When you see all of the mushers line up for the ceremonial start on Fourth Avenue on Saturday to begin the Iditarod, you see just about everything. There are teams with big name corporate sponsors like banks and hardware stores. There are others that are driving up to Anchorage from far off lands in a dog trucks that looks like it should belong to their grandpa, held together with duct tape and all.
You see Scottish mushers with bag pipes and kilts. A Mushin’ Mortician and lots of kids on the tug sled to see mom or dad of on the journey (that actually begins the next day) of over a thousand miles.
Then you have Hugh Neff. Hugh is not like all the other guys. At least when it comes to the huge sponsors and kids in tow. It is him and his partner/girlfriend Tamra and that’s about it. Well, except for The Cat in the Hat, of course!
Neff has been sponsored by the National Education Association of Alaska for the last several years and takes part in a program where he speaks to rural Alaskan schools about the importance of reading. He also conducts school tours in the off season to talk to kids about the importance of dreams, living in the north and the importance of hard work.
School kids and teachers alike from all over the nation love Hugh and what a better ambassador to promote education and this great sport.
While all the mushers come to the party on 4th Avenue intent on running a good race, Neff can back it up. He has run in 19 thousand mile races since he moved to Alaska in 1996 with a couple dogs and not much else. This is his eighth Iditarod and his team is composed of “Annie’s Army” which is his stedfast lead dog and a fan favorite. Several of her pups are in this years race.
In each Iditarod he has moved up in the ranks with his best finish in 9th last year.
In this year’s race he is giving the top dogs like Martin Buser, Sebastian Schnuelle, Hans Gatt, Jon Baker, and Lance Mackey a run for their money.
Neff claimed the prize for the first musher to reach the Yukon River.
For being the first musher to reach the Yukon, Neff wins a seven-course meal that will be prepared on camp stoves by chefs from the Millennium Alaskan Hotel, which sponsors the checkpoint prize. The $3,500 is considered the after-dinner mint to the meal, presented on a gold pan.
Who would want a meal like that after almost six days on the trail and little to no sleep? I admit, I would, but I would want to find a quiet place quick to grab a short cat-nap, too.
With 507 miles to go to Nome it is still anyone’s race. Many of the teams are closing on Neff’s team and the trail is getting punchy and the teams will slow down. It is not nearly as fast as it was the first portion of the race and you will see teams beginning to compensate for the trail conditions.
But hey, this just might be Hugh’s year. It couldn’t happen to a better guy!
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