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Cold, snow and wind cancel Copper Basin 300 sled dog race

Helen Hegener
A team of sled dogs at the start of the 2012 Copper Basin 300.
Theresa Daily/Gomush.com photo
A musher departs from the starting line at the 2012 Copper Basin 300.
Theresa Daily/Gomush.com photo
A dog team gets under way at the 2012 Copper Basin 300.
Theresa Daily/Gomush.com photo
Musher Brent Sass at the 2012 Copper Basin 300.
Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media photo
A dog is loaded into a kennel at the 2012 Copper Basin 300.
Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media photo
Musher Jake Berkowitz at the 2012 Copper Basin 300.
Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media photo
Dogs wearing leggings at the 2012 Copper Basin 300 to fend off the cold.
Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media photo

Around 6 a.m. Sunday, an emergency alert was released by the Copper Basin Race Committee temporarily suspending the Copper Basin 300. According to the statement signed by Race Marshal Greg Parvin, the section of trail between Meier’s Lake and Sourdough was impassable due to unusually deep snow conditions, high winds and bitter cold. All dog teams, handlers and race officials were requested to convene at the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse by 7 a.m.

3-1/2 hours later, another release stated that the 2012 Copper Basin 300 had been officially cancelled at Meier’s Lake, 75 miles into the race. Heavy snows and high winds had obliterated the middle section of the trail. According to Race Marshall Greg Parvin, “The trail was impassable. Four experienced National Guardsmen with Iron Dog experience couldn’t break the trail. They might have been fine if they could go 50 or 60 miles an hour across that snow and never stop, but when they did stop they were up to their necks and just couldn’t move. It was simply impassable, the trail was just gone, and we were getting consistent reports of minus 50 to minus 60 degree temperatures.”

That analysis was repeated by Sergeant Donny Gum of the Army National Guard, whose team members were part of the crew putting in the trail. Figuring once again that assisting with the race would be great training and practice for the Iron Dog, Sgt. Gum verified that the trail was wiped out, and he said “there were a lot of emotions out there,” everyone tried their hardest but they just could not get through the snow.

"We kept getting stuck and kept getting stuck and kept getting stuck…” Gum said. 

Veteran musher Brent Sass, who was among the frontrunners when the race was suspended, shared a comment on his Facebook page within hours of the end of the race.

Headed home after a crazy half race! It’s really too bad there was going to be one hell of a race between me jake jerry and Alan not to mention the other competition That was lurking. Instead we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. Huddled around a fire for 5 hours with the temps dipping to nearly 50 below! I will say the cb300 trail breakers gave it all they had when we caught up to them they were snow shoeing in the trail. They did all they could. Having dealt with constant snow and wind all season in eureka I completely understood the challenges that faced the race this year. I will say through it all we kept it positive and enjoyed our time collecting firewood and huddling around the warmth our fire provided! In the end we all agreed this is just another story and we all would rather be there liven this awesome life then anywhere else!! Now let’s start thinking YUKON QUEST!!!!!!! Always and forever WILD and FREE!!

Mushers, fans, officials, volunteers… everyone associated with the race was visibly disappointed, but also understood the complexities and the necessity of the decision. It was noted that the Copper Basin 300 had just renewed its claim to being “the toughest 300 miles in Alaska.”

The 2012 race started under clear blue skies, minus 15 degree temperatures, and no wind, which produced made-to-order conditions for the 51 teams of sled dogs. 53 teams were signed up for this year’s race, but two withdrew just before the start. Each year the Copper Basin 300 rotates the start and finish checkpoint, this year beginning at at Red Eagle Lodge at Chistochina, on the Glenn Highway, 50 miles north of Glennallen.

From Chistochina the teams headed across country to Paxon Lodge on the Richardson Highway, 58 miles away. Defending champion Jake Berkowitz, of Big Lake, Alaska, led the pack out of the starting chute at noon, launching the race which has been dubbed “the little Iditarod.” Six and a half hours later Berkowitz led the field into Paxson Lodge, resting his team for four hours before moving on to the Meiers Lake checkpoint 18 miles away.

Although Jake Berkowitz was first into the Paxson checkpoint, it was 2008 CB300 champion Allen Moore who actually had the fastest time between the first two checkpoints. Moore clocked a speedy 6 hours, 20 minutes, which was seven minutes faster than Berkowitz’s time. Moore’s wife, Aliy Zirkle, was also running this year’s race and arrived only 22 minutes behind her husband.

At the musher’s pre-race meeting on Friday evening, Trail Boss Bruno Baureis gave a descriptive report on the conditions facing the teams, painting a vivid picture of a challenging trail, with deep snow in places, blowing and drifting snow in others, and rerouting due to overflow conditions on multiple lakes and rivers.

Throughout the day of the race, temperatures steadily plummeted, and by the time teams started arriving at the first checkpoint in Paxson the race reports were including comments on the weather: “Weather at Paxson was reported to be cold. Temps were -20 and no wind. Weather at Meier’s Lake: ‘really cold.’ temps are around -23 and windchill is about -35 to -40.”

Conditions continued to worsen throughout the night, and by morning it was clear the race was in jeopardy. An international field of mushers was running this year’s CB300, with teams from Brazil, England, New Zealand, Norway and Russia.

Helen Hegener is an author and a documentary filmmaker specializing in distance sled dog races and the men, women and dogs who run them. This post originally appeared on her website, Northern Light Media. It has been republished with permission.