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Capping the season, Kobuk 440 sled dog race features Iditarod mushers Baker, Gatt

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
Former Yukon Quest champion Hans Gatt in Rainy Pass during the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Gatt plans to close out his season at the Kobuk 440 sled-dog race through Northwest Alaska, starting and ending in Kotzebue. Loren Holmes photo

Everyone is feeling the financial pinch these days. But despite high travel and freight costs, and ever-rising dog food bills, mushers have filled almost all 20 spots on the roster of the Kobuk 440, considered by many the last big sled-dog race of the season.

As of Tuesday, 19 of 20 spots were filled, said Liz Moore, chair of the Kobuk 440 board of directors. But some will most likely pull out before race day, opening up a few spots.

This year’s race route is pretty much unchanged, with some minor exceptions where trail crews may have to reroute the path to avoid overflow or open water. But as it has for years, the race course will start in Kotzebue, then head to Noorvik, Selawik, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and back again, with teams stopping in Kiana rather than Selawik on the way home.

As usual, the board and race volunteers are focused on two things: the trail and fundraising.

A group gathered last week to collect trail markers, attaching reflective material to the wooded stakes. The winter in the Northwest Arctic has been unpredictable, like everywhere in the state, but the trails are in good shape, Moore said.

Jumble ice out in front of Kotzebue where the race starts has smoothed a bit and while there hasn’t been a lot of snow in the area this season, conditions will be safe for teams. Compared to last year, the race organization is a little behind on its fundraising efforts.

“Currently we’re at about $39,000 ... and we’d like to be at $60,000,” Moore said. “Due to the economy, the mining industry and other corporations have had to scale back a bit.”

Any shortcomings will show up in the purse, as the race organization -- which recently received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status -- will not cut back when it comes to providing mushers a safe race. The Buy-A-Mile program is the organization’s main fundraising effort, where anyone can purchase a mile of the racecourse for $44. Race fans can also support the event by buying a T-shirt from the website.

The final purse and the breakdown will be announced closer to the race date.

Moore acknowledged that sometimes not knowing how much is in the purse can be difficult for mushers, who are racing to win and recoup some of their costs, so they try to keep racers updated. But for many mushers, participating in the Kobuk 440 is simply the perfect way to cap off the racing season. The historic race is known for its tough conditions and friendly checkpoints, and is a favorite for those who can manage to get to the start line.

“We know it’s very expensive for mushers to come up for the race and we want to make it a good, competitive field for both our local mushers and for anyone coming up,” said Moore.

Food and supplies are being sent out to the villages that serve as checkpoints.

The sign-up deadline is April 1 to qualify for a $540 entry fee. Mushers can sign up until race day April 10, but the price goes up to $840. Mushers aren’t officially signed up until they pay and, Moore said, while the maximum of 20 teams is usually met, there are always a few last-minute withdraws. Last year 17 teams started the race.

So far this year, former Yukon Quest champion Hans Gatt, who finished ninth in this year’s Iditarod, has signed up. So has fellow Yukoner Ed Hopkins. A team has committed from Jeff King’s kennel, though it’s not clear who the driver will be. John Baker and Katherine Keith of Kotzebue, who both finished this year’s challenging Iditarod, are racing. 

Steeped in history, the Kobuk 440 has changed  little over the years -- with exception of SPOT trackers that mushers carry in their sleds. SPOT trackers and social media sites have allowed the race organizations to reach out to fans everywhere to build interest in the mid-distance race, Moore said.

The trail, the people and the spirit of the race, however, remain true to the original vision, with locals giving out awards and gifts of their own as mushers reach the various communities.

“It’s very local and very grassroots and we’re trying to keep it that way,” Moore said.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.