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Thursday, June 04, 2009

U.S. ALASKA: Overcoming Obstacles on the Trail

By Stefanie Gorder, CTP, DS
Alaska Bureau Chief

Martin Buser, an Alaskan legend

Say the name Martin Buser in Switzerland or Alaska and immediately one knows we are discussing the incredible man who is a four-time champion of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. I first met Martin four years ago when a friend recommended his Happy Trails Kennels as a stopping point to include in tour programs for Premier Alaska Tours. As an Alaskan who prefers the warmth of a fire and a soft sofa to chilly temperatures and blowing snow, I am fascinated by his lifestyle and commitment to showing his passion through his business. Not only does he live life to the fullest, but he is so engaging that once he starts speaking, even this Alaskan captivated!

Martin Buser. An Alaskan Legend.

Martin and his wife Kathy Chapoton are two extraordinary Alaskans. Kathy is a retired teacher and Martin spends time discussing the humanitarian care of animals and the spirit of the Last Great Race with youth. Considered a favorite celebrity by both children and adults of Alaska, Martin surprises many with visits from his dogs and puppies. They share the responsibilities of running an active sled dog kennel. Martin and Kathy have two incredibly polite and knowledgeable sons who are both attending college. Nikolai and Rohn are named after checkpoints along the Iditarod trail. The most remarkable trait all four possess is showing northern hospitality to visitors to their kennels. No matter the condition … minus 20 and winds blowing hard enough to knock a hat from the head or in the Alaska summer heat of 70 plus degrees, all four smile brightly and are welcoming at all times. Their lifestyle is based on passion and this mushing family built a successful business out of sharing their love for the sport.


Martin’s attraction to sled dogs started in his homeland of Switzerland when he was a teen. He moved to Alaska in 1979 to enhance his knowledge of care and training sled dogs. Dog mushing is Alaska’s state sport so it makes sense that Alaska would capture the hearts of many people who are fascinated with sled dogs. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race (www.iditarod.com) is unlike any event in the world. According to their official web site, this rough race covers over 1150 miles of the most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer. Jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast. Mushers can train for years to raise their endurance to withstand temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause complete loss of visibility and long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs. The actual race preparation begins the day after the previous year’s race ends; the other 50 weeks are dedicated in some way or another to getting the team ready for the equivalent of a Miami to New York trek by dog team.


Martin first ran the Iditarod, now a National Historic Trail in 1980. He runs the race each year with his dogs to test the success of their breeding, training and physical endurance. He regards his racers as true competitive athletes and prides his team on their longevity and spirit of competition. Says Martin, “I run the Iditarod to prove that my dogs, which are bred, trained and raced by Happy Trails Kennels, are the best amongst the world’s long distance athletes.” Martin's 2002 team currently holds the record for the fastest Iditarod by completing the race in 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds. He has the most consecutive Iditarod finishes than any other musher: 26 from 1986 through 2009. His finishes have impressed many and placed him in the Alaska legend circle.



Today, the Iditarod is a chance for worldwide spectators to come together to watch the best four-footed athletes compete and celebrate Alaska’s history. With the ceremonial start in Anchorage set for the first Saturday each March, musher’s take off into the wilderness. From south-central Alaska to the western Bering Sea Coast, each team of 12 to 16 dogs and their musher cover over 1150 miles in 10 to 17 days. The trail itself had its beginnings as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior mining camps at Flat, Ophir, Ruby and further west. Mail and supplies went in and gold came out all via dog sled. Heroes were made, and legends were born. In 1925, part of this historic trail became a life saving highway for epidemic stricken Nome. Diphtheria threatened the residents and serum had to be brought in; again by intrepid dog mushers and their faithful hard-driving dogs. As tribute to his treatment of his racers, Martin was awarded the coveted Leonhard Seppala Award in 1988, 1993, 1995 and again in 1997 for the most humanitarian care of his dogs. The award was named for the most famous Alaskan musher who ran the longest and most dangerous stretch of the 674-mile diphtheria serum run from Nenana to Nome, which saved hundreds of lives. The Iditarod commemorates this piece of Alaska history, a not-so-distant past that Alaskans honor.

Immediately following Martin’s 2002 Iditarod victory, which still stands as the fastest Iditarod ever, he completed the process to become a naturalized citizen of the United States under the burled monument in Nome which marks the finish line of the Iditarod. After the grueling 8 days of being on the trail with few hours of sleep and battling the extreme elements of interior Alaska, Martin rested. For 5 days. He then turned around and made the trip from Nome to Big Lake with his family by snow mobile (in Alaska, they are called snow machines). That’s the incredible Alaska spirit that captivates so many residents who love living an adventurous lifestyle in the north.


The Ultimate Kennel Experience

Each summer Martin and his family give tours of their working kennel. Their tour begins with a video presentation of the trip from Anchorage to Nome and includes his unique anecdotal stories gathered over his 26 runs of the Iditarod. Visitors are offered a glimpse of a mock up of the Cripple checkpoint complete with campfire and wall tent. Veterinary and dog care topics are discussed and of course, there's the cuddling of puppies. The tour ends with a riotous symphony of dogs barking as a team is hooked up and taken on a demo run to show the dogs in action. Locals and visitors alike love the inside look at the Last Great Race and the lifestyle that keeps Happy Trails Kennels a welcomed stop. The Kennels are open for drive up traffic and groups and appeals to all ages.

