Rookie mushers hit the trail

Cheechako races bring mushing to a new generation


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Mia Maruskie, 4, leaves the starting gate apprehensively during the 1-dog Junior Cheechako.

STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

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Mia Maruskie was starting to panic. Though she had seemed calm — eager, even — in the minutes leading up to the race, the Anchorage musher began to get anxious when she stepped aboard the runners. Realizing she’d forgotten her lucky racing helmet at home, Maruskie’s panic quickly turned to grief. Tears began streaming down her face as the starter shouted out the merciless countdown.

“Five, four, three, two, one … go!”

Like all mushers staring down an unforgiving trail of snow, Maruskie had a decision to make. She could easily hop off the runners and let someone else worry about her sled, or angrily stomp on the brake and quit. She did neither. Instead, Maruskie angrily screamed at her bad luck and held on tight as her lead — and only — dog, “Lizzie” bolted down the quarter-mile oval track at the Beach Lake Trails in Chugiak.

Just over a minute later, Maruskie, 4, was back at the starting line, still tightly clutching her sled, a look of both anger and determination fixed on her pink-cheeked face.

You gotta be tough to mush.

“She cried the whole way,” said Maruskie’s mom, Brooke. “But she held on.”

After recovering from her first sled dog race with a cup of hot cocoa and some soup, little Mia was all smiles as she recalled her inaugural race.

“I won second place!” the now-veteran musher said proudly to anyone within earshot.

Maruskie’s run was part of the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association’s season-opening “Cheechako” races, which are held each year to give novice mushers their first official race experience. Ten junior mushers turned out for one- and two-dog races on Saturday, Nov. 26, and four adults showed up for Sunday’s three-dog races.

CDMA president Val Jokela — who herself was a first-time Cheechako musher in 1988 — said the races are a great way to get newcomers to the sport a taste of what competitive mushing’s all about.

“It’s a good, safe way to introduce people to racing,” Jokela said.

This year’s heavy early-season snowfall made trails soft and forgiving, allowing the association to hold the novice races on time — something that doesn’t happen most years, she said.

“The snow conditions dictate when we can hold them, and it doesn’t always work out,” she said.

Jeffrey Homan won the one-dog race on Saturday, while MacKenzie Martiny claimed victory in the two-dog event. On Sunday, Brooke Maruskie took home the top spot in the two-mile, three-dog event.

Jokela said the association is always looking for ways to bring new mushers into the sport. Even if people don’t have dogs of their own, Jokela said the large mushing community at Beach Lake — located about a mile down South Birchwood Loop just past Chugiak High — is always willing to give advice to the curious.

“People are always welcome to hang around and ask questions,” she said.

Things are looking up at the extensive trail system thanks the recent passage of the Municipality of Anchorage’s Beach Lake Regional Park Master Plan update, which stipulate that the CDMA trails north of the Alaska Railroad tracks are mushing-only during the winter months.

That means mushers are free to use the trails without fear of conflict with other user groups, Jokela said.

“This is just a wonderful dream come true,” she said of the master plan update, which was 28 years in the making. “It makes it a nice, safe place where you don’t have to worry about other users on the trail.”

That means opportunities for mushers both old and new alike should be able to continue without interruption for years to come. That’s just fine with Mia Maruskie. When asked if she wanted to race again, Maruski didn’t hesiate.

“Yeah!”

And, she said she’s already picked up one of the most valuable lessons a musher can learn.

“I holded on!” she said.

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