By Ben Johnson The sports section of an Alaskan newspaper looks a little different than that of your typical American daily. There's still coverage of the big four: basketball, baseball, football, and a hefty dose of hockey; but what makes an Alaskan sports section unique is its devotion to mushing, or competitive sled dog racing.
That is what caught Bob Chlupach's eye when he moved to Juneau, Alaska to work as a fisheries assistant after graduating from Iowa State University in the early 1970s.
“The biggest thing in the sports section was dog sledding,” Chlupach said. “I just thought that was fascinating.”
Eventually, Chlupach decided to get a dog for himself, and bought his first Siberian husky from an ad he saw in the paper in 1974. One dog soon led to two more.
“I started using [the three dogs] to bring home Christmas trees,” said Chlupach. “Then I decided I wanted to go a little faster.”
Just three years later, Chlupach had a kennel full of Siberians and had completed his first Iditarod when the famous 1,049 mile race was still in its infancy. He has finished the race ten times, most recently in 2001. Now at age 61, he says he still feels healthy enough to run it, but acquiring the finances to complete the race – he estimates it costs a minimum of $25,000 to $30,000 run the Iditarod – would prove to be tricky and he's “not one to court sponsors.”
In fact, finances are causing him and Sharon, his wife of five years, to leave their modest two-story log cabin just south of Grand Marais this week. Sharon recently lost her job as a Cook County highway engineer and Chlupach is semi-retired. He worked as a morning prep cook last summer at a local restaurant called The Angry Trout and also sells his dogs through his kennel, called Chlout Siberians, for extra cash. But it’s not enough.
Chlupach and his 30 dogs will travel back to Willow, Alaska on this Wednesday. He will work as a fishing guide this summer while Sharon will go to Colorado to work for the Forest Service.
“It will totally suck, but sometimes that's just the way things go,” Sharon said.
It's a bittersweet homecoming for Chlupach. He lived in Willow for over 20 years and has his daughter, Melissa, her 5-month old baby, Josephine, and his mother to return to.
“I'm very excited to see him,” Melissa said. “It'll be great to have [Josephine] spend time with her grandpa.”
He will also be returning to the kind of quiet comfort life in rural Alaska grants, Chlupach said.
“He's a pretty simple, low-key guy,” said Melissa. “He doesn't really concern himself with other people's business.”
And when winter rolls around, he’ll be back on the trail, mushing.
“When I'm out there the whole world just goes away,” Chlupach said.