Youth is served. There are a bunch of new faces showing up in the contending spots, and that’s a good thing. An aging group of stars is a concern for any sport. In fact there have been not enough youngsters moving up the ranks in recent years to assure the future of the sport of long distance racing. That appears to be changing. The daunting task of becoming proficient in the Iditarod is obvious. Occasionally a racer starts from scratch and makes the grade, but most often young mushers we have seen recently come through family operations that have existed for years. But kids around this state have young role models to follow, and there is a path to success for beginners.
One big finish illustrates that point. Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak grew up in his family’s kennel and started racing shorter races in the Bethel area a few years ago. He had good dogs to pick from, and a good mentor in his namesake, but he paid his dues in obscure races in the Kuskokwim Delta that few race fans follow. Williams had a phenomenal run in the late stages of this year’s Iditarod and finished eighth, just minutes out of seventh. He has become a legitimate contender for the future.
John Baker had an unusual finish, dropping to ninth after running higher throughout the race. A top ten finish is the actual goal of most competitive racers when they start the Iditarod, and once again John has accomplished that. I mentioned elsewhere yesterday that some research is needed on who has the most top ten finishes in recent Iditarod history. My impression is that Baker is near the top of that list. John completed the race in his usual good spirits. John rarely displays any of the frustration that sometimes erupts when tired racers aren’t doing as well as they might have hoped.
Little attention was paid to the fact that many teams were stacked up in Shaktoolik for a while because of tough winds. That created a big gap between 18th place and the rest of the field. High winds are notorious in that stretch of the trail, and this of course is not the first time teams have waited there. One time many teams were there 2-3 days and organized a basketball tourney in the local gym.
My congratulations to Champion Dallas Seavey and all the racers for taking part in this singular event. It is an event like no other, and is captures the imagination of fans like a magnet. Observers like myself sit in front of a computer and try to imagine what is going on in the dark of the night in the middle of the wilderness. The progress is slow, but continues non-stop. There is always something to report and to discuss.
Long distance racing has some critics, folks who believe the event is too hard on dogs. It is hard in the sense that maximum exertion is hard for all who try. But that is something entirely different than suffering. Reduced to its basics, race dogs are tuned into the idea that their next meal and resting spot is somewhere up ahead. They also soon figure out that the faster they get there, the quicker their meal and rest. So the maximum exertion they put out has a purpose for them. Fast moving teams have better athletes, perhaps a better plan for feeding and resting, and maybe more experience at the daily drill. It is fanciful to suggest that a callous musher could obtain such performance by means other than proper care. If the care given falls below a certain level, the dogs will not perform. In addition, race officials who monitor the teams at each checkpoint would quickly see shortcomings in care.
Dogs that are on a strict training and racing regimen are in good physical condition. To suggest that a fat, out of shape couch dog is better cared for is simply wrong. Who had a better week, me sitting and watching a computer screen, or Jim Lanier, in his seventies and still challenging the elements on the trail? The same applies to race dogs as compared to Tanner, the red dog pictured above who spent much of the week sitting on my lap.
Finally, let me thank the Baker family for asking me to take part on this web page. Watching and commenting on dog racing is a long family tradition at the Angstman house, so writing down a few observations was easy. Whether of not it made any sense is another matter, but since readers were not charged to read, they might have gotten their money’s worth. Speaking of money, it is still a fact that most people who take part in the sport of Alaska dog racing are unpaid volunteers. That includes putting on the races, and putting teams together to take part. There are a few paid positions here and there, but not many, and rarely high pay. Thus, to conclude, I would like to commend the thousands of volunteers statewide who keep the sport of dog racing alive and well in Alaska.
Myron Angstman, lawyer, pilot, and dog musher, lives in Bethel, Alaska. Read more about dogs, law suits and rural Alaska gossip by checkinghttp://www.myronangstman.com/