SP Kennel is a premier sled dog racing kennel in Two Rivers, Alaska, dedicated to the individual dog through excellent health, nutrition, training and specialized care.

Monday, January 16, 2012

2012 Copper Basin 300 Recap

I will have to admit we are very bummed that things did not work out at the Copper Basin 300 this season. This is a race that SP Kennel really looks forward to annually.

However, the cancelation of this year's race was the absolute correct decision by the Race Marshal.

The first 75 miles of the race trail were exactly as I expected them - a slow, snow laden race trail. I then left the Meier's Lake Checkpoint and in the first 5 or 6 miles, I noticed many craters in the snow about the size of a snow machine. It was very obvious that the trail crew was struggling in all the deep snow and wind drifts.

I really began to have my doubts about the trail when I came head on with three of the lead trail breaking snow machines headed the wrong direction - one was being towed. After passing them, I came across a sled full of race markers parked along the side of the trail - obviously discarded as too much weight. Then I repeatedly saw areas where machines had struggled for hours in deep snow. I even saw where someone had used snow shoes to break out the trail in front of the machines. (Now, that's what you call "man power".) Then about a dozen miles from Meier's Lake Checkpoint, I came up on dog teams in the trail, stopped.

I knew the answer, before I even asked. "Are you guys moving ahead?" "Nope. All of the teams are stopped in front of us."

So, I parked my team in the line of dog teams and walked ahead. I asked the guys ahead of me what they knew. They knew nothing, except we were stopped. I was a lot more curious than that, so I walked ahead to find out more.

I could not walk on the side of the trail. The trail was only as wide as a snow machine track (about 15 inches). Luckily, my footstep would only sink 6 inches to 8 inches when I walked directly in the center of the trail, but if I stepped off to the side, I would sink up to my hips. So, in order to get in front of all these teams, I had to walk over the backs of resting dogs. Not something I would do normally.

I came up to a team with no musher and recognized John Shandelmeier's outfit. Another musher told me that John was up ahead with the trail breakers helping find the trail. These are John's backyard trails and he knows them better than anyone.

From this vantage, I could now see several people and two snow machines desperately trying to climb a snow ladden hill about 100 yards up the valley. They could not make it, even following a snow shoe trail. The machine would rev up, start the climb and over and over, fail to make it's goal.

I walked over several more dog teams and came upon Biscuit and Tafish with the rest of the Black Team. Allen and Brent Sass were standing there. They immediately asked me how many teams were behind us. I said about 7, but more were coming. They said that they had thought about turning around but it was becoming more of a difficult prospect as teams lined up. Up ahead of them were Gerry Willomitzer and Jake Berkowitz. So, there were at least a dozen dog teams now parked on a tiny trail with no shelter or communication, at 40 degrees below zero, just waiting. And the lead teams had been there almost 4 hours.

From what Brent and Allen knew, there had been a base trail for most of the course. But, on some of the ridges and valleys, there was absolutely no previous sign of it. The machines were bottoming out and had been since they had arrived. We would hear a machine rev up and quickly die ..... over and over and over. It was heart breaking. They said Jake, who was currently the lead musher, had already turned around to head back to Meiers Lake and then turned back around when John thought he might be able to help find the trail.

I stood there for a while, but it was very cold. I have a "survival instinct" that kicks in at these temperatures and so I needed to build a fire. I walked back to my sled sharing the news that the lead teams had been here 4 hours, the snow machines were trying, now with John's help, but from my vantage point, the race was looking grim. I spoke my mind and some mushers listened and to others, it was like talking to a brick wall. These guys were here to race and nothing was going to keep them from it. "Hummm," I thought to myself, "I bet no trail might hinder you a little."

From the outset, I acknowledged the obvious: we were going to have to turn around. The sooner the better. But, it is hard to convince a group of racers to look at the obvious situation. So, a few of us built a fire, I put on my snow shoes and went to get some bigger wood to burn. We might as well be warm! As this unfolded, more teams continued to file in one after another.

