A Few Brave Skijorers Take the Challenge

A version of this article appeared in Mushing Magazine. The copyright to it remains with Bill Merchant. It may be reprinted for non-commercial use only as long as the author and source are credited, and a copy of the reprint is sent to Alaska Sleddog Adventures, Box 81157, Fairbanks, AK 99708.


In recent years, there has been a growing interest in long-distance skijor racing in Alaska. Four years ago, there was only one distance race in the state, the Fairbanks/Two Rivers Skijoring and Pulk Race. This year there were four races of over 20 miles to choose from. The Copper Basin Skijorers and Mushers Association put on its second Brown Bear Maul, with 30- and 16-mile events. The Alaska Skijoring and Pulk Association sponsored its fourth Fairbanks/Two Rivers race, with 20- and 50-mile events, as well as the longest and toughest distance skijor race to date, the 90-mile White Mountain Challenge.

Phil Russell, a Fairbanks musher with a skijoring family, took it upon himself to organize this newest event, which started at mile 57 of the Elliott Highway, north of Fairbanks. With the support of ASPA, the cooperation of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and a few hardy volunteers, Russell managed to put on a good race that also lived up to its name.

The field of racers in the first White Mountain Challenge included two past winners of the Fairbanks/Two Rivers 5o-mile race. Rick Hagen of Anchorage and Gena Reynolds of Fairbanks seemed to be the racers to beat. Rounding out the field were Nakita Russell (Phil's wife and Gena Reynolds' mother), Jim Logan, Mike Emers and Bill Merchant. The racers were required to carry basic survival equipment and food for their dogs. They also had to decide what additional gear they would take for emergencies or an unexpected night on the trail. In the end, the weather, trail, volunteers and competition all conspired to make this a first-rate Alaskan adventure. Here, skijorer Bill Merchant tells his story.

With the formalities over and last minute gear checks done, we begin leaving the starting line at l-minute intervals along the Colorado Creek trailhead. In the first 10 miles, the field begins to sort itself by speed and strategy. Gena Reynolds, Rick Hagen and Nakita Russell soon settle into the lead. With the temperature rising to around -10 degrees F and no wind, the conditions are near perfect along this first section of trail.

As I begin a steep 2-mile climb, small drifts begin appearing on the trail, and occasional gusts of wind filter through the trees. Hot from the long climb, I appreciate the cooling breeze without giving much thought to what it might mean when I break out of the timber on top of the ridge. Climbing, with my halfshed coveralls interfering with my poling, I am beginning to wish I had dressed lighter.

Then I top the ridge. In a matter of minutes, we go from small cooling gusts to a biting 40 mph headwind. Stopping, I pull up my coveralls and zip up tight. With a ground blizzard that at times is head high and ice crystals blasting any exposed skin, priorities begin to change for the racers. Not only is visibility nonexistent, but the trail is fast disappearing under 1- to 2-foot drifts. It is here that the race claims its first victim: I meet Mike Emers and his dogs coming back down the trail. Mike has made the difficult decision to call it quits and return to the start.

The trail occasionally drops into scattered timber, giving us short breaks from the wind. We plow ahead through the drifts until at last a whiff of wood smoke welcomes us to Wolf Run cabin. We are greeted by the smiling face of Sherry Louis, who has given up her weekend to help with the race. It feels good to toss down a warm drink and eat a handful of gorp without worrying about the wind blowing it out of my hand.

The warmth of Wolf Run Cabin and the fatigue of his dogs prompts Jim Logan to scratch here. Gena Reynolds leaves the cabin in the lead. followed closely by Rick Hagen and Nakita Russell. Leaving a distant fourth, I am back out in the howling wind with an enthusiasm that would be hard to explain.

The weather has become my chief competition. Determined to have fun and enjoy the race, my dogs and I slow our pace even more as we flounder along. Running from tripod to tripod in the more exposed areas, my dogs are in over their heads every time we get off the trail, which is completely covered for long stretches. Thanks to BLM, the l0-foot-high tripods make navigation possible, even where the trail is drifted over.

With a spirit that seems unstoppable, my three 40-pound female huskies, Kimo, Ginger and Kisha, pull me and my gear through the drifts. At times they resemble little furry porpoises jumping through the deep powder. It is their determination that keeps my spirits high. About the time that I begin to wonder if I am still having fun, conditions change once more.

Dropping off of an exposed ridgetop where the wind is howling like a banshee, I am greeted by the quiet calm of a heavily timbered valley. The trail winds through the valley, along Beaver Creek. With the dogs in a snappy trot and me whistling along behind, I'm thinking that things can't get much better.

Instead of sharpening my competitive drive, the great conditions in the valley find me daydreaming along and looking for signs of life in the open stretches of the creek. My search pays off. Stopping my dogs, for at least five minutes, I stand and watch two river otters at play. As I watch them play and splash in the icy water, there is little doubt in my mind why I am here. The race is my excuse, but scenes like this are the real reason.

After passing the turn into the Caribou Bluff cabin, about 35 miles into the race. I notice that there are only two sets of tracks ahead of me. Rick Hagen has decided to scratch at this cabin and save his dogs for the trip out.

Turning south on the Windy Gap trail for the last 10 miles of today's stage, I cross the only overflow that I have seen today. The approach to the small glacier is level, making the crossing easy, in spite of the nasty slope of the ice. Just across the ice, the trail heads straight up a steep hill for about a half mile. As tired as I am by this point, I am soon laughing to myself as I picture the tun I'll have here tomorrow. With the ice at the bottom of a long steep downhill, things could get interesting.

Over the top of the hill, I can see the trail dropping down for the last tew miles into Borealis LaFevere cabin, the turnaround point for the race and today's goal. Once again inspired by the downhill and good trail, my dogs pick up the pace. Racing no one but ourselves, we cruise into Borealis for a night of rest and lots of hot food and drink.

Pampered would best describe the treatment that we racers receive at the halfway point. With smiles and great attitudes, Curk Varner and Danny Chewning are doing everything they can to see to the racers' needs. I realize once again how important volunteers are to the success of any race.

Phil's team has been bringing up the rear, and with his arrival, we sit down to a huge meal and the war stories about the day's racing. Gena's story is the best, but it has cost her the lead. She made a wrong turn, and before she discovered her mistake, she added several extra miles to her run. Demonstrating the mental and physical toughness that helped her win the 50-mile Two Rivers race, she corrected her mistake and finished this day's leg on sheer willpower. Now, with Nakita having an hour lead on Gena, and me an hour behind Gena, it will take a major mistake by someone for the final standings to change tomorrow.

Walking outside to check my dogs before I turn in, I am greeted by the comet Hale-Bopp streaking across the sky. Without light pollution, the comet looks more like an artist's impression than something mere mortals are allowed to experience. Sitting with my dogs, I am awestruck as the aurora borealis dances in the northern sky and the comet blazes its way to places we can only dream of. Remembering the much needed comic relief provided earlier by the two otters playing in Birch Creek, I wonder if we really need any kind of material prizes for a race like this. First place or last place, the best prizes are here to be enjoyed by us all. The thermometer on the cabin wall reads a crisp -25 degrees F when I go back inside to sleep and dream about comets, otters and dog races.

The next morning, three slightly stiff racers hit the trail for the 45-mile run back to the finish. The major mistake by Nakita or Gena never came, and after an easy run compared to the day before, l cruised into the finish line in third place. The one-two finish by these mother-and-daughter competitors should make for lively conversation about who will beat whom in next year's White Mountain Challenge. But for now Nakita Russell has the satisfaction of having won Alaska's longest, toughest skijoring race.

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