When traveling to Alaska, the kennels must go on your “bucket list” since mushing is a huge part of Alaska history. If you are not planning to visit Happy Trails Kennels in the near future, you can surf their site and purchase their new video, For the Love of Dogs featuring the unique lifestyle made possible by training and racing sled dogs. The video captures a sled dog’s life from puppyhood to racing and Martin’s interaction with his athletic friends.

The mushing life is unique and not for everyone. Here are Martin’s words, printed with permission:

My commute is 20 yards, from my front door to my sled. My office is unlimited vistas and extreme temperatures. And my daily challenges are building a cohesive team out of 40 individuals working towards a common goal – to win the world’s toughest sled dog race. To be a good team leader I focus on individual personalities, moods and attitudes. My team members just happen to be four legged furry friends.

The Iditarod sled dog race throws daily if not hourly challenges at us and only the most finely tuned teams prevail. Together as a unit, we will overcome mountain ranges, open water, wind swept tundra and literally frozen ocean. Dogs used to cover 25 miles and day and now they travel 150 miles per day in any given 24 hour period allowing mushers time for only an occasional nap.

The modern Iditarod is a NASCAR like tradition that honors drivers and the dogs of an era long gone and highlights dog care, science, and technology applied to the sport in modern days. These well-bred dogs will burn up to 11,000 calories per day. The carbon fiber sleds glide on specialized plastics and sometimes the musher’s position is revealed through satellite tracking devices only accessible through the Iditarod Trail Committee using the internet.

Coming from the old country, Switzerland, I was lured to Alaska in 1979 for a mere adventure with no intention of staying more than a year. The dogs, the beauty of the land and the challenges captivated me to the point where racing the Iditarod has become a year round commitment and lifestyle. 2009 was my 26th Iditarod, my first two races being run with Siberian huskies belonging to a premier Alaskan legend, Earl Norris.

This year, I started the race with primarily dogs that have been born and raised in our kennel. Our thoroughbred Alaskan racing huskies have evolved from the straightforward working dogs of the gold rush days. Now rather than pulling heavy loads and breaking trail, these dogs cover long distances in relatively short periods of time. The initial Iditarod was won in twenty nine days and the record now stands at less than nine days.

People expect to see the large furry Siberian husky-looking canines featured in Jack London stories and often are surprised to see the sleek, diverse, slender racing Alaskan huskies. Very much like summo wrestlers not making marathon runners, the Alaskan husky has become highly specialized. When looking at the dogs we concentrate more on performance than looks. Rather than focusing on exterior appearance we gravitate toward dogs with unprecedented drive, superior appetites to replenish energy spent, long legs to help cover ground efficiently and deep narrow chests to accommodate the incredible lungs that help power these exceptional athletes.

Every year in March the very best of the world’s long distance dogs and mushers are pitted not only against each other but also the various challenges Mother Nature can throw in their path. The race has experienced from 60 degrees above zero to 60 below zero, has seen competitors from most continents and is considered the ultimate equal opportunity sport not discriminating among men and women, old and young, experienced and non-experienced.


As if the Iditarod wasn’t extreme enough, Martin recently participated in a trial run of the Alaskan Wet Dog Race . This will be world’s longest personal watercraft (PWC) endurance race with the goal to have the largest prize payout in water crafting history. This race will begin in the ocean at Whittier, Alaska and end over 2,000 miles and 23 checkpoints later in a lake called Iliamna at the village of Iliamna. Over two thousand miles of rough and brutal watercraft riding, across Alaska's open oceans, rivers and lakes will not only test the stamina of man, but it will define which brand of watercraft is the best. This race will separate those who think they can ride from those who can. Last month, a team of good will ambassadors which included Martin, left the Port of Anchorage on their personal watercrafts to begin the trek. We can all admire those that are outside of the box thinkers and those amazing partners like Kathy who stands next to Martin as each new adventure begins.

Martin and Kathy’s desire to promote and educate the wonders of raising and racing champion sled dogs is impressive. Several years ago, they named a litter of puppies in honor of Premier Alaska Tours. Young “Premier” was the face on t-shirts and marketing materials featured world wide. We’ve watched Premier grow and hope to one day see him as a champion on Martin’s team. In the meantime, we’ll keep visiting this remarkable family at their Happy Trails Kennels and cheer Martin on during each race. While we are proud of their commitment to Alaska and Sled Dogs, we are prouder to call them friends.


For more information on Happy Trails Kennels, Martin Buser, Alaska Winter Tours or the Iditarod, contact any of the quality listings in this article. Next month: go inside the wilds of Alaska with Stefanie Gorder, Alaska resident providing an insider’s look into the Last Frontier. To request Alaska topics for consideration, send to Ideas@marketing-Cents.com.
____________________________________________________________________________________
Submission: May 25, 2009

Stefanie Gorder, ctp, ds

marketingCents
Email: Sefanie@marketing-Cents.com
Twitter: @StefanieGorder

Premier Alaska Tours, Inc.
Email: Stefanie@tourAlaska.net
Twitter: @PremierAlaska
Web: www.PremierAlaskaTours.com



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1 comment:

wdk102bucks said...

Stephanie, I love your picture with the bear! It's so ALASKA!

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