The Arctic Sounder

Jessie Holmes wins his third Kobuk 440 race: ‘This is my best racing season’

Jessie Holmes won his third Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race on Sunday — his second win in a row traversing Northwest Alaska.

Ten mushers took off from Kotzebue on Thursday and ran through Noorvik, Selawik, Ambler, Shungnak and Kobuk, as well as Kiana on their way back. Holmes crossed the finish line in Kotzebue at 11:24 a.m. Sunday, more than 40 minutes earlier than second-place winner Hunter Keefe and more than an hour faster than Eddie Burke Jr. who came in third.

Holmes — who is originally from Alabama, mushes out of Brushkana and is featured on the reality TV show “Life Below Zero” on National Geographic — won the Kobuk 440 title last year and in 2017. Earlier this March, he finished third in the Iditarod, which was his third-straight finish in the top five. He also finished second in the Copper Basin 300 this season.

“To me, this is my best racing season as a whole yet because every race I was on the podium. .... That feels massively rewarding,” Holmes said. “I feel like I’m learning so much, so rapidly right now just from all the work I’ve been putting in and all the races I’ve been running and the success that we’re having. ... My main goal right now is to be very consistent.”

For the Kobuk 440 race, Holmes decided to mix his veteran dogs with a few that he hadn’t raced before, to allow them to practice. One of these younger dogs, Blossom, showed herself as a strong and promising leader.

“She came in with more intensity in a lead than she went out with after a long, long, tough race,” Holmes said. “It was kind of like a graduation test. ... Any dog that finishes this race is the best dog in the world.”

In Ambler on Saturday, Holmes told Kobuk 440 volunteers that “his dogs were doing amazing and his biggest roles on the trail are being the cheerleader and chef for his team.”


“I’m just there, keeping them happy and keeping them healthy and, you know, making the meals, and they do the rest,” he said in an interview Sunday. “If I can do that good, then they can do what they do best.”

Jessie Holmes and his team are closing in on Kotzebue! He is almost to the finish line and another Kobuk 440 win. In...

Posted by Kobuk 440 on Sunday, April 7, 2024

On the trail for the first half of the race, Holmes was competing with Tony Browning, who was running right behind him and even speeding past him on the way to Kobuk.

“They were putting on quite a race there for all the fans for quite a while,” said Paul Hansen, president of the Kobuk 440 Racing Association. “Jessie was able to start pulling away from him on a particularly difficult section of the trail down to Kiana.”

The two mushers are friends, Holmes said, and Browning was borrowing one of Holmes’ dogs for the race.

“There was a moment there,” Holmes said, “I was like, man, am I gonna get beaten by my own dog?”

When Holmes was leaving Shungnak, he was about 10 minutes ahead, but the trail was not set and he lost the path. He had to wait for Browning and trailbreakers. Farther on, the portion with a fast trail helped Holmes get his lead space back, he said.

“The more the race threw at us, the more answers we had,” he said. “We just stayed steady.”

Browning has been mushing dogs since the 1970s and took second at the 2019 Kobuk 440. This year, he dedicated the race to Rick Mackey, a prominent former musher and his long-time friend who has cancer.

“This is my very last dog race anyway so I figured, well, I’ll go up there and might just race for Rick,” Browning said. “That might be something that he can sit and watch since he’s not able to mush dogs, you know, but this might give him a little bit more pleasure.”

The first two-thirds of the race, Browning said he had a good time, but after he and Holmes had to break trail through deep snow, his physical condition gave in.

“Through the latter part of the race, my back went out so all I could do was ride my seat,” he said.

That’s when the racers behind Holmes and Browning had a chance to catch up.

“Tony and Jessie had separated themselves from us, but I just kept going along and trying to manage my team the best I could and in hopes that, you know, if something happened up front, that mine would be kind of ready to move up. And I think that’s kind of what happened,” said Keefe, who finished second. “It was a really close race for second place.”

For Keefe, the Kobuk 440 was his first distance race back in 2019. He said he “came into it pretty green” and had a “wild experience,” approaching every checkpoint thinking he would scratch.

“I finished the race and it was really what showed me that I really love distance mushing,” he said.

Third place in this year’s race went to Eddie Burke Jr. who also said the soft trail conditions made it challenging. Burke — who won second in the Yukon Quest this year — said his strategy was to be conservative and take care of the dogs to make sure he has a team to race at the end.

“You just adapt, and you roll with the punches and take care of the dogs,” Burke said. “You take care of them, they’ll take care of you.”


The Kotzebue area saw a winter storm right before the race, and while the weather calmed down before the start, fresh snow made the race slower for all mushers, Hansen said. The dogs handled the warmer, softer conditions well, he said.

“The dogs are less likely to get injured when they’re running slower,” Hansen said. “It’s been pretty uneventful, which is a good thing.”

At village checkpoints, mushers enjoyed homemade food, warm welcome and gifts such as fur hats in Ambler.

“The hospitality is just absolutely amazing,” Burke said. “People are giving so much to us, just cooking up delicious meals on the trail. ... That’s pretty special. You don’t get to experience that in any other race.”

Keefe agreed: “It’s still my favorite race. I think it’s the best one, just the atmosphere and the way it’s set up, you really get to experience all the villages and it’s amazing.”

Every checkpoint felt like a finish line, with residents coming out to greet and cheer on the mushers, Keefe and Holmes said.

“It’s just such a big celebration in all these villages. ... It’s incredible. I mean, they outdo every race up here, to be honest, with the hospitality and the excitement for the event,” Holmes said. “That right there in a nutshell is what mushing needs to survive and thrive.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Eddie Burke, Jr.’s lead dog. It is Bowie, not Loki.

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.