by: Katie Writer – KTNA
A mass start of 35 teams puts a considerable weight on the organizers of the Annual Willow 300 Dog Sled Race. For those who know a bit about dog mushing, the potential for dog tangles when teams are placed 8 feet apart across a 200 foot starting line not only looks like a crazy idea, the sound is deafening.
KTNA’s Katie Writer spoke with organizers, racers, and volunteers at the start located on Willow Lake.
The 10 am mushers’ meeting held at the Willow Community Center gave Race Marshall, Vern Halter and Race Organizer Chris Stitt an opportunity to discuss the course and cover important
topics. Amongst a field of top mushers were seventeen rookies who had a different set of rules about what enables the Willow 300 to be their Iditarod Qualifier.
Vern explains what is different about this race.
“They get no help, they’ll have food drops and straw at checkpoints, then no help for them
period, because that is what the Iditarod race standard is for qualifying. Then we have another group of 25 mushers that get unlimited help at checkpoints which is something a little different in racing, but that is how this race is set up.”
Race Checker Julie Johnson speaks of important points covered in the musher’s meeting.
“There is always a couple of concerns. We’ve got a few spots where we’re going to have two way traffic. The mushers were made aware of that. We as checkers are going to be on top of it as much as possible.”
From Willow, there is a 65 mile leg that leads into the Deshka Landing checkpoint. The next 49 mile leg heads to the Amber Checkpoint. Vern shares some historical details about the course.
“We’ve got a beautiful trail heading up North past Talkeetna, but we are never going to cross the river. We’re going to be on the Trapper Creek side, go to the Trapper Creek Trading Post.
They’re actually going to be on the Susan Butcher Boulevard, which is a very historic trail that she trained on many years ago..so it’s going to be quite a route.”
Seasoned Iditarod Veteran, Scott Janssen had an efficiently packed dogsled that looked kind of minimalist.
“Even for this race I’ve got the same things that I’d have on Iditarod.
So compared to when I first started mushing years ago, my sled looks so empty at the race start, so it kind of makes me second guess myself. It’s going to be a fun race.”
Nicolas Petit who is undefeated this year, is looking forward to running new trails in the Willow area, which is where he trains. He compares how the Willow start is different than an Iditarod one.
“No, because at the start of an Iditarod, you are relaxed, you are done making drop bags and prepping for a dog race. And this one is just another one right before I have to get all of my drop bags. I kind of want to get this one over with quick so I can get back to work!”
The amount of people power to put on even a mid distance race on new trails is considerable.
Vern Halter says,
“Chris Stitt who is the race manager…to put this race together, the Willow Dog Mushers
Association two years in a row, to put a 300 mile trail in, that’s a lot of work.”
When the last of the dogs are hooked up to their teams and the race marshal and race organizer are holding the red starting flag up, they get to witness peak volumes like no others.
At one o’clock, the red start flag drops. At least two-thirds of the field take off, passing closely on both sides of Vern and Chris.
Some speed ahead for the first position through the narrow exit of Willow Lake.
Chris Stitt is very pleased with the start.
“We are real happy that the teams all took off accordingly, a mass start can turn into a mass situation at any time, but you know these mushers are more than qualified to handle what comes their way. So we are pretty happy with it. Yes, right up to this point, my stress level was a little high, but now, I’m fine. I can handle what comes next.”
The barking volume decreases as the first wave runs across the lake. The race is on!