BETHEL – Eight local mushers battled sideways wind, glare ice and rough tundra in a fast and almost snowless Bogus Creek 150 race that ended Saturday with a repeat winner well known on the local circuit, Jackie Larson of Napaskiak.
The Kuskokwim 300 race manager Zach Fansler said Larson's victory – in 17 hours and 35 minutes -- capped "one of the most exciting and dramatic Bogus Creek 150s we've had in quite some time."
Some mushers crashed multiple times on a course ultra-slick in parts and uneven in others. One lost her team but a race official found it and she finished the event.
The Bogus Creek 150 is the mid-sized of three races under the Kuskokwim 300 banner run this weekend out of this Southwestern Alaska hub. The course passes the Kuskokwim River village of Tuluksak, 50 miles from Bethel, turns around at the Bogus Creek checkpoint, then runs past the village again.
It featured a generous purse of $30,500 and lured five teams from Bethel and three from nearby villages.
Three racers – Larson, rookie Matt Scott of Bethel, and past winner Herman "Punky" Phillip of Kwethluk -- reached the halfway mark within three minutes of each other. Almost 30 minutes back was John George of Akiachak.
After the halfway mark, Larson, 46, and George, 59, made their push.
"We were heel to heel going up to Bogus and going back to Tuluksak," Larson said minutes after pulling into the finish chute on the frozen Kuskokwim River in Bethel.
Just before the return pass through Tuluksak, he said, he started to pull away.
"And that was it," Larson said. He didn't see the other mushers again.
The sun was just rising when he finished at 10:34 a.m. The temperature was in single digits, the wind was blowing hard but the sky was clear.
Larson, who has 24 dogs in his kennel, finished with all 10 dogs he started with. Eight were on his winning team last year. He also won the Bogus Creek 150 in 2007 and has run the headline event, the Kusko 300, three times.
George finished almost an hour behind him in 18 hours and 30 minutes, good enough for second place.
Mushers who don't have big kennels can be competitive in a shorter race like the Bogus Creek 150. George has just eight dogs in his kennel, so he had to borrow two to have the required 10 for the start. He said all but one of his dogs had been injured in training and was limping as the race got going, slowing him down. He dropped her at the halfway mark and finished with nine.
"These were the ones that could bring me home," said George, who won the Bogus Creek race in 2002 and has placed second or third a number of times.
Racers said the trail was rough, especially the first 50 miles over tundra from Bethel to Tuluksak. One musher, Victoria Hardwick, a Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. dentist in Bethel, lost her team Friday night just before the Tuluksak checkpoint. Race marshal Andy Angstman was able to use GPS tracking data to find the team hunkered down some miles outside the village, Fansler said. She continued on to finish the race.
"I ran into a chunk of ice and slammed into my sled and wasn't able to hold on," Hardwick told public radio station KYUK. "So it kinda just hit the sled real hard, and the dogs got over it and kept moving and I didn't make it."
Teams take a four-hour rest at the halfway mark. Larson said he got into his sleeping bag and slept for about 10 minutes, which he said is a lot for this race. George said he watched the Kusko 300 racers go by.
While the two leaders have been mushing for decades, third-place finisher and race rookie Matt Scott got into the sport about three years ago through a friend.
He raced this weekend with an unfamiliar, borrowed sled and a torn meniscus in his knee. Scott said he got hurt playing basketball three weeks ago. His team was a mix of his own and loaner dogs and he finished with six in harness, three in his basket and one dropped at the Bogus Creek checkpoint.
His race strategy? "Let the dogs do what they are going to do and not hold the drag mat too much." He finished in 19 hours, 1 minute.
Bethel's Pete Kaiser – last year's Kusko 300 champ – helped him train, said Scott, who lives in Bethel and works as director of community health and wellness for Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. Kaiser showed him the overland trail that became part of the race course. Still, Scott said, the borrowed sled required more skill than he had and he crashed about seven times.
Larson is guaranteed $6,300 for his win, George is guaranteed $4,900 for second place and Scott $3,700 for third, under payout amounts set when a larger field was expected. Even last place will collect at least $2,000.
There aren't many mushers in their home villages anymore, Larson and George said. But they both plan to stick with it.
"I love the sport," Larson said. "I really enjoy the scenery. I like to be with my dogs out there. I'm going to keep it going as long as I can."