With a 'bone to pick,' Schaeffer signs on for Last Great Race
Chuck Schaeffer is no stranger to long, difficult hours on the back of a dog sled.
Over his 60 years, he has driven dogs across the Arctic, raised champion sled dogs, and is well known across the state for his long, dog-powered journeys.
Earlier this month, Schaeffer signed on for another long journey: the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And while he's no stranger to the 1,000-mile contest from Willow to Nome — he has started the race twice — he has yet to complete it.
In 2015, he not only plans to finally cross Iditarod off of his long list of accomplishments, he plans on being a contender. It's taken years to build up the kennel and get ready to once again hit the trail to Nome. And now, he said, it's time.
"I have a bone to pick with Iditarod," Schaeffer laughed last week.
While his last two attempts were back in 1985 and 1990, he has never lost the desire of crossing under the burled arch in Nome ahead of the rest.
"This is no fluke, I'm a legitimate contender," Schaeffer said, adding that he has a decades-long history of selling dogs to top mushers, some of whom went on to win the Iditarod several times over. "I want to finish this race, but, more importantly, I want to win this race."
After his last Iditarod attempt, Schaeffer got out of dogs and "went to work like a normal human being." He got tired of that, he said, and credits his wife, Tracey, who is also a musher, for getting him back into dogs.
Twice Schaeffer has traveled from Nenana to Kotzebue with nothing but his wits, a loaded sled, and an eager team of huskies. The first time was just to see if he could do it, and the second was to relay a message to youth in the villages he stopped at.
"The message was to be proud of who you are, be proud of where you came from because you still have an identity, and, last but not least, feel good about yourself," Schaeffer said. "It has a lot to do with being Native and trying to live in a modern world. It has to do with education and the importance of acquiring as much of it as you can. It has to do with staying away from drugs and alcohol and the abuse that follows it. It has to do with traditional knowledge and the importance of keeping it alive."
Traveling by traditional means to spread this message seemed fitting and now Schaeffer wants to rekindle that traditional mode of transport on the racing scene.
"We, in today's day and age, rarely find Native mushers in the big racing events," he said.
The big reason behind the waning Native delegation, Schaeffer offered, is that the high cost of owning and training a dog team in rural Alaska is prohibitive for the average musher.
Until a couple of years ago, Schaeffer lived in Kotzebue, where he is from, and the freight costs were often as high, or higher, than the product he was shipping up. A ton of high-grade dog kibble worth $3,000 winds up costing double to get it to a village off the road system, he said, adding that he made the move to Willow because he simply couldn't afford to have a dog team up north.
"Dog mushing in the rural villages has taken a huge plunge in the past 20 years," he said. "In fact there are now some villages in Northwest Alaska that don't have any dogs or mushers anymore. I make every effort that I can to keep that alive.
"I want people to understand that I'm still from there, I'm still here."
Along with his long-distance solo trips, Schaeffer has raced two of the toughest contests in the state — the Kobuk 440 and the Kuskokwim 300 [--?several times over. Last spring, he also traveled to Russia to compete in the Nadezhda-Hope Dog Sled Race with the goal of bridging the gap between the two Native cultures. He wound up finishing third out of a field of 27.
To be competitive in any race, especially Iditarod, all your ducks need to be in a row, he maintained. From funding sources, to breeding programs and strong support, every detail needs to be sorted out to survive, let alone thrive.
And while those long trips through the North haven't necessarily given him any kind of advantage, he said, he was able to spend a lot of quality time with only his dogs, which is key.
"It gives me a better rapport with the dogs," he said. "They go through the same conditions as you would see in any racing environment, but they don't have the pressure."
Schaeffer will head to his home region in the next couple of weeks to train his main team near Kotzebue until December. His team is currently made up of mostly young dogs and a couple of older, steadfast leaders, with 30 dogs total in his Iviq Kennel. His lines these days stem from a dog he got from Kotzebue-area musher Ed Iten. He bred that female with one of two-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey's leaders years ago and went from there. His bloodlines also include dogs from the late Fred Jordan of Tanana.
Over the coming months leading up to the big race, Schaeffer will be hard at work training his team, but he'll also be focusing on fundraising. The Iditarod is an expensive endeavor, costing upwards of $20,000 after all is said and done, and that's not including annual kennel costs to maintain a healthy, happy dog team. The entry fee alone for the epic event is $3,000.
Letters and phone calls requesting sponsorship are on his to-do list for the winter, he said. And while corporate sponsorship in the Arctic might be tough, he'll continue to ask the big companies for support, along with individual donors.
Winning the historic race to Nome might seem like a lofty goal for someone "damn near as old as the mountains," but Schaeffer's got the grit and the gumption. He might even test his team in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, another 1,000-mile, notoriously grueling affair, if he can raise the money.
"It's taken a lot of years to get to this point and we want to prove to ourselves and the rest of the mushing community that we are contenders. It's that time."
To sponsor Schaeffer visit his Iviq Adventures Facebook page or go to the "Get Chuck to Nome" fundraiser at https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/0lxh6/ab/5KAVe