March 3, 2012

Murkowski Sees Iditarod as National Educational Tool

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sees the Iditarod as more than just “The Last Great Race.” She sees the 1,000-mile sled dog race as an opportunity to educate students all over the country about the 49th state.

Murkowski will be using social media to highlight classes across the country that are using the race as an educational tool.

“Teachers in Alaska, from Dallas to Delaware are using the Iditarod as a national learning tool, but the takeaway is always stronger knowledge of Alaska,” Murkowski said in a press release.  “As we near the beginning of the 40th Iditarod, we realize it tells a lot of stories about our culture, our people and our determination – but it can instruct, as well…countless teachers nationwide are demonstrating that while we’ve only been a state for a little over 50 years, even the first state can learn from the 49th state.”

The first school she chose to highlight was Diana Torres’ class at South Dover Elementary School in Dover, Delaware. Click here to see the video the Denver Post did of the class’s igloo project.

“Students in kindergarten to fourth grade exercise their skills in reading, writing, math, social studies, science, geography, spelling and technology to participate vicariously in this amazing event,” South Dover Principal Michelle Duke said in the release. “Thank you for sharing the Iditarod with the Lower 48 states. Your race is our educational victory in motivating students to learn.”

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Can Inupiat Champ John Baker Repeat on the Iditarod Trail?

Filed under: News Alerts,Sports,Travel,Video — Tags: , , , , , — Richard Walker @ 12:30 pm

Click here to view the embedded video.

As the 40th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race nears, it’s not easy being John Baker. But there’s nothing quite like being him either. In the days leading up to the Last Great Race on Earth, Baker has had the attention and distraction of being the event’s defending champion.

He won the hearts of Native Alaska in the 2011 Iditarod when he shattered the race record by three hours and became the first Inupiat champion in the event’s history, and the first Alaska Native to win the race since Athabaskan Jerry Riley in 1976. (Among the foods Baker took with him for nourishment was Eskimo salad, which consists of raw chopped veggies and muktuk.)

Baker’s time of 8 days 18 hours 46 minutes was three hours faster than Martin Buser’s 1982 race. In addition, the other mushers voted Baker’s lead dog, Velvet, the winner of the Iditarod’s coveted Golden Harness Award.

“It’s always hard to return to the race as a champion because you’re distracted by obligations of being a champion,” Iditarod Insider Analyst Bruce Lee said in an interview on the official race website, Iditarod.com. “Everyone wants to see him repeat … (But) it’s not always the same condition, you’re not always going against the same players.”

Indeed. When Baker and his dog team line up for the ceremonial start in Anchorage March 3 at 10 a.m., he will face a field of 15 rookies and 50 veterans, among them Jr. Iditarod champ Rohn Buser, who beat Baker by 30 minutes in the Kusko 300 Sled Dog Race in January. There will be five former champs in the lineup, including five-time winner Rick Swenson, four-time winner Lance Mackey, and Buser’s dad, 2002 champ Martin Buser.

Iditarod John Baker profile 615x585 Can Inupiat Champ John Baker Repeat on the Iditarod Trail?

John Baker, Inupiat, the 2011 Iditarod champion hopes to repeat

Baker is looking to retain his title at least and, at the most, set a new record, but this year’s race could be tougher than 2011’s.

“A lot of snow this year,” Lee said on Iditarod.com. “The coastlines got over 600 inches. Of course, you don’t have that the whole way. But (the) trail report from the race marshal and the trail breakers is that (on) a majority of the trail, (there’s) a lot of snow this year.”

Lee said that could mean a slower race. “If that trail gets punched out or if the wind comes up, it wouldn’t matter if you sent out a dozen trail breakers in front of ’em, there’s enough snow that if it starts moving, the trail is going to blow in.”

Advantage to Baker: He, as well as the other teams, “have been training in this type of condition all year, so the dogs are kind of used to it,” Lee said.

And the course is shorter at 975 miles. Jillian MacMath of AccuWeather.com writes that the course is under 1,000 miles for the first time ever, “an adjustment that reflects a new ceremonial start, a change in the restart location and the actual year-to-year trail conditions.”

This year, mushers can anticipate 30-degree temperatures at the starting line in Anchorage with a chance for snow or flurries. Nighttime lows are expected to hit 14 degrees F, according to AccuWeather.com. On March 4, at the official restart in Willow, mushers will see partly cloudy skies with a high of 26 degrees F and a low of 6 degrees. Toward the end of the week, as racers rush toward Nikolai, temperatures will be in the low single-digits, with chances of snow and ice mixed with rain.

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The 2012 Iditarod trail

“This should be a good trail year,” Iditarod Communications Director Erin McLarnon told AccuWeather.com. “Of course, we can encounter unpredictable storms during the race that can affect mushers, depending where they are along the trail.”

