Inupiaq dog driver headed to Russia for historic Hope race
Kotzebue dog musher Chuck Schaeffer is hoping to "bridge the gap" between Russian and Alaska Natives at the Nadezhda-Hope Dog Sled Race in Chukotka, Russia, next month.
Schaeffer has been driving dogs for decades and while he's competed in many challenging races, including the Iditarod, over the years, his dog skills might have been best put to the test with his long, solo treks across the state. He has travelled Alaska on the back of a dog sled, stopping in villages to visit and restock his supplies, which will be akin to the kind of travelling he'll be doing in Russia.
He's joined forces with Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth and Russian Mikael Telpin to form Team Beringia. Leifseth completed his second Iditarod this week while Telpin finished the Last Great Race last year. Both mushers have also completed the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest.
Schaeffer met Leifseth a while back and the Scandinavian mentioned that there hasn't been an Inupiaq musher in the Hope race, a historic journey that began in 1991 and travels across the Chukotka region, finishing in the Anadyr. In the past, Alaska mushers have participated in the race as competitors and judges, including the famed Susan Butcher, and each year still the race draws participants from around the world.
This year's race is approximately 680 miles — the distances have varied over the years — and takes on the stage-race format, which means mushers will stop for the night in the various villages. The event is known as the "Race on the Edge of the Earth" and will present challenging weather and tough terrain, similar to Arctic Alaska.
"I'm really more interested in checking out the villages than racing," Schaeffer said last week. "It's going to be like going back in time for me."
Currently stationed in Willow with his wife Tracey, who is also a dog musher, Schaeffer has about 30 dogs in his Iviq Kennel. He didn't really have a team to "mess around with" this year, he said. Not until last year's Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey called him earlier this winter and asked if he wanted to take back a litter of young dogs Schaeffer had given him.
They're good dogs, Seavey told Schaeffer, but he just didn't have time to train them. So, Schaeffer filled out his team with those five and later in April will load up 10 huskies total on a flight to Russia. He's packing as light as possible for the trip, he said, and admitted he's not really sure what to expect.
But that's part of the adventure and Schaeffer is no stranger to delving into the unknown. Especially on a dog team.
The history of the race and traditional lifestyle of the coastal Chukchi people offers visiting mushers the chance to immerse themselves in a new society, as well as take part in the race.
"I always thought I was born 100 years too late, so I get to see a reenactment of my people and how they lived many, many years ago," Schaeffer said. "I'm not that interested in racing itself, my big interest is just to see how the people live over there. It's going to be really cool."
As for the language, Schaeffer said he's not concerned about communicating. Whether or not Inupiaq language, or English, will be understood remains to be seen.
"I'm kind of going into this blind," he said. "And whether or not I can communicate, well, we'll see."
The race happens in early April and Schaeffer will be over there for at least a few weeks. And while he's not bringing much in the way of food — human or canine — the trip is going to be expensive. When mushers arrive in the villages, food for them and their teams is provided. Dogs will feast on walrus, mostly, and other ocean dwellers native to the area.
"Whatever they have is fine with us," said Schaeffer. "I've never been to Russia, and I might never to get another opportunity like this."
Schaeffer recalled many years ago, when Russian natives arrived on the shores at Kotzebue in skin boats, and is hoping for the same welcoming reception, he said.
But first he has to get there.
Maniilaq Association has jumped on board with a generous sponsorship for travel costs, but Schaeffer is hoping to raise more money before the trip.
To help Schaeffer in his quest to represent Arctic Alaska at the Nadezhda-Hope Dog Sled Race call 495-6028 or 355-6024, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Someone is finally bridging the gap, and it's going to be me," Schaeffer said.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime."