Dogs, mushers run into the night in Chugiak

Friday, January 20, 2017 - 11:51
Evening race draws 11 dog teams to Beach Lake Trails
  • The Chugiak Dog Mushers Association held a 12-mile night race on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. ()Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • The Chugiak Dog Mushers Association held a 12-mile night race on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. ()Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • The Chugiak Dog Mushers Association held a 12-mile night race on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. ()Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • The Chugiak Dog Mushers Association held a 12-mile night race on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. ()Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

Nobody had a wilder Saturday night than the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association did Jan. 14.

That’ when — under cover of darkness — the club hosted 11 sled dog teams and their drivers, who all showed up to take part in unique nighttime race through the rugged trails off Birchwood Loop.

“I love running without a headlamp in the snow,” said race marshal Jackie Fabrizzio, who organized the chaos from the club’s one-room clubhouse. “The moon’s out, it’s quiet, all you hear is the sled and the paws and breath.”

The Clunie Lake Night Race was a first for the club, which decided to hold the event this year as a way to mix things up from the regular racing schedule. The club also plans to hold a longer night race in March.

The races are a departure from the club’s normal slate of events, which are usually daytime sprint races featuring slender-bodied sprint dogs. By contrast, Saturday’s race attracted distance mushers running either Alaska huskies or purebred Siberians.

The race featured two classes – one for 8-dog teams of the heavy-coated Siberian huskies and another for 6-dog teams of the faster, shorter-coat Alaskan variety – and local mushers won both races. Chugiak’s Kaye Berg took the 6-dog race in 1 hour, 2 minutes, while Chugiak’s Tom Schonberger took the 8-dog purebred class in 1:10:02.

Racing wasn’t the main objective, however. Instead, mushers said they were just happy to be out running their dogs on fresh snow at night – a rare treat after several seasons of subpar snow conditions.

“Last year I didn’t even put a sled in here at all,” said Schonberger, whose TouchMeNot kennel runs Siberians that are both show and working animals.

After he won, Schonberger stopped to give each dog an appreciative snout-to-nose nuzzle.

“You did awesome!” he told each in turn.

Of course, sled dogs are perfectly comfortable running at nighttime, when chilly temperatures make it easy for them to trot away. But for some of the mushers who showed up Saturday, the experience was a bit nerve wracking.

“I was a little worried just because it’s dark,” said Berg, who said she hadn’t been on a sled in two years before Saturday’s race.

Berg recently had a baby, which kept her off the runners for a while. But she’s no stranger to the Chugiak trails, where she began mushing competitively when she was just 4-years-old.

“I kinda know these trails like the back of my hand,” she said.

Berg has done some mid-distance racing, including the Junior Iditarod, so she’s no stranger to running at night. Once the team got going, Berg said the dogs had no trouble finding their way.

“It was great,” she said. “I had an awesome time.”

Berg grew up in the Chugiak dog mushing community, and said she’s hopeful she can help introduce a new generation to the sport she loves.

“It’s fantastic to grow up in, and I’m excited for my kid to start racing in a couple years,” she said, gesturing to her 7-month-old son, David, curled up in the arms of her husband. “We’re not quite ready yet.”

Palmer’s Amanda Lopez was actually making her first nighttime run ever during Saturday’s race. A handler for veteran Iditarod musher Christine Roalofs, Lopez said she wasn’t even planning on racing until Saturday morning, when Roalofs called and asked Lopez to run six of her dogs.

“She called me up this morning and asked what I was doing this evening,” she said.

Roalofs said Lopez is a naturally talented musher who has the potential to become an Iditarod racer. She knew the 12-mile Clunie Lake race wouldn’t be a problem for her.

“She can handle it,” Roalofs said.

Lopez said the nighttime race proved to be more fun than she expected.

“It was a little nerve wracking, but it was a good time,” she said. “I just turned my headlamp off and the dogs took care of me.”

Lopez said running beneath the stars was “almost therapeutic.”

“You just clear your mind and kind of look at the trees and just appreciate Alaska,” she said.

Mushers who participated in the race were a mix of hold hands and fresh faces, and the competition was decidedly low-key. After completing the course, mushers gathered inside the clubhouse to share pizza and cookies and swap stories from the trail.

Musher Katie Diets, a 17-year-old student at Bartlett High in Anchorage, said she runs dogs because of her love of animals and nature. She hopes to run more races this winter and — perhaps — continue running dogs at longer distances.

“It’s a tough sport,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Wasilla’s Wayne Curtis said the CDMA trails are in great shape this year, and one of his favorite places to run dogs.

“They’re the most gorgeous trails you can race on,” he said.

The trails are unique in that they allow both distance and spring mushers a place to train that’s in a wild area yet still within the municipality.

“They’re right here in a big city,” he said.

With good snow and cold temperatures this year, the club is looking forward to hosting a full slate of late-winter and spring races. Last year the group was forced to cancel all of its races, and its Eagle River Classic sprint races had to be moved north to Montana Creek. With more than a foot of snow falling on the trails over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, this year’s Classic should be back in Chugiak Feb. 4-5, along with several smaller events and a 36-mile night race planned for March. For more information, visit www.chugiakdogmushers.com or find the club on Facebook.

Roalofs said the winter has come as a welcome change of pace for area mushers, who have spent much of the past couple years either idle or chasing snow across the state.

“We’re just so happy to be on sleds this year,” she said.

CDMA Clunie Lake Night Race

12 miles
Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017
Beach Lake Trails, Chugiak

6-dog class — 1) Kaye Berg, 1 hour, 2 minutes, 36 seconds; 2) Rick Tarpey, 1:06:59; 3) Eric Kelly, 1:12:10; 4) Amanda Lopez, 1:13:04; 5) Christine Roalofs, 1:17:47; 6) El Eischens, 1:20:29; 7) Kirk Sanderson, 1:20:41
8-dog purebred class – 1) Tom Schonberger, 1:10:02; 2) Wayne Curtis, 1:10:14; 3) Katie Diets, 1:17:41; 4) Lou Packer, 1:29:23

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