Baker and his dogs seemed confident in the days leading up to the race.

On Feb. 29, at a kennel in the Mat-Su Valley, Team Baker checked out a trail for a quick run. “Leaving the dog yard, the dogs seem unruffled by other excited dogs,” Baker’s team wrote on his blog. “Amidst the barking dogs around them, Velvet and Snickers gently stretch out the line, ears perked up as they listen for the quiet kissing sound from John’s lips indicating it’s time to go. In one subtle motion the team moves together with agility and a very smooth gait. Loose and limber, each dog runs effortlessly and calmly away from the noise and excitement.”

Earlier, the team wrote, “For the past few months, the race training and preparation has been intense. Now, the training is over and the team must put what they have been preparing for into action. Accordingly, the preparation for all that is needed to be race ready is done. Anticipation and excitement for the race start is what we sense from musher and dogs.”

According to his biography, Baker, 49, was born and raised in Kotzebue, Alaska. He began mushing in 1995 ran his first Iditarod in 1996. He has 12 Top 10 Iditarod finishes. He is a self-employed commercial pilot. He has a son, Alex, 23, a veteran of the Jr. Iditarod; and a daughter, Tahayla, 9.

Endurance and strategy

The Iditarod was started in 1973 and includes part of the 1925 route traveled by famed Norwegian-American sled dog racer Leonhard Seppala in the 674-mile diphtheria serum run from Nenana to Nome, which saved hundreds of lives. (Another annual sled dog race, the Serum Run, more accurately follows the route of the famous 1925 relay.)

The Iditarod is a lot of endurance and a lot of strategy. Over the course of the race, musher and team travel through major climatic zones with varied weather conditions and varied terrain. Potential hazards range from heavy snowfall to moose; startling a moose on the trail can be dangerous. The musher must stay alert, hydrated and nourished.

The musher must protect his or her dogs from fatigue, injury and stress. During layovers, mushers tend to their dogs, feeding them, massaging and stretching their muscles, and inspecting feet for injuries. Rest and nutrition are key: Dick Wilmarth, who won the inaugural Iditarod, fed his dogs a high-fat, high-protein diet of beaver, caribou and whitefish, according to a story in the Anchorage Daily News.

Since 1984, all dogs are examined by a veterinarian before the race start, and each musher keeps a veterinary diary on the trail.

“In the event a dog is injured or fatigued, our rules require, and basic dog care deems, that we give the dog a ride or we stop,” three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King told Scholastic. “The rules require that the sleds we use are capable of carrying a dog that is fatigued. We are all well-trained in dog first-aid. We carry a first-aid handbook, and we are members of organizations that make sure that we know what we are doing.” (Four-time champ Buser won the Iditarod’s Leonhard Seppala Award in 1988, 1993, 1995 and 1997 for the most humanitarian care of his dogs.)

Still, according to the Humane Society of the United States, an estimated 120 dogs have died in the Iditarod since 1973.

Mushers are not immune to being hurt. A musher can be injured by a toppled sled, and he or she must protect against exposure. Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champ, pulled out of last year’s race midway after he cut his fingers. Martin Buser sliced his hand prior to the 2005 race.

Native pride

The Iditarod has ties to Alaska Native culture. Portions of the Iditarod Trail were used by Athabaskan and Inupiaq peoples centuries before the arrival of Russian fur traders in the 1800s.

The earliest sled dogs were Inuit sled dogs bred by the Mahlemuit people of Northwest Alaska; we know the descendants of those dogs as Malamutes.

Iditarod legends include Herbie Nayokpuk (1929-2006), the Shishmaref Cannonball, who finished in the top 10 in eight of 11 races; he finished second in 1980. Northern Air Cargo sponsors the Herbie Nayokpuk Award, presented to the Iditarod musher who best exemplifies the sportsmanship and love of dogs that Nayokpuk demonstrated in his life.

Other Native mushers are infusing their cultures into the Iditarod tradition.

Josh Cadzow, 23, Gwich’in, said he entered the Iditarod “to race my team to Nome, to finish and have healthy dogs, and also to support my Native background for mushing.”

Ryan Redington, 27, Inupiat, is continuing a mushing heritage that dates back to his great-grandfather, Frank Ryan, who delivered U.S. mail from Unalakleet to other villages by dog team. (Redington’s non-Native paternal grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., started the Iditarod in 1973.)

Mike Williams Jr., 26, Yupik, is racing in his third Iditarod and, like his famous father, races to call attention to sobriety and healthy living. He works with the state Department of Behavioral Health to help prevent teenage suicides, and he and other community members participate in field trips with students.

And, of course, there’s John Baker, the first Inupiat to win the Iditarod, eyeing a repeat of 2011.

