If there’s one thing that all of the sponsors of Iron Dog reiterate, said the race’s executive director Kevin Kastner, it’s safety. From the moment the racers leave the chute in downtown Anchorage, until they are safely at the finish in Fairbanks, there are countless ways in which they put themselves at risk.
But a prepared racer is a successful one, and the Donlin Gold Safety Expo highlights the many ways in which racers and riders will stay one step ahead of any trouble. The event, free and open to everyone, is set for 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17, at Cabela’s in South Anchorage. Not only can participants meet the racers, but they also can glean safety information of their own, so when it comes time for their own backcountry adventures, they too are prepared.
“A lot of our partners, like Donlin Gold, they want to reiterate that safety message,” Kastner said. “The largest safety improvements Iron Dog has made over the years have been requirements of protective gear and some restrictions on certain dangerous portions of the course — we’ve enforced some overland routes to keep them off the water, and stayed on top of helmet safety as well… And we have riders, too, who are spreading the safety message.”
Team 31, Ben Bailey of Anchorage and Seth Wells of Eagle River, are racing this year to spread an avalanche awareness message. After losing a friend, Russell Miller, to an avalanche last spring, the two men decided this was a way to honor him.
“It wasn’t supposed to be him. He was the one that preached, lived and loved mountain safety,” Wells wrote in his Go Fund Me plea (to donate, go to https://www.gofundme.com/8e57a8fg). “He was the one with all of the correct gear and the ability to use it. He was the best of us.”
Wells and Bailey were inspired to honor Miller’s life in some way. In this year’s Iron Dog, Miller will be on their minds. The pair will be racing wearing full avalanche gear, including flotation devices, shovels, probes, beacons, etc. Not only will their message stress safety, but also the importance of organ donation. Miller’s donations helped save two lives.
“Russ and I had talked about doing the Iron Dog for a few years,” Wells said. “It was something that me and him always wanted to do. The avalanche he was involved in was not like anything you would expect; it was on a cut bank off of a creek, maybe 60 feet tall. It could happen anywhere. We are wanting to ride in all of our avalanche gear to let people know: It can happen anywhere.”
While safety is the overriding theme of the expo, it also is meant to be a prerace celebration of the days to come. To add to the festivities, organizers created a new event – the 2016 Passport Game and Best in Show competition. Participants can enter to win door prizes and vote on the best-looking 2016 Iron Dog Pro Class snowmachine.
The Best in Show prizes will be announced on site.
Iron Dog Raffle tickets (drawings to be held Feb. 27 at the end of the awards banquet in Fairbanks) will be on sale, too. Win the grand prize of a 2016 Toyota Tacoma from Kendall Toyota. Or maybe that raffle ticket is worth the second-place prize – a 2016 CFMOTO U-Force 500 UTV from Alaska Power Sports paired with a 10-foot Aluma Tilt trailer from White Spruce Trailer Sales. Those and the other prizes will be on display at the expo. Raffle tickets are $60, and up to half of the proceeds will go to the Alaska Veterans Museum, the chosen beneficiary of Iron Dog’s 2016 race.
Throughout all of this, fans can not only talk to teams and wish them luck, but also inspect their sleds, see the required gear spread out and partake in event highlights. They can also brush up on their winter safety skills with riding and snowmachine rescue training provided free of charge. Stop in at Cabela’s café for snacks, chat with the racers and become part of the fun.
“It’s just a really good way to have the riders and fans interact,” Kastner said. “Largely it’s a good time and you have a good chance to get up close with the racers and look at their sleds and hear their stories.”