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As one kids’ mushing event wraps up, organizers look ahead to next junior races

Published: Feb. 2, 2021 at 6:43 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The same weekend as the Bogus Creek 150, a group of kids and a big team of volunteers gathered for novice sled dog races, making sure the tradition of the local Willow Winter Games Kids Sled Dog Races continued.

“Because of COVID and all the things that have been happening the last year, some things got canceled and they didn’t think they were going to have the kids’ races,” said Casey Randall, who organized the race and runs Rock On Racing out of Anchorage with her family. “And then we just volunteered and said, ‘Okay, we’ll come out and help.’ And the rest of the community really just stepped up.”

For the Willow Winter Games Kids races over the past weekend, youngsters could choose between one-, two- or three-dog races. The lightest race spanned a short loop; the longest was spread out over a few miles.

Many of the competitors even ran with Iditarod veterans’ pups over the weekend. Five-time, top-ten Iditarod finisher Nic Petit, for example, was in attendance with Raven, who led several of the kids for their loops.

“It was just so much fun to see the kids and dogs interacting, young kids taking that responsibility, gaining confidence with the dogs and being on the dogs,” Randall said. “There was a lot of smiles on both kids, adults – and dogs.”

For the kids’ competitions over the weekend, racers received ribbons for their finish rankings, and wooden, dog paw “medals,” handmade by Lia Keller, were also given to each of the participants.

The mini-race series, which took place over Jan. 16 and Jan. 30 and consists of those several short-track races out in the Valley, also took place just a few days before the kickoff of the Willow 300. That race serves as an Iditarod qualifier for competitors who make that declaration ahead of time.

“It is the existence of it,” said Willow 300 Race Director Christine Stitt, who also serves as a checkpoint organizer and volunteer coordinator, of kids continuing to mush. “The children are the future of this sport.

“[Iditarod champions] Jeff King, Martin Buser, Dallas Seavey – they were all children once,” she said. “If we don’t keep the sport available for the children, then, the sport dies.”

Like the Iditarod, the Willow 300 also provides an event for younger mushers.

“The Willow Jr. 100 is a race the gives these children the confidence to reach their goals,” Stitt added.

Emily Dinges, president of Jr. Iditarod, said she’s thrilled to be in her role with the race and to be able to facilitate kids’ mushing.

“I think it’s so valuable to Alaska specifically because it’s a lot of the history,” she said. “I didn’t like history in school, but it’s getting to live that history and becoming closer to Alaska.”

Dinges said the sport is a healthy activity in many ways, too, considering what it takes to be training and running dogs.

“I learned a lot of responsibility through it,” said Dinges, who ran the Jr. Iditarod about a decade ago. “The kids are not just running their dogs. They’re growing these dogs, they’re raising money to run the races, they’re budgeting not just money but time. It’s a lifestyle – a lot of growing up, but in a fun way.”

The Willow Junior 100 will take place on Feb. 12 and 13. The Jr. Iditarod is scheduled to start on Feb. 27, with 12 mushers currently registered.

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