Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dog run on the Creeper Trail attracts Iditarod mushers and lots of fans | TriCities

By Debra McCown Reporter / Bristol Herald Courier

Published: January 16, 2010

DAMASCUS, Va. – The snow might be gone after Saturday’s spring-like thaw, but that didn’t keep the dogsleds off the trail. Pulling wheeled carts, teams of sled dogs on the Virginia Creeper Trail re-enacted the 1925 serum run that brought badly needed diphtheria antitoxin 674 miles from Nenana to Nome, Alaska. “The dogs are actually putting on a show to help other dogs,” said Marcia Horne, president of the Siberian Husky Assist rescue in Bristol, Va., which organized the re-enactment as part of its fourth-annual Winterfest, a fundraiser in Damascus. “In 1925 the dogs ran to save human lives,” Horne said, “and today they ran to save other dogs’ lives.”

The event, which began in Abingdon and relayed at three points along the trail before the dogs arrived in Damascus, attracted a lot of local folks interested in the dogs and the festivities but also sled dog enthusiasts from several states. “It’s not quite Alaska, but it’s the closest I can get right here,” Rodney Whaley said as he prepared for his leg of the run from the halfway point at the Old Alvarado Station. “There’s not many places where there are Southern dog mushers that get together.” Whaley, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., was one of a few in attendance who had run in Alaska’s legendary Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race. Though his dogs got sick on the trail and he didn’t finish, he said he’s the only Tennessean who has attempted “the world’s toughest race.”

Bill Borden, of Kennesaw, Ga., is one of the 672 mushers who’ve finished the Iditarod in its 37 years of existence. “It’s 90 percent mental,” said Borden, who uprooted his family for three years to compete in the race after an unlikely series of events that began in 1997 when he saw a city-limit sign in Wasilla, Alaska, that read, “Home of the Iditarod.” “I was in Georgia, with a mortgage office, a real estate office and a law office, and everybody said, ‘You’re going to do WHAT?’ ” he said. Now a motivational speaker who brings his message of perseverance, goal-setting and faith to the public school system, he said God was the one who inspired him to run the race. Lisa Akers, a fourth-grade teacher at Rhea Valley Elementary School, also uses sled dogs to capture the imagination of her students. Akers’s students study dogsledding and the mushers who drive the sleds. Then, they build sleds out of wood, cardboard, metal and PVC pipe and race them around the track at the school. She said she began the program after a trip to Alaska close to a decade ago, “to teach them more about what’s out there in the world, different opportunities.” “I’ve had several of the students tell me they’re going to be mushers when they grow up,” she said. “I don’t know if they will or not.” One of her former students, Katie Gilbert, 14, said she’d like to try it – and she finally talked her dad into getting a husky. Her next plan: Get a three-wheeled cart for the dog, Smokey, to pull. “I always wanted to go somewhere very cold,” she said. “I’ve lived around here and Abingdon all my life, and I’d just like to go somewhere different.” Jordan Blewett, 12, of Mayfield, Ky., helps her father with his dogsled team. She’s done it since she was born. She’s never done it on real snow, she said, “but I’m hoping to in the future.” “We are actually the fastest dogsled team in Kentucky,” said her father, Jeff Blewett, “but we’re the only dogsled team in Kentucky.” Blewett said his team gets most of its practice on gravel and logging roads in a nearby recreation area – and dogsleds on wheels are becoming more common. “I love snow, don’t get me wrong, but this sport is growing in its own right because a lot of places in America just don’t get that much snow anymore,” he said, adding that of a dozen or so dry-land dogsled races in the country, the ones here and in Nashville are the farthest south. Some people in attendance Saturday said they’re planning to get started with mushing because of the festival. “I thought it was cool that one dog could pull a bike with a man in it,” said 12-year-old James Gray. “I think we’re going to try that,” said his father, David Gray. “We’re getting a scooter within the month,” said Justin Keiper, who came from Boone for the festival with girlfriend Karen Niven and huskies Akira and Kodi. Randy Camper, of Abingdon, said he would’ve loved to see the sleds run on snow – and if the event had been a weekend earlier, it could have happened. Horne said people from the rescue tried it – but the snow wasn’t thick enough. But the dogs, she said, are a high-energy breed and love pulling – whether it’s a sled or a cart. Damascus Mayor Creed Jones said he was glad to see a crowd in town in the middle of January – and he’d like to see more events like this to help boost the town’s otherwise seasonal tourism economy. “This is good, but we still need something else in the winter,” he said, announcing that the door is open to anyone who can come up with a good idea to help grow the town’s winter tourism potential. “This is a great event and the most fun I’ve had on the Creeper Trail in a long time,” said Abingdon Mayor Ed Morgan, who began the re-enactment by handing off a package to be run to Damascus.

Borden, the musher from Georgia, also had a suggestion. “Running sponsor ads on race cars, they go so fast nobody can see them,” he said. “If they really want their logos to be seen, they should put them on a dogsled ... it’s slow enough so people can see them.”

There are more photos of the event at:

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