The Arctic Sounder

Veteran and local mushers will compete in Kobuk 440 this year

Ten mushers — including last year’s champion and three Northwest Alaska locals — will run in the 2024 Kobuk 440 race this weekend.

The mushers will take off from Kotzebue on April 4 and run to Noorvik, Selawik, Shungnak and Kobuk. Then they will turn around and run through Kiana back to Kotzebue, where they are expected around Sunday, April 8.

“The villages and the village checkpoints are all gearing up and looking forward to seeing the mushers come through,” said Paul Hansen, president of the Kobuk 440 Racing Association. “Everybody is looking forward to it.”

The conditions are expected to be snowy over the weekend, with temperatures dropping to single digits.

“We were starting to get kind of spring conditions and then Mr. Winter said ‘I’m not done with you,’” Hansen said. “This weekend, we got real cold and wind chills ... We’re hoping for good mushing weather, and the weather will be what it’ll be.”

To watch the start of the race at 12:30 p.m. — and enjoy hot chocolate, coffee and hot dogs — spectators should come to the lagoon in front of the Nullaġvik Hotel around noon.

“Don’t be late because it’s a mass start,” Hansen said. “Once they say go, everybody’s gone.”


Tough competition

Of the 10 racers participating, most of them are experienced mushers.

Jessie Holmes took the Kobuk 440 title last year and in 2017. This year, he said he is looking forward “to getting to visit with all his friends along the trail and taking in some of the most beautiful country in the world.”

Earlier in March, Holmes — who is originally from Alabama and mushes out of Brushkana —finished third in the Iditarod, which was his third-straight finish in the top five.

Besides Holmes, Eddie Burke, Jr. previously had a strong finish in Kobuk 440. This year, Burke pulled out of the Iditarod race after he was disqualified and then reinstated, following the assault charges that were filed against him and then dropped by the state. Burke was the Iditarod Rookie of the Year in 2023 and has also completed other races. He said he is excited “to return to the Kobuk 440 and travel through the beautiful country and see the amazing people who come out to support the event.”

Tony Browning is another veteran musher in this year’s Kobuk 440 — “a former champion, a well-respected musher from a real good kennel,” Hansen said.

“Really, if you run down the list — Bailey Vitello, Hunter Keefe — we’ve got a bunch of mushers who have done well in other races,” Hansen said. “We have a fairly well-seasoned group of mushers so should be looking forward to a good race.”

Besides the big names, the race roster also includes two rookies: Emily Ford from Minnesota who is a handler at Alaska’s Shameless Huskies kennel and Isaac Teaford who mushes out of Dallas Seavey Racing Kennel.

Northwest Alaska mushers

The 2024 race also brings together three Northwest Alaska locals: Kevin Hansen, Jim Bourquin and Jessi Michelle Downey.

Downey lives and mushes out of Willow but is originally from Noatak. In 2022, she volunteered with a vet team during the Kobuk 440 and in 2023, she ran in the race for the first time. This year, she said she is “looking forward to seeing the trails again and revisiting all the communities.”

“I’m just really happy to be back,” she said. “I got here and all the stress is gone. I get to run dogs, and it’s my favorite places to run dogs.”

Downey said she has friends and family in Noatak, Noorvik, Ambler and Kobuk and she hopes to say hi to everybody there. She is also looking forward to the scenery and local food.

“The run from Ambler to Kobuk was really pretty and really fun, there were a lot of kids. I didn’t see any caribou or wolves, but I saw a lot of tracks. It’d be fun to see some caribou,” she said. “Caribou soup in Kobuk was delicious. I hope there’s some again this year.”

For Hansen, dog mushing has been a lifestyle since he was young, helping with his family’s kennel and participating in junior sprint races. His family often hosted Kobuk 440 mushers, and since 2017, he has competed in the race three times, placing fourth in 2021. In his statement, Hansen said that he enjoys “raising, caring for, training and traveling with sled dogs and believes that racing not only gives sled dogs an opportunity to display their amazing athletic abilities but also informs his process as the team’s coach.”

Another local musher Bourquin is originally from Washington state but has lived and raced in Kotzebue for over 13 years. He said he is looking forward to seeing his dogs — including Biggie, Buddy, Chewbacca, Mocha, Simon and Smokey — perform on the next level this year after training hard.

Honoring Louis Nelson Sr.

This year’s race is dedicated to the honorary local musher Louis Nelson Sr. who was known for his racing experience, volunteering and how he inspired others to get involved with Kobuk 440. Nelson passed away in May, said Hannah Atkinson, the Kobuk 440 oral historian.

“Louie was chosen as the honorary musher because of how influential he was in bringing people into the race,” Atkinson said.

Nelson grew up mushing when it was the only way of transportation and a means for fishing, hunting and trapping, he said in an interview with Atkinson in 2021. His family traveled between their camps north of Kobuk Lake using their dog teams. As an adult, Nelson started building his own dog team in the 80s — this time, for racing.


Nelson ran the Kobuk 220 in the late ’80s and won the race four times. From 1992 to 2008, he also competed in Kobuk 440. Out of 15 Kobuk 440 races he ran, four times he placed in the top three, Atkinson said.

Besides Nelson’s racing experience, he was also known as a race marshal who brought volunteers, mentored them and shared stories about the race. Atkinson, who worked alongside Nelson for several years, said he inspired her to volunteer and to be a part of the event.

“He had an amazing mushing career, which was very inspirational to everybody in the regions,” Atkinson said. “But as a race marshal from 2012 to 2018, he inspired a lot of people to volunteer and to come up and help with the race and inspired mushers to run and just made it a really fun time for everybody and made it a safe time.”

Nelson thought the Kobuk 440 race was beneficial for the Northwest Alaska region.

“It’s a good thing that gives people something to do. That time of year the days are so long, they need to see some different faces,” he said. “They really enjoyed that and participated in it, and put out a good display of Eskimo food.”


Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.