Climate, costs, convenience drive mushing onto the road

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To be competitive in the Iditarod, more mushers are migrating onto Alaska’s road system.

Though the sport was born on the Seward Peninsula, factors like money, climate, and convenience are pushing it further onto the Railbelt. And with serious sled-dog races getting faster and more specialized, many mushers are leaving the bush behind to train.

Richie Diehl drives his team over groomed trails towards Aaron Burmeister's property during training ahead of the 2016 Iditarod. Photo: Zachariah Hughes
Richie Diehl drives his team over groomed trails towards Aaron Burmeister’s property during training ahead of the 2016 Iditarod. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)

On a recent Sunday morning in Nenana, sunlight spilled between thick stands of birch trees as Iditarod rookie Tom Jamgochian, 38, shoveled up the dog lot.

“I live in Nome, Alaska, and I came down here, taking three-and-half months off of work to train for the Iditarod,” Jamgochian said.

Jamgochian is a lawyer for the state (and in full disclosure, a personal friend). Though he started his kennel in the bush, this is the second year he’s come onto the road system as part of his attempt at the Iditarod.

“Snow conditions out in Nome are pretty unreliable, and it’s a lot cheaper to fly out here to run qualifier races,” he said. “And a heck of a lot cheaper to get food and meat.”

A pallet of dog food that costs $100 delivered by road to Nenana can be up to $900 carried by barge to Nome.

And not only do coastal snow conditions fluctuate, but storms often wipe out training trails overnight.

“If I was doing this on my own in Nome I’d be spending half my time on a snowmachine just keeping the trails in shape,” Jamgochian said.

Here in Nenana, Jamgochian is training under conditions that allow him to maximize time on the sled, focusing on his dogs and practicing routines for running and resting them. He’s renting a small cabin on property owned by a top musher with long roots in competitive sled-dog racing.

Rookie Tom Jamgochian leaving for a training run. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Rookie Tom Jamgochian leaving for a training run. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)

Aaron Burmeister was born and raised in Nome, part of a family that helped get the race off the ground in its early years. Now his young son Hunter is being brought up close to the kennel with a hearty outdoor lifestyle. As we talk, Hunter shows off handfuls of dry moss gathered for a bonfire later on.

“Thank you, son,” Burmeister said, in between answering questions. “You hold on to it for me.”

The sled-dog racing that Hunter is learning is radically different from the small teams and recreational outings that his father grew up with in the ’80s.

“As a child, my parents would throw caribou hides in the sled, throw me in my parka in a sleeping bag and send me out on the trail in the basket with them,” Burmeister recalled.

The demands and expense of competitive mushing are reshaping traditions like that. In this year’s Iditarod, 52 of the entrants from Alaska list their homes as communities on the road system. Just nine are from the bush. And of those, the majority are like Burmeister and Jamgochian, spending winters training on the roads.

Thirty years ago, in the 1986 Iditarod won by Susan Butcher, railbelt mushers were the majority. But the bush was more evenly represented– 48 to 16, or three to one. Among the 22 successful finishers of the race’s inaugural run in 1973 (when the winner took 20 days to reach Nome), half were from rural Alaska — with a solid block of mushers from small Native communities like Sishmaref, Unalakleet, Noorvik, and Point Hope, rarities in recent Iditarods.

Burmeister still spends part of the year in Nome, but bought his Nenana property in 1999, shortly after college, when he began competing more seriously and needed to raise his kennel operations to the next level.

“If I had a choice, I’d live out in the bush forever, and stay off the road system — away from all the headaches,” he said. But affordability and accessibility make it pretty much a necessity for anyone building a team capable of effectively competing to win the Iditarod. (A recent exception is John Baker’s 2011 victory.)

We were interrupted when Burmeister got a call from a fellow musher.

“Bear with me a second. That’s Pete,” Burmeister said as his ringtone — Marc Cohn’s “Walking to Memphis” — trickled from a pocket in his parka.

“How far out are you, bro?”

“Pete” is Pete Kaiser of Bethel, who won his second consecutive Kuskokwim 300 in January. He’s trained with Burmeister the last few years, and just bought property nearby. Kaiser and another musher from Aniak, Richie Deihl, were about a half-hour from the kennel, where they were headed for a short rest in the middle of a training run. Kaiser was able to check in with Burmeister by cell-phone from the runners of his sled, taking advantage of the 4G network in the area — another Railbelt perk.

Some of the factors driving mushing onto the road system are external: increasingly variable weather and the rising cost of living in the bush. But internally the sport is speeding up every year, with more refined, regimented training strategies becoming the norm for the top tier of racers. One of the reasons large, healthy teams can make the thousand-mile trip in less than nine days is because of the fanatically focused dietary regimes that mushers like the Seaveys, Busers, and Burmeister feed their elite breeds.

“Your typical competitive Iditarod racing dog today is burning 12,000-15,000 calories per day while they’re on the trail,” Burmeister explained.

“Forty years ago, you could feed dogs fish year-round and you’ll be just fine. But one pound of fish — you’re averaging 1,800 calories,” he said. A pound of a “premium power product,” by contrast, which might contain beef, fats, and tripe along with vitamins and probiotics for digestion, can pack 4,200-4,400 calories. (One of Burmeister’s sponsors is a specialty dog food company.)

Burmeister came in third place last Iditarod, but is taking this year off to spend more time with his family. He wants a first place finish, but beyond year to year battles to win the race, he’s invested in a longer campaign.

“I’m competitive, very competitive. My goal is to win the Iditarod,” he said. “But this sport wouldn’t thrive, it wouldn’t survive without up-and-comers like Pete and Richie and Tom and all these mushers that are getting into the sport. My goal is not just to promote myself, I focus more on promoting the sport and promoting mushing.”