The Chugiak Dog Mushers Association (CDMA) parking lot on the Beach Lake Road was crowded with dog trailers the afternoon of Sat., March 18. The rival dog teams barked at each other as participants in various colors of snow pants put finishing touches on their sled decorations. The icy parking lot is spotted with yellow but the trailhead gleams with freshly packed snow.
Welcome to the 2017 Friends of CDMA Sled Dog Race. Held yearly, the unique event raises funds for the all-volunteer association which runs mushing competitions, provides educational outreach and grooms 25 miles of mushing trails.
The March 18 race is a two-mile course run by a three-dog team. Seasoned mushers provided training to inexperienced local business competitors, whose race goals vary.
“They wouldn’t let me race against the five-year-olds,” Jesse Davis, 54, says. He is from the Anchorage Airport Fire Department. He’s in full uniform, including the helmet. “I’m in it to survive and keep my dignity.”
Kristen Muffat, 36, of Just Kids pediatric dental practice has a similar goal.
“To not make a fool of myself,” the Anchorage resident says.
Janee Howells, 54, a receptionist at Ravenwood Veterinary Clinic is optimistic if a little nervous.
“I bounce really well,” she confides.
Then there’s Somer Mahfouz, 36, the newest employee of First National Bank in Eagle River.
“I am in it to win the decorating contest,” she says. Mahfouz is not so sure about the actual dog sledding.
Carla Erikson, 45, of Anchorage has a more competitive angle. She’s representing Attorney General Jim Cantor’s office.
“I’m going to crush them!” she mirthfully exclaims. “I’m going to win in a blaze of glory!”
Erikson makes it clear that this conversation is disrupting her warm-up routine.
Val Jokela, president of the CDMA Board of Directors and the day’s race marshall, herds everyone into the clubhouse, which smells of roasting hot dogs courtesy of the well-stocked snack bar.
“If you think you need a helmet, we do have them,” Jokela stresses as participants draw starting numbers and are assigned racing bibs.
Jokela explains that racers will start at two minute intervals. Mushers should follow the orange fencing which marks the route. Trail guards – mushing volunteers – are scattered throughout the course in case teams get into trouble.
“If overtaking a racer in front of you, shout ‘trail!’ ” Jokela instructs. Racers are expected to be “on deck” when the bib ahead of them is in the shoot.
Once the mushing begins, there are a few rough starts but everyone remains upright. Just beside the timing tower, there’s a large sign with bold red print: “Brakes are for stopping, not speed control.”
Kourosh Partow (KP), 50, is the vice president of the CDMA Board of Directors and the trail boss. He was born in Iran, grew up in France, and mushed across Europe before moving to Alaska. He uses a steel drag shaped like a giant ladder that is pulled across the trail by a snow machine. The drag cuts the snow, then smooths and compacts it.
“I was here at least three hours last night,” he says.
His trail grooming partner, Kris Rassey of Chugiak, 52, put in substantial hours as well. They want mushers to be considerate.
While on trails, mushers should use their drag brakes or mats – board with with nails – to slow down. The more damaging metal claw brake can be used at the trailhead, for stops and starts.
Robert (Bob) Bundtzen, 67, a doctor specializing is infectious disease, has run the Iditarod 15 times. He trained the ECHO News managing editor, Amy Armstrong, for the race and brought Iditarod-finishing canines for Saturday’s event.
He offered some simple racing etiquette guidelines for spectators.
“Just stay out of the way of the dogs,” he says. “Pay attention.” For obvious reasons, it’s also not polite to tell racers to “break a leg.”
When the mushers fly past the finish line –and some of them really do fly because they can’t stop their team – there are no regrets.
“Invigorating!” Muffat of Just Kids shouts. “I didn’t make a fool of myself.”
“I had so much fun! I want to go again,” yells another novice dog driver.
The race marshall is pleased.
‘It isn’t all about racing … There’s nothing like being behind a team of dogs,” Jokela says.
Author’s Note: Visit www.chugiakdogmushers.com for race results. The CDMA holds board meetings at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month at their clubhouse on Beach Lake Rd in Chugiak. Happy trails to Christine Roalofs of Just Kids, an Anchorage pediatric dental clinic, who took me on my first mushing adventure. Do I regret packing up my six kids from the Lower 48 and moving to Alaska? Not at all!
Editor’s Note: Come back to echoak.com on Tuesday to read about my experience “learning” to be a musher.