BETHEL — The pressure is on Bethel musher Pete Kaiser, the back-to-back winner of the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race.
He thought the tension on the hometown hero would let up once he won, but this year he is feeling it more than ever. The night before Friday's race start, he said he felt well-prepared with a strong dog team — yet nervous, too.
Just about everyone is. Fresh snow from a near-blizzard Thursday is making some of 20 starters change their strategy for the race from Bethel to Aniak and back. It's also biting cold, with a temperature of minus 23 — minus 44 with the wind chill — in Bethel on Friday morning.
Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod winner and nine-time Kuskokwim 300 winner from Denali Park, will try out his new, floor-length custom parka, a creation of Apocalypse Design in Fairbanks.
"I have been cold and I have been warm. I'd rather be warm," King wrote on Facebook with a picture of the coat, playing off a Mark Twain quote about having been rich and poor.
"Is that a yurt?" fellow racer Tony Browning of Nenana joked.
Jackie Larson is a veteran of both the Kusko 300 and the shorter Bogus Creek 150, which he has won the last two years. He said he was going to start the Kusko 300 with 10 dogs, leaving behind two less-powerful ones who might slow the team slogging through fresh powder. Racers can start with up to 12 dogs and must finish with at least five.
"The best endurance dogs will win the race," said Larson, 46, who lives near Bethel in the village of Napaskiak. His goal is to gain experience in longer distances and run the 2018 Iditarod, a longtime dream.
"It's time to step it up," Larson said. His older brother, Alexander Larson, is the Orthodox Church priest in the village of Kwethluk, and he is running the Bogus Creek 150, where the winner earns $7,500 of the $50,000 purse.
Kaiser said his dogs are as well prepared as in the past, with good training runs out of Bethel after December's snowfall. But after a New Year's Eve rain, he flew his team to Fairbanks for two weeks of training on snow. Thursday's storm is par for the Kusko 300.
"I'm not surprised something crazy happened," said Kaiser, 29. "Whether it's 40 below or rain or snow."
The dry snow will be blowing around, and the first mushers out of the chute after the 6:30 p.m. start may have to break trail. When mushers picked their bib numbers — and start order — the higher numbers with later starts went first.
Blowing snow could be a challenge if mushers can't see too far ahead, said King, 60.
But "these guys mark the trail good," he said.
The lone woman in this year's Kuskokwim 300 is Bethel dentist Victoria Hardwick, 31, who is running a team that includes her own dogs, some from race founder Myron Angstman's kennel and some borrowed from fellow racer Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof.
"I just really hope my dogs do OK," she said. She plans to put her dog Cajun and an Angstman dog named Rufus in lead. She's the only race rookie, which under Kusko 300 rules means a musher who hasn't completed a 300-miler before.
If she finishes, she'll be rookie of the year, Angstman noted.