For an incredible photo gallery of past Iditarods, click here.

Here’s the official 2012 Iditarod site.

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March 15, 2012

The Northern Lights and the Flying Squirrel: Ten Incredible Stories From the 40th Iditarod Sled Dog Race

Filed under: News Alerts,Sports — Tags: , , — Richard Walker @ 5:30 pm

The 40th Iditarod Sled Dog Race will be remembered as much for its back stories as for the duel between Dallas Seavey, who became the youngest Iditarod champ in the race’s history; and Aliy Zirkle, who led the bulk of the race and had the best performance by a female musher since Susan Butcher in 1990.

Among the back stories: A musher stopping to help an injured child. A musher dropping out because his dogs weren’t enjoying the race. A musher known as “The Flying Squirrel.” The Northern Lights over the Yukon.

Here’s a list of the top memorable moments from the 40th Iditarod.

No. 1: Three Alaska Natives among the top 10 finishers.

Peter Kaiser, a 23-year-old Alaska Native from Bethel, finished fifth, crossing into Nome March 13 with a final time of 9 days 11 hours 6 minutes 23 seconds. (Winner Dallas Seavey, 25, finished in 9:04:29:26.)

“Our family has always had dogs, and I’ve been mushing since I was a kid,” he said in his race bio. “Watching the Kuskokwim 300 every January sparked my interest in long-distance racing, and a few years ago, I decided that I would give the Iditarod a try.”

Kaiser and his team got good rest and kept a steady pace, 6.3 to 8.7 mph, with a well-timed burst to 10.85 mph between Nulato and Kaltag, to move among the Top 5 finishers, where they stayed. His overall average time was 4.24 mph.

Mike Williams Jr., 26, Yupik, son of noted Iditarod veteran Mike Williams, finished eighth at 9:13:12:18. 2011 champion John Baker, 49, Inupiat, finished ninth at 9:12:19:11. Ray Redington Jr., 36, whose stepmother is Inupiat (she’s the mother of Ryan Redington, who scratched earlier in the race), finished sixth at 9:12:19:11.

Williams Sr. said these mushers are good role models for young Alaska Natives. But he’d like to see more sponsorship support from businesses that are profiting from Alaska’s land and sea resources.

“They need to give back to the communities because they are benefiting from our lands,” he said.  “We live in a small tribal village. With the cost of running the race, a lot of Native mushers could not afford it. Mushing has been part of our lives since time immemorial and our dogs are much more than racing to us. If we are going to keep our mushing traditions alive, we need to support our Native mushers.”

No. 2: Two women among the top 10 finishers.

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Aliy Zirkle hugs her lead dog, Quito, aka 'no quit-o,' after finishing second in the Iditarod, in Nome, March 13.

The next movie titled “True Grit” will be about Aliy Zirkle and Dee Dee Jonrowe.

Zirkle, 41, the first woman to win the Yukon Quest, finished a close second in the Iditarod at 9:05:29:10 after leading for 85 percent of the race, something that hadn’t been done by a female musher since the late Susan Butcher blazed to victory in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990.

Jonrowe, 58, finished 10th at 9:14:43:15, her 15th top-10 finish; she finished second in 1998 and 2003. She’s a triathlete and a bike racer. She’s also defeated cancer and is an advocate for in-state cancer care and treatment.

No. 3: Rookie musher helps injured child.

Channel 2 News in Anchorage reported that on March 11, rookie Pat Moon, 35, helped an injured child in Ruby, the 11th checkpoint after the official start.

According to Channel 2, the child was injured when his sled crashed into a parked snow machine. Aid was reportedly unavailable.

Moon was filling out paperwork scratching from the race when the child’s mother arrived at the checkpoint to ask for help. Moon, trained in first aid, returned to the child’s home, stopped the bleeding, cleaned the cut and put in butterfly sutures.

Moon scratched citing the small number of dogs remaining on his team (mushers start with 12-16 dogs, but dogs are pulled at checkpoints because of fatigue, injury or other health reasons). Moon, a Chicagoan, is a landscaper with a degree in public relations.

No. 4: Two tough but dignified exits.

Josh Cadzow, 23, Gwich’in, and Ryan Redington, 27, Inupiat, had entered the race with as much ambition to win as any other mushers. But they dropped out early, putting their dogs first.

Redington scratched March 8 in Takotna, the eighth checkpoint after the official start. His dogs trained in Montana and raced in Wyoming, but they struggled in the harsher Iditarod trail conditions.

Cadzow scratched March 11 in Kaltag because his team wasn’t enjoying the trip. “He decided to end his Iditarod XL attempt in the best interest of his team,” the Iditarod press office reported.

No. 5: Dallas, not Rocky, the flying squirrel.

