On the trail again

Veteran mushers head toward Nome


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Chugiak’s Mike Suprenant makes his way off Long Lake following the start of the Iditarod on March 3. Suprenant has entered the race five times, finishing 49th in 2009.

Matt Tunseth

Though he’s one of the Iditarod’s most experienced mushers, 73-year-old Jim Lanier has no intention of slowing down.

Lanier is six years older than the next-oldest musher, but with a healthy dash of pepper left in his beard, he looks much younger. Before the race start on Willow Lake March 3, he said running sled dogs is his personal fountain of youth.

“It keeps me healthy and young,” said the 15-time finisher.

Lanier may be getting better with age. Last year he made a bold run to the halfway point in Cripple, earning $3,000 in gold from GCI and winning the Dorothy Page Award. Lanier said he had the gold made into a paw print by Pierre’s Jewelry in Eagle River for his wife, Anna Bondarenko.

“That’s now hanging around my wife’s neck,” he said of the unique jewelry.

Lanier said his main goal is to finish the race — he’s never scratched — but that he’s not afraid to gamble if awards like the halfway award or the gourmet meal (and cash prize) that comes with being the first to Anvik are within his reach.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said.

Lanier’s fellow Chugiak musher, Mike Suprenant, also said getting to Nome is his primary concern. Last year, he made it within 260 miles of the Burled Arch before scratching in Unalakleet. A five-time entrant, the Army Corps of Engineers civilian employee said he’s more concerned with staying safe than making a selfish run to Nome his dogs can’t handle.

“The safety of the dogs and myself are paramount,” said Suprenant, whose lone race finish was a 49th-place effort in 2009.

With just 25 in his kennel — of which two are retired — Suprenant knows he’ll have to take it easy in order to finish for the second time, but he’s confident in this year’s squad.

“The dogs are looking really good,” he said. “I think all 16 of ‘em can potentially make it to Nome.”

With poor snow conditions around Chugiak early in the year, combined with a tightening of restrictions on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Suprenant said he had a tough time getting miles on his team this winter. If the base doesn’t ease up in the near future, he said it could help push him out of competitive mushing.

“It’s kinda jeopardizing if I really want to do this,” he said.

Still, the Air Force veteran said he continues to enjoy the sport he took up in 2001.

“That’s why you do it, you get to see parts of Alaska very few people get to travel to,” he said.

Warming his hands over a charcoal grill before the race start, Suprenant said he’s not sure how long he’d like to continue running the Iditarod. The sport isn’t cheap, and it takes a year-round commitment to keep a large kennel of sled dogs.

“It’s so much time and money and now with the toughness of getting the training miles on the dogs, I don’t know…” he said.

But with more than 1,000 miles of rugged trails ahead, Suprenant said he was excited to be starting another adventure into the wilderness.

“It’s just a great experience,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Likewise, Lanier said he was ready and raring to go. He said he’s got a strong team this year that’s more than capable of running a solid race.

“They’re not fast, but they seem to be able to go a long way,” he said.

The dogs must take after their grizzled master, who recently completed a book chronicling his five decades in the Last Great Race. Entitled “Beyond Ophir: Confessions of an Iditarod Musher,” Lanier said the book includes tales from his time on the trail.

“It’s just about the race and my involvement in it,” he said.

As for how long he’d like to continue racing, the Iditarod’s elder statesman said he has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

“Like I said in my book, the end’s not in sight yet,” he said.

For current race updates, check the Star’s Facebook page or visit www.iditarod.com.

 

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-27272 or editor@alaskastar.com

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