At one point I did hear the snow machines accomplish their goal and get over the small ridge. Then I heard no engines for a while - this was either good or bad. Eventually, we learned that it was bad. There was no Copper Basin 300 trail for us. John walked back from the trail breaking attempt to turn his dog team around.

Whether it was the right decision or not, I was going to start turning teams around. That means turning around all 12 dogs and a sled in a trail that is only 15 inches wide. The dogs, of course, can't leave before their musher is ready. But, a musher won't leave before their dogs are ready. Patience is key. Luckily, there were some helpful mushers out there.

I reached the end of the line of teams as the 19th team just pulled in - it was Ryne! I barely let her get off her sled when I told her that we were turning her team around. I asked her to return to Meier's Lake and tell every team that she encountered that they had to turn around as well. (I only thought about this huge responsibility later and I'm glad she knows when to take me seriously. Because as she ran into every musher head on, she relayed this news. None of them wanted to turn around just on her word, but they all did.)

After I turned Ryne around, we started in reverse order... team after team after team. I helped turn around 8 teams before it was my turn. After that, I had to go to.

The nine remaining teams were not too far behind us.

The Race organization somehow got word to our handlers to get our trucks ready. Every Copper Basin team was checked in and then loaded into its respective dog truck or camping spot. We then all amassed inside the lodge to wait of the news from the Race. Then, apparently after a long deliberation, the Copper Basin 300 was canceled.

I do want to say what a shame it is that so much effort went into a trail that Mother Nature demolished quite easily. Allen had run into Bruno, the head trail boss, in December and he was already laying in a base trail. We really would like to thank both Bruno and Darrin who we know did the absolute best that they could, as well, as the National Guard snow machiners. We also know that there were other snow machiners out whose names we do not know but helped all the same. It is sad to see your efforts vanish with the wind. And lastly, thanks to John, who put in a last ditch effort.

Now, I have heard some silly rumors that some folks believe that I should have "toughed it out" and put on my snow shoes for 30 miles at 40 below and put in my own race trail. But, you are simply wrong. I certainly have the ability to do that - and have done so on many camping trips, North Slope adventures or training events but this was a race. In saying that, please remember that I am mentally prepared for a race, my sled is packed for racing conditions, as is my personal gear. I was not carrying the extra 75 pounds of dog food, fuel, camping gear and personal equipment that I would want if I knew that I would be out breaking trail for 30 miles.

So, anyone who cares to take a hard core attempt at trail breaking or thinks that the Copper Basin Trailbreakers are "sissies", I welcome you to try your luck.
Here are some simple directions:
  • Come to Alaska.
  • Drive to Meier's Lake Lodge on the Richardson Highway
  • Take the trail from the lodge off to the Southwest
  • Follow this trail for 12 miles until you come to it's end
  • Start snow shoeing
  • Call us when you are done and we'll have a race!


Anonymous said...

That's a great summary, Aliy!
Yea, SPK!

Jim S. said...

Pretty simple..No trail..No race.
Sounds like everyone did all they could but Mother Nature had the last word.You did the right thing.

NCL said...

Awesome post! You tell the story with honesty and class.

Kathleen said...

You ROCK, Aliy!!! What a wonderful thing you did helping all those teams out. And you're a smart and tough musher!

Gretchen Sterner said...

How could anyone think this trail was raceable? Sounds like a lot of hard work went into trying to make a trail but Mom nature just had other ideas this year. Thank goodness for experienced mushers with good old common sense who were there and could see the problems. Safety of dogs and humans is most important.

Thank you Aliy for your reporting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! You and SP Kennel are always the greatest and all DOGS and MUSHERS are safe to race another day.

Anonymous said...

