Cincinnati electrician leads double life as Iditarod musher

Posted: Friday, March 01, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The way Jim Oehlschlaeger figures it, he must have been left outside in a snowstorm as a baby.

The Cincinnati electrical contractor can't find any other way to explain the powerful pull that draws him to sled dog racing.

On Saturday, while his neighbors back home are involved in more sedate weekend pursuits, Oehlschlaeger, 55, will be in Anchorage behind a team of 16 dogs at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.

''They think I'm crazy,'' Oehlschlaeger said. ''Most people can't relate to doing something like this.''

Oehlschlaeger is one of 64 mushers entered in the 30th running of the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. It is a race through the heart of Alaska that is both grueling and exhilarating.

''I really enjoy being out in the wilderness with my dogs. When you're with your dogs you're never alone,'' he said. ''It's great when you pull into Nome and the sirens go off.''

This will be Oehlschlaeger's third trip up the Iditarod trail. He finished 50th in 1992 and 39th in 1993.

''There are 40 teams that can make the top 20. I realize I'm an outsider from Ohio. If a fellow wants to do better he needs a 50-dog kennel and a full-time mushing career,'' Oehlschlaeger said.

He likens himself to the Jamaican bobsled team -- a competitor with an unlikely address and a love of the sport whose chances of winning are pretty slim.

''I feel like a competitor but, unfortunately, there are 30 other competitors that are doing really, really well,'' he said with a laugh.

During the 30-year history of the Iditarod, there have been hundreds of mushers like Oehlschlaeger who have run the race only occasionally, as finances and family obligations allow. Even though they may spend tens of thousands of dollars on the effort, these mushers don't usually finish near the top, but they do fulfill a wild dream.

''There are a million fellas working somewhere on a punch press in a factory who would like to do something like the Iditarod. I consider myself one of the lucky ones because I'm pulling it off. I'm doing it,'' Oehlschlaeger said.

There will always be room in the race for those mushers, said Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley.

''The Iditarod is for the professional mushers and also for the folks who have the lifelong goal of competing in this race,'' Hooley said.

While Oehlschlaeger's participation in the Iditarod has been limited, he has owned and trained sled dogs for 25 years. Since southern Ohio doesn't get enough snow to properly train a sled dog team, he keeps his kennel of 35 dogs in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. A handler feeds and cares for the dogs when he is in Cincinnati.

Oehlschlaeger is returning to the Iditarod after a nine-year absence -- a break mandated by his wife, Gabriella, and his business, Busy Bee Electric, he said.

Training for the Iditarod has required hard work and sacrifices, including long stretches of time spent away from his family and business.

''My regimen for the last three months has been 10 days spent in Cincinnati and 10 days in my training camp. I travel 600 miles every 10 days,'' Oehlschlaeger said.

Two weeks before the start of the race he loaded up his truck with his 16-dog Iditarod team and drove the 4,000 miles to Alaska, stopping every few hours so the dogs could eat, drink and stretch their legs.

Oehlschlaeger hopes to devote more time to mushing now that his daughters are nearly grown. Kristen is 17 and Isabella is 20.

He ran the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks last year, finishing 17th among the 19 teams that completed the race. He hopes to run it again.

''I'm in training for the Quest for next year. The Iditarod is a good shake-down cruise,'' he said.

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