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New sled dog race follows Alaska's west coast

December 29th, 2011 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

Alaska's mushing community can add a new race to their to-do lists in the coming year, as the Norton Sound Sled Dog Club ushers in the Paul Johnson Memorial - Norton Sound 450. The race begins in Unalakleet on the morning of Feb 8 and finishes a few days later in Nome.

Race organizers, like Middy Johnson of Unalakleet, are working on making the race a qualifier for the Iditarod, which kicks off from Anchorage a month later on March 3.

"It'll give us something to add to our region during that time when you're just coming out of the dead of winter, and give people something to look forward to," Johnson said.

The race is dedicated to the memory of beloved Alaska musher and Unalakleet resident Paul Johnson - Middy Johnson's brother - who died unexpectedly in October from surgery complications. Paul Johnson was a lifelong member of the Norton Sound Dog Sled Club and had planned to run the 2012 Iditarod.

The club wanted to establish a major qualifying race in the Norton Sound region that is accessible to local mushers - both financially and geographically.

Aaron Burmeister, a veteran of 12 Iditarod races, splits his time between Nenana and Nome. He is one of a number of mushers already planning to hit the trail for both the Paul Johnson Memorial race and the 2012 Iditarod.

"I think it's fantastic. It's a great way to promote the sport on the coast and get the community and villages back involved with it," Burmeister said. "(It) will be a big benefit to the rural mushers in that area that have goals of running the Iditarod. It's so expensive for mushers in the Bush to travel out to races to get qualified."

Burmeister also pointed out that because the race covers nearly a third of the Iditrod trail, it is excellent training ground for any musher serious about Alaska's longest sled dog race.

"You couldn't find a better place to train than the last 300 mils of the Iditarod trail," said Burmeister, who is participating in both the Norton Sound race and the Kusko 300 - a round trip between Bethel and Aniak - in preparation for the Iditarod.

Johnson is hoping competitive rates with airlines to transport dogs and mushers to the race should help make it an affordable venture.

"We're trying to make it a musher-friendly race and keep costs down," Johnson said. "And have a purse that allows them to recoup some of their cost."

At this time the club plans on a $50,000 purse with the top 15 competitors taking home some part of it. First place is $11,000, second is $8,500 and third is $7,000 - with the payouts descending gradually until the 11th through 15th places, which all receive $750. The finalized purse amounts will be released Feb 1.

The race begins with the long-running Portage 200 - established in 1973 - which runs from Unalakleet to Kaltag and back. From there mushers will head through the remaining checkpoints of Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin and White Mountain then finish in Nome. Middy Johnson predicts the race will take approximately three days, with a six-hour rest in Kaltag and 24 hours of total rest required in the Norton Sound 450 portion. Eight of that must be spent at White Mountain, though the rest is at the mushers' discretion.

Johnson said he expects anywhere from 16 to 25 mushers to participate in what he hopes is the first many future races, but he won't be one of them this year.

"If I'm going to help organize it I'm going to see it through to the end," Johnson said. "I would love to be in its inaugural run, but it's more important for me to make sure it goes off well. I would take pride in doing that."

The deadline to postmark the $500 entry fee is Jan 27, 2012

For more information contact Middy Johnson - Or John Wilson -


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