Growing up in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Eric Rogers never missed episodes and reruns of the television series “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”
The show chronicled the fictional adventures of a Northwest Mounted Police officer and his trusty dog, Yukon King, as they tracked down villains in the Canadian wilderness during the gold rush.
“I always thought it would be great to have a lead dog named King and go on all these adventures,” Rogers said. “But as I grew up and matured ... it was just one of those dreams I put aside and thought it would never happen.”
Nearly half a century later, Rogers is about to fulfill his dream by embarking on one of the planet’s ultimate wilderness challenges.
Saturday, the transplanted Southern Californian and his team of 14 dogs will be chasing other competitors -- not bad guys -- when they begin a journey of more than 1,150 miles across Alaska in the 34th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
About 80 mushers and their teams are entered in this year’s event, which begins with a ceremonial start in Anchorage, then restarts about 30 miles north Sunday afternoon in Willow and ends 10 to 14 days later in Nome. The race commemorates the delivery of life-saving diphtheria serum in 1925 to the stricken Bering Sea city.
Last year, Robert Sorlie of Norway covered the trail that wound through mountain ranges, forests and across frozen rivers and desolate tundra in 9 days 18 hours 39 minutes 31 seconds. Sorlie, who also won in 2003, earned slightly more than $72,000.
At 58, Rogers is the oldest of the 20 “rookies” participating for the first time in an event that has grown in legend and has been dubbed the “Last Great Race on Earth.” A grandfather who holds a PhD in theoretical particle physics, Rogers said in a telephone interview that he had no illusions about winning.
“My goal is to finish it with a strong, happy team to build on for next year,” said Rogers, who lives with his wife Marti in Eagle River, about 20 miles outside Anchorage.
The Rogerses moved from Texas to Alaska with their four daughters in the early 1990s. The couple has worked as Iditarod volunteers for more than a decade.
Joanne Potts, Iditarod race director since 1983, said Eric Rogers’ journey to the starting line took a while, but that his arrival this year was not unexpected.
“Nothing surprises me with a dog musher,” Potts said. “By and large, most people who really get bit by this stay bit.”
Rogers got hooked by the Sgt. Preston show and Jack London stories and novels.
He trains his dogs during late-night and early-morning runs that have included more than one encounter with moose. According to Rogers, few things in life compare to his team’s running “like a fine Swiss watch” under the Alaskan moonlight with the northern lights glowing through the trees.
“It’s just like magic,” he said.
Rogers’ trail to the Iditarod began near the beach.
He was born in Santa Monica and lived in Southern California for 11 years before moving with his family to Colorado, where he fell in love with the outdoors and all things related to the North Country and Alaska.
“He would talk about how he would get his own dog team and live in the Yukon,” recalled his younger brother, Ted, who lives in Los Angeles.
Rogers attended Colorado State and began graduate school in Illinois before he was drafted and served in the Air Force. He earned his doctorate and worked for an oil company in Houston for 11 years.
“It was a great job but a terrible place to live,” he said.
In 1991, the company offered Rogers a buyout. He accepted and moved his family to Alaska.
“I figured I’d go to a great place I always wanted to live and see what I could do to make a living,” said Rogers, who eventually found a job doing underwater acoustics.
Shortly after arriving in Alaska, Rogers and his one pet dog took up skijoring, a combination of cross-country skiing and mushing.
“I got her a harness and I had a pair of old cross-country skis,” he said. “She could pull me. That was the start of the slippery downhill trend to where I am today.”
The next year Rogers added another dog. The next year another. In 1994, he bought an old toboggan sled and two retired sled dogs. Today, he has a kennel of 18 dogs, modest, he says, compared to most top competitors.
During the 2001-02 competitive season, Rogers completed the Denali 300. Over the last two years, he has completed several 200- and 300-mile events and qualified for the Iditarod. A week after he signed up for this year’s race, however, he lost his job.
“I thought, ‘Well, I have two choices. I can withdraw ... or I can take a leap and see if this is what the Lord wants me to do and see if I can make it happen.”
Rogers said he budgeted about $10,000 for the last year to support his kennel and prepare for the race, about five times less than some of the top competitors might spend.
Last week, he shipped more than 1,500 pounds of food and equipment to various food drops along the trail.
“I kept thinking, ‘What in the world am I forgetting?’ ” he said. “I thought my mind had been shipped out.”
So, at times, did Marti.
“The spouse’s role is to take care of the hundred million tiny details,” she said, laughing. “He takes care of the dogs and I take care of him.”
On Tuesday, the archbishop of Anchorage came out to Rogers’ kennel to bless the dog team. On Wednesday, race veterinarians checked the dogs and on Thursday Rogers attended a drivers’ meeting. Today is open house for Iditarod fans and supporters, and Saturday is the ceremonial start.
But it is Sunday, when the teams begin the trek from Willow to Nome, that the real adventure begins.
Rogers is confident that he is prepared, but he is also cognizant that he will encounter many situations for the first time.
“I’ve never done a race over 300 [miles],” he said. “There are things you can get away with in a 300-mile race that you can’t in an Iditarod.”
Marti says she is not worried because her husband has developed coping, camping and trail skills.
“I won’t begin to panic until he’s 24 hours late to each checkpoint,” she joked.
Rogers hopes to finish and then write a book about his experiences to help attract sponsors and finance his preparation for next year’s race. By 2008, he hopes to be competitive.
But for now, just fulfilling his dream is enough.
“It should be a real adventure,” he said.