Suzi and I started going to sled dog races in the early ‘70s when we covered the All American Champion Sled Dog Race in Ely, MN for NPR. Alaska’s George Attla, the Husila Hustler, finished second. Other sprint race greats like Dr. Roland Lombard from Massachusetts met in Ely for that race. In the late ‘70s we covered the Northern Minnesota sled dog circuit for KAXE and I actually got to run George Hewitt’s team in a short race. But everyone in Minnesota tipped their hats to the granddaddy of all sprint races, the North American Championship Race, at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous.
I’ve gotten a chance to watch the Anchorage races several times. It, and Fur Rondy, fell out of favor as attention moved to the long races; Minnesota’s John Beargrease, The Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. A decade ago Rondy almost died. Fortunately it survived.
Sprint racing is a different sport from the long haul races. And they have evolved. Thirty five years ago sprint dogs looked like sled dogs. In the ‘70s we began to see other strains bread into the sled dogs. Now many look like German Short Haired Pointers. They have that bloodline. The strategy is completely different from distance races. One mistake can cost you the race. In a distance race there are more chances to recover, and more opportunity for others to make a mistake. One musher dropped to last place because his lead dogs got away on the second day of the Anchorage race this year. The two minutes it took to recover was his race.
I was particularly watching Lance Mackey. He’s a four time winner of both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. He’s had a run of bad health and is not running the distance races this year. He decided to race his “puppy team” at Rondy. He said he would likely come in last because he does not know sprint racing. He did better than that, coming in next to last. But he and his dogs always got a big cheer. He said that there would be no Iditarod if the Rondy had not set the table. He wanted to lend his name to this race this year.
The race runs 26 miles from the start on 4th Avenue, along city streets, into parks, up a good grade to the Campbell Creek airstrip where teams can pass, up and down the strip and then back, across overpasses over the main east-west thoroughfares, past the emergency room entrance of a hospital and onto 4th. On Thursday night dump trucks brought snow to the streets and the graders spread it out. On Sunday they pushed it into a big berm down the middle of 4th Avenue to allow for traffic. Friday night the ploughs will again cover 4th for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod. Walking downtown Thursday night I listened to the calls of dogs already camped out on 4th.
On Friday we watched the race in the woods near Campbell Airstrip; on Saturday we watched the beginning of the race from 4th and the end from the top of a parking garage that gave us a good view up and down the avenue. Each team lines up at the start on 4th, in front of the Rondy Royalty in their fur coats. One of the court members seemed to be more interested in texting than watching the race or waving to the crowd. I have a dozen shots of her texting as teams roll past. A snowmobile tethered to the sled holds the teams back until the start of the race. The tether is released and the dogs are off. At the finish mushers help their sleds along with high kicks pushing the sled like a kid on a scooter: some wave to the fans along 4th, all the mushers get a big cheer.
Saturday the Iditarod starts. I’ll miss that but am glad I was in Anchorage for Rondy.