By Naomi Klouda
Another first for Alaska is coming soon. This time, it’s a race not with dogs or snowmachines or even motocross bikes, but on watercraft in what organizers hope catches on as a worldwide competition on par with the IditarodTrail Sled Dog Race.
A half-dozen enthusiasts, including Iditarod champ Martin Buser, will set out May 19 on a 2,000-mile expedition through the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea on the Paving the Way journey.
John Lang, who has pioneered watercraft uses even in wintertime Alaska, brainstormed the idea. He initially wanted to route it through Kachemak Bay, with an overnight stop in Seldovia. However, those waters are off-limits to personal watercraft, following city legislation about 10 years ago to ban their use on the bay.
Lang’s group, traveling aboard Brenda Hays’ Memory Maker and captained by Bruce Lozekar, will cross Cook Inlet instead.
“For now, we want to make friends and find support centers for an annual Alaska Wet Dog Race,” Lang said. “It’s also a chance to help boost local economies because we intend to buy our fuel and food at stop points along the way.”
This summer’s trip is a chance to do “recon work to decide if it’s all going to happen or not,” Lang said. Stops along the way include Anchor Point, Point Graham, Kodiak, Old Harbor, Karluk, Chignik, Sand Point, Cold Bay, Igiugig, Port Heiden, Egegik and Iliamna, including the area where the proposed Pebble Mine is planned.
According to Lang, quite a bit of money has already been sunk into the idea: Each racer, or “ambassador” of the race, pays his or her own way. Era Aviation will provide helicopter filming from Anchorage to Anchor Point, and Memory Maker Charters will carry the film crew that will document the trip. Expedition members of varying professions will include Lang, expedition leader; Martin Buser, four-time Iditarod champion, of Big Lake; Ralph Perez, of Los Angeles; Gina Poths, of Anchorage; Petr Bucinsky, of Anchorage; and Ron Paye, of Wasilla.
The fuel range for a personal craft is 50 miles, necessitating frequent fuel stops so racers also can stretch their legs, get something to eat and take a rest.
The adventurers hope to become the first to travel the potentially dangerous waters on personal watercraft. The three-week journey is the final phase of the planning process for figuring out the Alaska Wet Dog route. Lang said it’s a chance to feel out support for checkpoints among the communities and support services along the way.
“I’ve been working on this for seven years. I’ve put a lot of time in the Web site, researching and talking to refuge officials, the Coast Guard, and local governments,” Lang said.
He lives in Wasilla and runs his personal watercraft business, Starbound Alaska Adventures, out of Whittier, where he offers exploration trips in Prince William Sound.
Memory Maker Charters, operated by Lozekar and Hays, is the group’s Homer connection and will support the efforts on the 2,000-mile journey, with overnight stops in Port Graham, before heading to Kodiak Island, then to the Bristol Bay region.
The 35-foot F/V Memory Maker was selected as the supply boat. It’s a challenging role that requires carrying extra safety equipment, the ability to move quickly and adequately navigate rivers, as well as open ocean water in daunting Bering Sea conditions. Capts. Lozekar and Hays were hired for their varied experience, including Lozekar’s 17 years as a charter boat captain licensed to operate up to 100 tons. Hays’ work as a tugboat captain, licensed for 1,600 tons, on the Redoubt heading from Seward to Bethel, also gives her an impressive resume. It helped that the Memory has a five-star rating by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Hays will take over the river leg of the route, from Igiugik or Naknek.
“We’re just really looking forward to the adventure of this,” Lozekar said. “We want to be a part of it.”
Lang said the goal of these adventurers is to bring exposure to remote regions of Alaska and its Native people, while navigating and charting a historic course. He hopes to reach an international audience. Results so far of a survey on his Web site at http://www.wetdograce.com indicate that Wet Dog is gaining serious attention from parts of Europe and South America, with lesser input from the United States. The site receives 150 hits a day, and has heard from residents of 24 countries.
“We have this fantastic opportunity to now go places and see things that primarily only commercial fishing boats get to experience,” Lang said, adding that watercraft have evolved to new levels of safety and low-pollution output.
And why not add another epic Alaska race to the list?
With an annual 1,100-mile Iditarod sled dog and 2,000-mile snowmobile Iron Dog race already in place, Lang reasons that the Alaska Wet Dog Race would add a sea dimension to the state’s endurance races, with a cash prize to match.
Personal watercraft riders worldwide continue to push the envelope when it comes to distance travel and endurance, Lang explained. “We want to give them the opportunity to do it all in Alaska, and in an environment where extreme racing is a familiar culture,” he said.
If it all works out, and the Alaska Wet Dog Race becomes an annual event with up to several hundred entrants, the economic benefit to the region could be fairly strong. Support services would need to be supplied along the way from about 23 communities.
“The goal is to have 500 teams running this race,” Lang said.
The public is invited to participate by tracking or supporting the race at http://www.wetdograce.com.