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Weather extremes keep mushers guessing in Alaska's Kobuk 440

Suzanna Caldwell
Unusual for the mushing world, the Kobuk 440 features a mass start in which teams all head out from a common starting line. Courtesy Kobuk 440

Even though it might be spring across much of Alaska, the supremely winter sport of dog mushing is still going strong on the Northwest coast.

On Thursday, 18 mushers will take off from Kotzebue in a mass start toward Noorvik and then Kiana, the first checkpoints on the 440-mile race that winds its way through villages around Kotzebue Sound and the Kobuk River drainage. The race is the last major mid-distance mushing event in Alaska.

Race organizers bill the race as the toughest race above the Arctic Circle, but race manager Michael Oliver said it might be more accurate to call it the toughest race, period.

Over three days mushers will only get 20 hours of rest -- if that -- making for a long, tired slog through some of Alaska's most unforgiving terrain. Oliver said that while the course might be mostly flat, weather can make a big difference.

“You never know what the weather's going to do to you,” Oliver said. “At the start, (temperatures) have been as high has 30 as low as 20 below.”

Those big differences can mean big challenges for mushers. While temperatures in Kotzebue hovered at around 7 degrees Fahrenheit with clear blue skies Thursday, Oliver noted that could change quickly. Warm weather could mean slow, slushy trail with overflow and open water to contend with. Colder temps could mean miserable wind chills. A spring snow storm could roll in -- not unlike what residents of Southcentral Alaska have been contending with this week -- and force mushers to pull out their snowshoes to trudge through deep snow.

“The reason (the race) got that reputation is not a gimmick, that's what the mushers say,” Oliver said.

So far, the trail is expected to be hard and fast, thanks to the cold temperatures, Oliver said, though there is some concern about possible overflow between the checkpoints of Ambler and Selawik.

While the trail itself might be challenging this year, so will the competition.

2012 Kobuk champ Ken Anderson of Fairbanks leads a deep field that includes multiple Iditarod and Yukon Quest champs. Four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King, coming off a third place Iditarod finish and a Kusko 300 win this season will be in the mix. The wild card is Hugh Neff, runner-up in this year's Yukon Quest and 2012 winner of that race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. After that 1,000-mile race, he pursued European races this season instead of the Iditarod. Fellow top Iditarod contenders Jake Berkowitz (ninth), Pete Kaiser (13th) and Cim Smyth (15th) will be on the trail as well. All are vying for part of a $50,000 purse. Last year Anderson took home $12,000 for his first-place finish.

Those mushers will need toughness to even get through the start, which starts en masse, with all 18 mushers leaving at the same time on the sea ice outside of Kotzebue. Why a mass start, relatively uncommon in sled-dog races?

“Because it's awesome. ... It just looks like a bunch of chaos," Oliver said, "but it's pretty cool to watch.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com