic and offers mushers a flat, smooth surface to run their dogs. There are plenty of hills, wind and cold temperatures to train both musher and dogs.

Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King has been running dogs on the Denali Highway for 20 years.

"As the years have gone on I've used it more and more," said the 51- year-old King, who lives only 25 miles up the road in Denali Park.

This year, King has been training almost exclusively on the highway because of the lack of snow everywhere else. Because it's a road, the highway doesn't need as much snow as other trails.

"It's nice and smooth; there's no brush," King said. "You can't get lost; it's long enough that you don't get bored; and you're not doing a loop. It's spectacular scenery.

"We just think that highway is an unbelievable gift. It's absolutely fantastic."

King sets up a base camp at the Susitna River, 53 miles from Cantwell. The camp has three wall tents equipped with woodstoves, a propane cooking range and other amenities that make taking a rest break a little more comfortable than crawling into your sled. He hauls out a big load of firewood before each winter.

"I go out there right after hunting season and get it set up," said King, adding that he has a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to legally put the camp there.

The list of mushers King has seen on the highway this year reads like a Who's Who of dog mushing.

Lance Mackey. Sonny Lindner. Ramey Smyth. Dave Dalton. Linwood Fiedler. Sebastian Schnuelle.

"It's a nice trail," said Dalton, a longtime Yukon Quest competitor who lives 35 miles away in Healy and has, like King, been training exclusively on the highway this season in preparation for another run at winning the Quest. "You're on a road that's 30 or 40 feet wide. You can go all the way to Paxson. You can't get lost."

The road's rugged terrain also appeals to Dalton.

"There are a lot of hills, which is what I like," he said. "It's pretty country. You've got the Alaska Range right there."

The road is also laid out perfectly for long training runs, which have become the norm for Iditarod and Quest mushers these days.

Maclaren River Lodge is located at 42 miles from Paxson, which helps mushers break up the 135-mile run. King, for example, can run from the Cantwell end of the road to his camp at 52 Mile, take a short break and continue on to Maclaren or Paxson, maybe stopping for a quick burger, before turning around and heading back to his camp or Cantwell.

"Going to Maclaren used to be a once a year expedition," King said, recalling days not that long ago. "I've been out to Maclaren once a week since October."

While lodge managers Alan and Susie Echols don't necessarily cater to dog mushers, they are very musher friendly, said Alan Echols.

"We have lots of room for them to park their dogs," he said in an e- mail. "We also have a little cabin down by where they park dogs that allows them to be right next to their dogs."

Dalton tries to make a few trips to Maclaren River Lodge each year, staying overnight to enjoy a warm bed and cheeseburger before heading back to Cantwell.

"If you get three or four people it only costs you $25 a night plus your meals," he said.

The lodge also hosted a 50-mile race last weekend that attracted 10 dog teams, even though mushers had to mush 42 miles into the lodge for the race and then mush out again after it was over.

The lodge also serves as the halfway point for the Cantwell Classic, a 200-mile race from Cantwell to the lodge and back. This year's race, the second annual, is slated for Jan. 11-12. Mackey won last year's race and went on to become the first musher ever to win the Quest and Iditarod in the same year.

On top of the spectacular scenery, there is also plenty of wildlife to see. Caribou are common along the highway, as are moose. King has also seen wolves and even a grizzly bear one October several years ago.

"It's like Wild Kingdom out there," he said, referring to the old television show.

If there is one caveat that comes with mushing on the Denali Highway, it's beware of the wind - and cold.

"Some days it's beautiful and other days it's blowing and you don't know where it came from," said Dalton. "It can be 20 above and you go down in a valley and it's blowing 20 mph."

Last Saturday was one of those days, he said. Dalton went 60 miles - 30 miles out and 30 miles back from the Cantwell end of the road - and ran into a headwind.

"Coming back it must have been 35 mph winds," he said.

King agreed that the weather along the Denali Highway can turn vicious. It's big country, he said, and if you're not familiar with the road it can be intimidating.

"There are spots where it can be a really hostile environment," said King, noting a few sections of road that are almost always blown down to gravel from high winds.

Snowmachine traffic on the road is another concern mushers share. The open road allows snowmachiners to travel at high speeds and one musher had a dog killed earlier this winter when one of two snowmachines that were racing down the road ran into the musher's team.

There are steps mushers and snowmachiners can take to make the road safe, said Echols.

If a dog musher sees a snowmachiner coming at them in the distance, it's a good idea to flash their headlamp so the snowmachiner knows it's a dog team, not another snowmachine.

Both dog teams and snowmachiners can sometimes cut corners too tight. On a blind curve, that's an accident waiting to happen, said Echols.

Snowmachiners should approach blind curves at slower speeds in the event a dog team or another snowmachine is coming from the other way, he said.

If a snowmachiner comes up behind a team, he or she should slow down to the team's speed and wait for a good place to pass at a speed slightly faster than the dogs, said Echols. Blowing past them could frighten the dogs and cause them to bolt in front of a passing machine. Snowmachiners should always stop when approaching a dog team from the front and let the dogs pass, he said.

Mushers should also wear something reflective at night, Echols said. For his part, King attaches a small, blinking strobe light to his leaders to make them more visible at night.

King worries more about running into porcupines than he does snowmachines. The four-time Iditarod champ has encountered a plethora of porcupines this winter, though his dogs have remained free of quills so far.

I've killed at least a dozen porcupines this winter," said King.

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