No Iditarod for Glenwood musher, but he’s still headiing north

Jeff CaspersenPost Independent Staff
Kara K. Pearson Post Independent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – As Bill Pinkham nears, with a bucket of food dangling from each hand, a cacophony of barks and howls busts out.It’s breakfast time at the musher’s country kennel, and Pinkham’s legion of Alaskan huskies is primed to kick off a day of rest and relaxation with a little grub. Fresh off days flavored with arduous training runs, the dogs earned every minute of their clean Thursday slate, and every bite of their kibble, meat and supplement medley.After years of grooming his spunky canines for the granddaddy of dog-sled races, the Iditarod, Pinkham’s pups will tackle new competition in 2008 – the lesser-known but equally daunting Yukon Quest.

It’s an interesting twist to the Glenwood Springs musher’s relatively young sledding career, considering the 49-year-old last year registered a personal-best 32nd-place finish at his fifth straight Iditarod.But it’s a decision driven by myriad reasons, chief among them money and logistics. “There are probably a few reasons,” he said. “One is financial. It’s less expensive to do and, logistically, it’s easier in some ways. and I have a bunch of young dogs. And, partly with the money thing, I know I can’t do any better (at the Iditarod). It’s possible, but I’m probably not going to finish in the money. To spend the extra money, I might as well go to the Quest. I could make a little money. The structure is not as competitive.”Pinkham’s 2008 changeup will get underway when he begins his trek north shortly after New Year’s, a full month before the race’s start. Why so early? To permit time for travel, acclamation to the chilly environs and training runs.Like the Alaska-exclusive Iditarod, the Quest routes through much of Alaska. The race takes off from Fairbanks on Feb. 9 and, roughly 1,000 miles later, wraps in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (Canada).But the Quest gets its start a full three weeks earlier, making for a more frigid run. Temperatures will hit 40 below and mushers and their dogs will contend with winds that reach up to 100 miles an hour. “It’s darker and usually colder,” said Pinkham, who’s no stranger to the Quest, having raced it in both 2001 and 2002. “The terrain is rough, very remote. The trail is not quite as set as the Iditarod. It requires you to really find the trail a little more, less marking. It can be pretty challenging, both mentally and physically.”

The variances between the two races don’t end with their start dates. The 1,150-mile Iditarod operates with more checkpoints and starts with 16 dogs to the Quest’s 14.Oh, and the Iditarod casts a mighty big shadow on the Quest, something Pinkham is fully embracing.”The Quest is a little more relaxing,” he said. “It’s a tough race but it’s more relaxing, as far as dealing with people and and energy. You’re out there enjoying what you’re doing rather than getting caught up in the exposure, the vibe and media of the Iditarod.”Familiar handlersA mighty familiar face will be there to lend Pinkham a helping hand on the trail – his girlfriend, Jodi Swanson. Dogs brought the pair together when Swanson, a Minnesota native, applied to assist Pinkham at the kennel two years back.Sparks immediately flew and a relationship – both professional and personal – took root.”We just instantly had a connection,” said Swanson, herself a dogsledding enthusiast. “I know he has the same passion for dogs. They have a bond. They trust him. Together, they do this amazing thing.”Swanson and her friend, Amy Varsek, will serve as Pinkham’s handlers up north. Swanson and Varsek paired up for a 1,200-mile sledding expedition through northern Canada a few years back.

“There’s something beautiful and magical about being outside in the winter, with these animals dependent on you,” Swanson said. “You form a team and bond with them. It’s a pretty amazing experience. You either love it or hate it. It’s definitely a lifestyle choice, and I love it.”Having trained a team of dogs for their trek, it’s safe to say Pinkham’s handlers know a thing or two about mushing. “While Bill’s in the race, we’re the support and cleanup crew,” said Swanson, who also lent a hand at last year’s Iditarod. “If he drops any dogs or equipment or supplies he leaves behind, we follow along and pick it up.”The Quest includes a 36-hour mid-race layover where Swanson and Varsek will set up camp for Pinkham and his dogs. “That’s the one point we can have interaction,” Swanson said. “We can go in and feed the, massage any injuries, and Bill can go to bed. We can give him a break.”That’s just one reason why Pinkham is poised to relish the Quest.”Our handlers get to be a little more involved,” he said. “It’s kind of more personal. You’re allowed to have a little more help.”Done with the Iditarod?

Don’t rule out a future return to the Iditarod for Pinkham. His kennel is full of promising young, quickly maturing dogs.”There’s a real good chance I’ll return to the Iditarod,” Pinkham said. “I have quite a few young dogs, some dogs with no race experience, so this will be a lot more relaxing for me. I won’t have the urge to push them as much.”In fact, Pinkham’s kennel is so full of quality dogs that it’s complicating the selection process for the Quest.”I’m still trying to decide which dogs I’m taking,” he said. “I’m still training 22 to 27 and I really want to leave here with 18. Actually there are four that are yearling, only 15 months old. Frankly, that’s going to bother some people, but I wouldn’t normally take them. It’s just this litter is incredibly mature, physically and mentally. I don’t always take dogs that young, but some can handle it and some can’t, just like people.”Still, his crew will have a veteran flair.Pinkham plainly adores his dogs, so much so that they keep him glued to the racing trail. “This is my eighth year in a row doing a 1,000-mile race,” he said. “It’s really exciting this year. The young dogs are doing so tremendously. There are days I’m tired and think I can’t do this again next year, but when you see the young dogs coming up like right now, when you know you’ve done a good job with the young ones coming up, it kind of keeps you in it.”

The Yukon QuestIt’s a roughly 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (Canada). The Iditarod spans roughly 1,150 miles. The race begins Feb. 9.There are 10 checkpoints in the Quest to the Iditarod’s 25.Mushers start with 14 dogs in the Quest, as opposed to 16 in the Iditarod.This is Pinkham’s third Quest. He has raced the Iditarod five times.Pinkham’s dogs will go through some 1,500 booties during the race.Carbondale’s Swiss Gourmet is a chief sponsor of Pinkham’s team, and will supply vacuum-sealed food for the race. Add boiling water and the meal is ready to go.More information:

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