It’s happening: Tustumena 200 gets to 30th anniversary after 4 tries

The 30th anniversary of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race has been a long time coming — in fact it’s four years overdue.

Where race organizers have been foiled by poor weather and lack of snow on the Kenai Peninsula in the past, they finally surged forward this year on the 200-mile trail through the Caribou Hills and all the way down to East End Road in Homer. Mushers will take off on Saturday.

Several days of heavy snowfall allowed Tami Murray, race director and president of the T200 nonprofit, to give the race the go-ahead a little early this year. Normally, while organizers work on the race year-round, they make the call as to whether to go forward a week before it is scheduled, she said.

“Everyone’s super excited,” Murray said of the race’s long-awaited revival. “It’s a great community event.”

A loop that begins in Kasilof, the T200 is a qualifying race for those who compete in the Iditarod, Murray said. To enter the Iditarod, a musher has to put in 750 qualifying miles ahead of time, so many mushers use qualifying miles from the T200. This means the race attracts some big-name mushers, Murray said.

The race, which had its first run in 1984, was on track to celebrate 30 years in 2013, but was canceled that year due to lack of snow and again for the next three years. Even though a warm spell has struck parts of the peninsula this week causing snow melt and ice, race organizers are confident the race won’t be affected too much.

Kevin Fulton, the race marshal and trail boss, said members of the snowmachine club Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers who were up grooming parts of the trail Thursday morning reported no rain higher up in the hills. Most of the rivers and creeks are frozen over, he said.

“I think we’re good,” Fulton said.

While Fulton joked that getting the trail ready to race has taken something like 20 years of work, about the amount of time he has been involved with the race, he said he and other volunteers have been putting in plenty of work preparing it recently. Since the race hasn’t happened for a few years, there was some tree and brush clearing that needed to get done, Fulton said.

Additionally, the trail has been mapped out with around 2,500 reflective markers, Fulton said.

“You have to mark it really well, or you’re going to have to go look for somebody,” he said.

Fulton himself is no stranger to the trail, having participated in the T200 in the mid-1980s. The trail is a good one in part because the Caribou Hills offer some more variety and steep terrain for mushers.

“The upper 50 miles is probably the most challenging,” Fulton said, describing areas above the tree line as having steep hills and blowing snow.

Volunteers historically turn out in droves to help with the race, Murray said, and there are about 70 lending a hand this year, including many first-timers. This year’s purse is $30,000, she said, to be distributed among the top 20 mushers. There are 24 teams signed up.

Murray suggested onlookers get to the starting line early this Saturday, at Mile 112 of the Sterling Highway in Kasilof, so as to avoid backed up traffic. The race kicks off at 11 a.m., and mushers can be seen at the checkpoints of Freddie’s Roadhouse on Oilwell Road in Ninilchik, and McNeil Elementary School on East End Road in Homer.

Murray emphasized that pet dogs are not allowed at the race.

The fasted T200 race was completed in just over 26 hours in 1996 by musher Paul Gebhardt, according to the race’s website. The slowest came in 1985, and took three days to finish.

Mushers will participate in vet checks from noon to 5 p.m. Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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