“From the air, he looked like some sort of ‘flying squirrel’ on the sled behind the team,” Jill Burke and Craig Medred wrote of Dallas Seavey in the March 13 Alaska Dispatch, “his arms methodically pounding ski poles into the ground to push the sled ahead, a leg kicked out behind as he pedaled between the runners to help the dogs.”

Seavey, a collegiate wrestling champ, put his fitness and youth to work, periodically running alongside his sled to ease his team’s burden and help put additional distance between him and No. 2 finisher Aliy Zirkle.

Another strategy: Seavey arrived at Elim 32 minutes before Zirkle, but checked out immediately and rested 20 minutes outside of the checkpoint. That caused Zirkle to cut her rest time short, thinking Seavey was en route to White Mountain.

No. 6: The sexiest mushers.

Fourteen of the 66 mushers in this year’s Iditarod made the Alaska Dispatch’s list of Sexy Mushers. “Swimsuit models can have their day. But we prefer our pin-ups in fleece and Carhartts,” the Dispatch wrote.

On the list:

John Baker (“After becoming the first Inupiat winner of the Iditarod last year, the face of John Baker has been everywhere from Ketchikan to Barrow, endorsing trucks, encouraging good deeds).

Twins Anna and Kristy Berington (“Double trouble! Tall, blonde, athletic and tough …”).

Rohn Buser (“Polite and a little quieter than the boisterous bad boys of the Iditarod pack …”).

Zoya DeNure (“once lived the fashion model’s life … rejected it all for a life full of mountains, family and dozens of dogs in Paxson”).

Sigrid Ekran (“A Norwegian charmer with a master’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (and) oh-so-charming pigtails”).

Matt Failor (“A dog handler we’d all love to have helping out”).

Dee Dee Jonrowe (“… ageless beauty and incredible energy … 27 times across the Nome finish line”).

Pete Kaiser (“Sometimes a little shy, but what piercing eyes, warm smile and sexy goatee”).

Jeff King (“four-time Iditarod champion … manages to pull off a preppy look while competing in some of the toughest races around”).

Ryne Olson (“All that time in the dog kennel hasn’t (hurt) at all”).

Dallas Seavey (“If you like classic good looks and great genes, Dallas is your man”).

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March 13, Mike Williams, Jr. is bundled up at the White Mountain checkpoint, March 13.

Mike Williams Jr. (“quiet focus and intensity … bolstered by his good looks).

Aliy Zirkle (“Accomplishment is sexy … Zirkle’s big sparkling eyes and big welcoming smile don’t hurt a bit, either).

No. 7: Captured hearts and hopes.

Seavey won the Iditarod. Zirkle’s hang-toughness and persistence captured followers’ imaginations. But Ramey Smyth captured hearts and hopes.

“Ramey is just a wonderful guy, with a wonderful wife and kids,” Iditarod communications director Erin McLarnon said seven hours before the first finisher crossed the line in Nome.

Before the race, Smyth totaled his truck when it hit a moose. With that and all of the associated costs of competing in the Iditarod, he could have used the new truck and the $50,000 first prize. In addition, he was racing under the banner of abstinence from drinking, smoking and drugs.

“My mother died of colon cancer and my father has cancer. I would like to raise awareness of cancer and encourage people to donate to research and treatment,” he said in his race bio. “I am racing in memory of Brent Cassidy, who died this spring of cancer, leaving a wife, children and grandchildren.”

Smyth finished third at 9:06:04:04, good for $42,900.

No. 8: One champ, but a lot of winners.

While there is only one Iditarod champion, there are many winners, propelled into race history by sheer determination and perseverance. Even the last-place finisher receives an award.

Some 13 awards will be presented at the awards banquet on March 18. Among the honors: Outstanding care of his or her dogs, first to cross certain checkpoints, most inspirational on the trail, having the best improvement over the previous year. Some awards include as much as $3,500 in cash and $3,000 in gold nuggets.

In addition, the top 30 finishers will take home a combined $550,000. Prizes start at $50,400 for first, and end at $1,500 for 30th.

No. 9: Most encouraging advice for young mushers.

As he rested in Nome March 14, Mike Williams Jr. had this advice for young Alaska Natives who want to become mushers.

“It takes a lot of hard work. Keep trying and don’t be afraid of failure,” he said. “You have to take good care of your dogs. If you take good care of them, good things happen.”

No. 10: Guided by the Northern Lights.

Asked for a race highlight he’ll remember, Williams Jr. talked of how his team performed. “I didn’t think I’d finish in the top 10. But they perked up toward the end,” he said of his team. “My dogs did great and they’re all happy.”

Then, after a pause, he told of seeing the Northern Lights as he mushed along the interior to Unalakleet.

“It covered the whole sky and was moving in waves,” he said. “It was really beautiful.”

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