Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of years the Tustumena 200 race was canceled.
Twenty-three mushers and their canine teams are traipsing across the Caribou Hills this weekend as the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race returned to the Kenai Peninsula following a three-year hiatus.
The race, which started in Kasilof Saturday, winds through the Caribou Hills, all the way down to Homer and back to Kasilof to finish the 200-mile race. For those who haven’t run in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the T200 provides necessary qualifying miles.
Teams will stop at checkpoints in Ninilchik and Homer before their return to Kasilof, and are carrying gps trackers so spectators can follow along with their journey on the Tustumena 200 website.
A long time coming
For several years, all residents of the Kenai Peninsula have wanted is a good winter with a respectable amount of snow. One of the reasons some of them wanted it so badly was the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, which has been trying to celebrate its 30th anniversary since 2014.
The race, which began in 1984, was on the cusp of reaching that milestone when poor weather and lack of snow forced the 2014 race to be called off. The weather has repeatedly fallen short on the peninsula and the race continued its drought for another two years.
This year, spectators happily crunched across packed snow to the race’s starting line Saturday in Kasilof, cameras in hand and toddlers in toe. They milled about sipping hot chocolate and meandered along the alley of dog trucks to watch mushers and handlers put finishing touches on dog sleds and corral the antsy animals themselves into harnesses and booties.
“Everyone’s super excited,” said Race Director Tami Murray in a Friday phone interview. “It’s a great community event.”
By the time this year’s 23 teams — musher Travis Beals scratched the day of the race — were lined up and ready to go, the din of whines, yips and barks from the excited dogs was audible several hundred feet down the trail and a snowmobile was used to hold them back.
Mitch Seavey, a veteran musher who won the Iditarod in 2004 and 2013 and snagged first place in the T200 the last time it was held, said he enjoys the race and the good training opportunity it affords his dogs.
“I just appreciate the race being put on again and the perseverance of everybody hanging in there year after year,” Seavey said.
What’s in a race?
Not all mushers have exactly the same goals heading into a race like the T200. Some are after the purse, which is $30,000 this year to be split between the top 20 mushers, Murray said. Others, while still hoping for a good place in the race, are hoping for a good training run for their dogs ahead of the 1,000-mile Iditarod.
Some mushers are old hands, like Seavey and Kasilof’s own Paul Gebhardt, who has won the T200 twice. Others are brand new to the race, like 36-year-old Noah Burmeister who traveled from Nenana for the event.
Burmeister said Friday during veterinary checks in Soldotna that he is looking for a good training run for his dogs, all of which except two 2-year-old are veterans. At the same time, Burmeister wants his team to be competitive.
“We definitely don’t want to enter a race to not win,” he said with a laugh.
Burmeister, who said he has been mushing since he could stand, also cited better temperatures on the peninsula as a reason he came all the way from Nenana.
This year’s T200 is largely about training for Seavey as well, though he also said Friday that he’d like to claim first place if possible.
“My goal would be to win,” Seavey said. “But not, of course, at all costs because we’re training specifically for the Iditarod.”
Seavey, who has also raced in the T200 several times, said his dogs perform well at a wide range of temperatures. He plans to have them operate at the upper range of their speed and “see if it’s our kind of race or not.”
“I really do like this race,” Seavey said. “I love the scenery and I love the Caribou Hills in general. The hill training is nice to put on the dogs before the Iditarod, (to) get their heads in the right space for hills. Those hills do favor strong pulling, you know, power teams, and I think that’s what we have.”
Seavey’s entire team for the weekend is made up of Iditarod veterans, he said, and will likely make up his Iditarod team.
Gebhardt, too, is keeping his eyes on the 1,000-mile race coming up. He just got back from the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel, so this weekend’s race will be largely about training for him as well.
“Half of these dogs just got done with that 300-mile race and they haven’t had much time off,” Gebhardt said. “I’ve got seven dogs in here that this is their first race … I’ve gotta see what they’re capable of doing and if they’ll be able to promote up into my Iditarod team.”
Pausing while getting his team and sled ready Saturday morning, Gebhardt said he hopes for a high place in the race. Having helped organize the race for several years in the past, he is no stranger to the event or the trails, which he said are some of the best groomed out of those he has run.
“It’s nice to see it going again, so it doesn’t just kind of fade away,” Gebhardt said. “A lot of races just fade away.”
Another newcomer to the T200, Kristin Bacon, takes a slightly different approach to races. Bacon, who started her kennel in 2011 and competed in the Iditarod for the first time last year, said she likes to have fun with races and isn’t quite as competitive as other mushers.
“I’m super excited just to do it and to run the dogs somewhere new,” she said. “A lot of these dogs didn’t get to race last year, and so I have a lot of … non-experienced dogs. So it’s going to be really fun to see what they can do.”
A new start
One of the dogs making up Bacon’s team this weekend has been a bit of a surprise, she said. Bacon has been training with Jeff King, another former Iditarod winner, and said he gave her one of his dogs for the T200: Crosby.
Crosby’s leg was broken during the 2016 Iditarod when King and his team were hit by a man on a snowmachine. Another of King’s dogs was hurt and a third died. The man aimed his snowmachine repeatedly at King and another musher in separate incidents while driving drunk, and was later sentenced to jail time and ordered to pay restitution.
No one thought Crosby would be able to enter races anymore, Bacon said. She said she was especially worried about the dog, a side effect of being a pediatric physical therapist.
“It wasn’t that hopeful that he’d be able to race again,” Bacon said.
After extensive therapy, however, Crosby pulled through and is back on the trail. Bacon said King gave her the dog to run in the T200 because he knows that with her race philosophy it would be a good team for Crosby.
Spectators can catch the mushers at the finish line or track their progress online. Mushers will check in at Freddie’s Roadhouse in Ninilchik and McNeil Elementary School in Homer before finishing in the same spot in Kasilof.
The race takes about 30 hours for most mushers to complete, according to the T200 website, though Gebhardt finished in 26 hours in 1996.