Big Lake musher Rohn Buser, the defending champion of the Kusko 300, is back in Bethel to defend his title with a team that includes a member of last year's championship team, the aptly named Quick.
"She was named in the speed litter," Buser said, referring to his family's habit of choosing a theme when naming pups from the same litter. "The others are Flash, Hasty and Presto."
Those names could also apply to Buser's competition when the 34th annual Kusko 300 begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday with a field of 22, many of whom rank among the world's speediest mushers.
Even with last-minute withdrawals by Lance Mackey, Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore, a quality field will race the 300 miles from Bethel to Aniak and back. Four-time Iditarod champions Martin Buser and Jeff King are entered, and so is 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker.
Guys who are contenders in nearly every race they enter -- Paul Gebhardt, brothers Cim and Ramey Smyth, Ken Anderson -- are there too, and so are bunch of so-called up-and-coming mushers who are chasing and in some cases catching their elders -- Rohn Buser, Pete Kaiser, Mike Williams Jr., Richie Diehl, Josh Cadzow.
"This race always has some of the top Iditarod contenders, so it's always a pretty challenging race," said Buser, 23. "It gives you a good idea of what you'll be running against in March."
Since it began in 1980, the Kusko 300 has been popular among mushers, even though the trip to Bethel is a pricey one and the weather there is often brutal.
Considered one of the best mid-distance races in the state, teams are drawn to the race by good competition, excellent organization and hospitality, challenging trail and a big purse.
"We're staying at the same host family that my dad's been staying with basically forever," Buser said. "It's great being in Bethel. It's such a mushing-supportive community. It's pretty awesome."
Adding to the lure this year is a snow-poor winter in Southcentral Alaska that has hampered training and prompted the cancellation of numerous other mid-distance races. Buser said he and his dad arrived in Bethel a couple of days early just to get in some extra training runs, because rain washed out the trails they use around Big Lake.
The Kusko 300 is the centerpiece of a big week that also includes a concert, a four-day basketball tournament, a fiddle dance and two other sled-dog races, the Bogus Creek 150, which begins at 5 p.m. Friday, and the Akiak Dash, which begins at 2 p.m. Saturday.
A purse of $110,000 is up for grabs in the 300-mile race, up 10 percent from last year and the second biggest purse in mushing behind the 1,000-mile Iditarod's $600,000 payout.
Before this week's late withdrawals, the field was up to 28, the most entries since 1994, race manager Zach Fansler said.
The last musher to sign up was 67-year-old Rudy Demoski of Saint Michael, who raced in the inaugural Kusko 300 and is back for the first time.
"As cold as it was, no wonder Rudy waited so long to come back," Myron Angstman, a Bethel musher who helped create the race, wrote on the Kusko 300 website.
In the 1980 race, Angstman recalled, the temperature was minus 22 at the Kuskokwim River starting line and minus 45 at the Tuluksak checkpoint. Later, Angstman said, mushers learned that the windchill factor was minus 110.
Thursday's temperatures in Bethel hovered around zero, which should firm up the trail after some recent rain.
"We expect a really fast trail," Fansler said.
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Kusko 300 field (in order of registration)
Ken Anderson, Fairbanks; Paul Gebhardt, Kasilof; Rohn Buser, Big Lake; Martin Buser, Big Lake; Ray Redington Jr., Wasilla; Ramey Smyth, Willow; Tony Browning, Nenana; Kristy Berington, Kasilof; Mike Williams Jr., Akiak; Mike Williams Sr., Akiak; Jeff King, Denali Park; Josh Cadzow, Fort Yukon; Cim Smyth, Big Lake; Pete Kaiser, Bethel; Richie Diehl, Aniak; Mikhail Telpin, Russia; Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Norway; John Baker, Kotzebue; Katherine Keith, Kotzebue; Isaac Underwood, Aniak; Louis Ambrose, St. Michael's; Rudy Demoski, Saint Michael's.