Chatanika Challenge
Chatanika Challenge

Chatanika Challenge

The Chatanika Challenge is a relatively new race run by the Two Rivers Dog Mushing Association. It’s a 200-mile race, witha 100-mile option. I (Greg) ran the 100-mile race, which started at noon on Friday March 12 2004. I finished in about 15-1/2 hours, and would have finished an hour or so earlier but got a little lost on the final trail, and took an alternate route to the finish line.

The dogs were super. Because we just got our dog truck, we have not been able to go on very long one-way mushes this year, or to remote sites (we’ll do more next year). So, most of the mushing has been from home, on the trail system south of Chena Hot Springs Road. We geared up for the race with a new sled (all wood, made by Mike King of Salcha), a cooker (it burns methanol, and is what all the mushers use), some snow shoes (required gear for races), and of course a few new items from Apocalypse Design in Fairbanks (musher’s mittens and “toasties” for keeping your hands out of the wind while gripping the sled handle). I bought some bunny boots, too, which is what most mushers wear. They have the advantage of being waterproof, so if you get wet you can still stay warm. Their disadvantages are that they’re heavy and not too comfortable.

The 100-milers started after the 200-milers. Ilana attended the musher’s meeting Thursday night (I was out of town and returned later that night) and drew bib #3, out of 6 (but only 5 started). The start is at the Chatanika Lodge on the Steese Highway, NE of Fairbanks. I was quickly passed by teams #4 and #5 on the trail, so was the last musher for most of the day. It was a beautiful day with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the low 30s.

The trail went over three hills. Where we live, the only nearby hill on our side of the road is called Jenny M., which we’ve taken on many, many training runs (crossing the road is difficult and somewhat dangerous). These hills were much longer. Because Duke and Higgs were in a fight and injured each other, I had a team of 10 that was not as strong or fast as usual. Duke is a strong fast leader, and Higgs is a great puller who we usually put in wheel or elsewhere towards the back.

Darla and Levi were in the lead. Very experienced dogs, but not that fast. Levi felt the urge to pee or poop at every 5-10 miles, which stopped the team and was very distracting. Darla is more talented, and can take care of business on the run. Levi and Darla were lead dogs in a finishing Yukon Quest team. Evidently they’re getting a little forgetful in their old age, and can’t always tell a “gee” from a “haw.” Buckwheat and Pumpkin were second. Pumpkin tends not to pull all that much, but does pretty well at running in the front. Buckwheat is a Quest finisher who loves to lope, but is towards the end of his career so not too fast. In swing were Bandit and Sugar. Bandit has the same Quest pedigree as Buckwheat, and pulls well. He had a major health problem just 5 days before (an eye abcess), but it was looking healed and the vet said he should be OK as long as he looks and acts healthy. Sugar is a new dog from the pound who used to work at a tourist operation. She’s a good puller, but seems to have limited bladder capacity so must pee every few miles.

Red and Storm were next. Storm is a skijor dog from the pound who should be very good next year. She doesn’t have that many team miles, though, so wasn’t up for the full 100. She crabs (leans to the left) when she runs (we’ll try a ManMatt harness next, to see if it helps) and tends to make her back paws bleed from scraping on her front paws. Red is a Second Chance League dog (, and also shows great promise but has very few training miles. I dropped both dogs at the 40-mile mark road crossing, which was the plan, because I didn’t want to risk damage to them by pushing the full 100 miles.

Monkey and Stubby were in wheel (they are often in swing, but I don’t like to put larger dogs in wheel on longer trips because of the pressure from the x-back harnesses on the dog’s hips). Monkey has limited airway due to her de-barking (*not* recommended), and seemed a little overheated during the day, and didn’t pull much. In the evening, though, she was fine and pulled well.

For the race, I went over the three hills, the last of which was Iowa Dome with a 4.5 mile all uphill section. Pretty slow going, with me running next to the sled or pedalling a lot of the way. Lots of great views! From the top of Iowa, it was down then flat for 15 miles to the CHSR crossing at the 40-mile mark. I passed 3 teams (all 200-milers) camping along the way, so was briefly not the last musher! Shortly after the road crossing at 6:45 pm, I camped for 2-1/2 hours for fish, soup, more fish and an hour or so nap + digestion. This was the first time the younger dogs (Stubby, Monkey, and Pumpkin) ever camped. Pumpkin didn’t know what to do– she wouldn’t take a nap, so I curled up on her blanket and she lay on top of me. When it was time to go again, I bootied everyone (8 dog sat this point – we skipped most booties during the day since it was so warm), and we took off at 9:30 pm.

We passed a few more campers (of the ones I passed earlier, one scratched and the other two had already passed me while I was camped).They subsequently passed me. My team averaged about 7 MPH overall during the race, which is not too bad but not as fast as most other teams (winning teams were averaging about 12 MPH). The night-time mushing was very nice. It helped that it was cooler, and also that we were on fairly flat trails and rivers the dogs had seen before. I took several short breaks, but otherwise pushed through to the end at about 4:20 am. I thought I was going to be earlier, but got a little lost on the trail (I thought I was on the wrong trail, following the 200-mile route, and turned around and took detours to get to the endpoint) and ended up putting in an extra 5+ miles.

The dogs ran very well, and at a steady pace. Pumpkin started getting tangled when we were losing the trail and trying to find an alternate route (turning around, taking sharp turns, etc.), but there were no other problems. The team was definitely tired, and spent all day Saturday resting. We gave them extra dinner and breakfast, and a little massage to help ease the muscle pain.

For dogs to run 100 miles in well under 24 hours is amazing to me. Our dogs are solid muscle, with great heart and lungs. It’s up to the musher to decide on breaks, and when to move dogs’ positions or take them out of the race. Otherwise, left alone, the dogs would happily run and run and run.