Aliy, you are so hard core,
I travel all the way from the eastcoast of the lower 48 just to learn from you & I ain't known for being a pushover myself.
Iditarod board is lucky to have you this year...
Wasn't it you who broke trail by foot at Sheep Mountain enabling Jeff King to easily pass you near the end?
Keep on Rockin'!
Sassy Mama Marla BB

Mike Criss said...

Wow, thanks for sharing your experience Aliy. I was prepared to come photograph the start from Wasilla, but when I saw it was -25 here I knew Glennallen had to be -40 so I stayed by the fire.
Glad everyone made it out okay!

Anonymous said...

A true Visionary leads with their head, but thinks with their heart. Thank You for putting your team first. In hindsight everyone acknowledges the right decisions. This will be no different.

babs said...

Aliy- Thank you for the recap. After reading this, I think it should be obvious that the right decision was made. Glad all of the SP Kennel made it back safely. Thanks to the SPK bloggers for all the timely updates. This armchair musher appreciates their hard work.

kb said...

Thank you, Aliy, for taking the time to let us know what happened and the part that SPKennel played out there. If the race could have safely gone on, I'm sure it would have. I appreciate your support of the CB300 officials' decisions. You all have a lot of class.

Anonymous said...

Dee from Tennessee

Thanks for a great report. hmmmmm....I think it's just called "plain ol' common sense." Yes, it is heartbreaking BUT come on....of COURSE it had to be cancelled! As you so wisely pointed out, it is a race and one has to be prepared with more food, etc....SAFETY first! THANKFUL that all made it back safely and a shout out to the all the trail breakers - I know that they put in hrs of work. Mother Nature had other plans ( just ask all those ppl in Cordova and Valdez who are still on rooftops shoveling about Mother Nature!)

Georganne said...

Good job. Everyone got home safe and sound even though I know it was hard to turn back. Sometimes doing what has to be done is not what anyone wants to do.

G. Delichte said...

Thank you, for the detailed account of what happened on the trail. I am from southern Manitoba, and just recently started to follow these dog sled races. I do have a question. When and how, are the trails for these races prepared? Are the trails punched through just before the race? Or are the trails normally traveled over several times as the snow accumulates?

Anonymous said...


Lynne D said...

Way to go - nothing else needs to be said. My pride in being a very small part of such a great team can't be put into words.

Linda Toth said...

We heard virtually nothing of this until the suspension notice at Race Central. Details of racers arrivals and departures were coming in very, very slow and many times we wondered what was happening.

I can not add much to what Aliy posted. Last night I did write my how we were notified of the suspension and my thoughts of the cancellation in my blog journal; they are exactly as Aliy said. Mushers set to race a mid-distance race are not prepared to bush whack.

Kusko 300? Norton Sound 450 may be too close to the Yukon Quest, but ??

Libby the Lab said...

SoSorry for all of SP Kennel and espcially Allen as I know he a very good shot at winning :(

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for your great reporting. Sounds like the race marshall did the right thing by canceling the race. Glad you, Allen and the other mushers and dogs are ok.

Mike Frerichs said...

Thanks for posting this Aliy. What a great narrative of the conditions out there!

Anonymous said...

Great post Aily. thanks.

Pia Eaves said...

Always looking forward to your reports from the trail, Aliy. I am glad the right decision was made and every musher and dog made it back safe. Mother nature ones again was in charge. Better trails next time!

Anonymous said...

Aily, you are absolutely correct. This was a racing trip....not a camping trip...Unless you were there...and I was....no one can imagine the conditions....and the potential dangers that might happen to snow machiners...(trail breakers), mushers and dogs...It was a disappointing decision on many levels for everyone...but it was the right decision for all.

AussieAlaskan said...

A bit of hysteria around - yours was great report of the situation - thanks, Aliy.

MJ Ann said...

Great job, Aliy. As always, you have our support - both on and off the trail.

Cindy Abbott said...

Aliy, Thanks for the great write-up about what happened past Meier's Check Point!

Anonymous said...

You go girl!

Eddie's mom