The Arctic Sounder

At Kobuk 440, volunteers ‘make the race happen’

Dempsey Woods Sr. ran Kobuk 440, crossing the tough Northwest Alaska terrain that’s home to him and sharing the spotlight with other prominent mushers, a dozen times. But this year, Woods participated in the race a different way - by running the checkpoint in Shungnak.

Woods was one of the many people who every year work behind the scenes and support the Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race.

“If you’re not in it, you’re gonna be in it anyway, in some way,” Woods said about Kobuk 440. “This year, I was helping the checkpoint because, you know, these are my buddies out there on the trail, my friends, you know, and I know what they’re going through.”

This year, 10 mushers ran from Kotzebue to Kobuk and back, following two different routes. Jessie Holmes won the race, followed by Hunter Keefe and Eddie Burke Jr.

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

As the race was unfolding, about 12 volunteers rode snowmachines to break and stake the trail, maintain it and make sure all the mushers were doing well. At checkpoints, others were cooking meals, warming up water, timekeeping and preparing a place for the mushers to sleep.

“It was good to help here,” said Woods who was responsible for the checkpoint in Shungnak. “It’s always exciting to see everybody go through here.”


Woods is from Northwest Alaska and lived in Shungnak and Kotzbeue most of his life. His family always ran dogs, and he followed their steps, keeping a team to race and hunt. After living in Kotzebue for about 12 years, Woods recently moved to Shungnak where he has family and more space to run dogs. This year, Woods did not have enough time to train his dog team so he decided to help out with the race instead — an experience that made him want to be racing next year even more.

“When they went through, ... I sure wanted to be with them, you know, on the trail,” he said. “Even though it’s a tough race, you don’t really get tired, you know. You’re having so much fun. It’s because of the country, the people, the food, the happy dogs and fans, you know, kids running around.”

For village residents, the event means seeing their favorite mushers visiting their communities, Woods said.

“They watch everybody through the whole year, they watch the Iditarod mushers — Jessie Holmes, you know, Hunter Keefe, all those guys — doing good. And then you know, we get to see them here. And it’s a real big thing for everybody,” Woods said.“That’s our tradition and culture, but over the years, it’s been dying, you know, everybody’s into snowmachine racing and stuff like that. And this race, it’s really important that they still go to the villages, so a young kid or person might want to do that” and continue the racing tradition.

For musher Gunnar Johnson, this was his third time volunteering at the event. Johnson comes from Minnesota and has been running dogs throughout his life, in races in his home state and in Alaska. He participated in the Iditarod two times. He also ran in Kobuk 440 in 2021, the year of a powerful winter storm.

“It was a very humbling experience,” Johnson said. “It gave me a great respect for the race and the people that put on the race. ... I wanted to try to give back a little bit because, in some ways, they came to my rescue and protected me in a very difficult and dangerous situation.”

The 440-mile-long race off the road system requires a lot of logistics, Johnson said. Besides dealing with often stormy weather and challenging trail conditions, mushers need to complete several 90-mile-long runs between checkpoints.

“Racing in Alaska is the pinnacle of in my mind, the pinnacle of the dog mushing world,” he said, and Kobuk 440 “is one of the toughest races. ... The mushers that participate in this race are really some of the best and sometimes some of the unknown greats.”

Besides famous racers like Holmes and Keefe participating in Kobuk 440 this year, one of the racing veterans joined the trail crew.

Jessie Royer, who grew up in Montana and has been partially living in Fairbanks, ran the Iditarod 21 times, nine of them finishing in the top 10. She also ran the Kobuk 440 back in 2002. This year, Royer volunteered for Kobuk 440 for the first time, joining the trail sweep team of six snowmachine riders who came behind the racers to make sure everything was going well.

The most memorable part of that experience for Royer was the sense of community, she said.

“Every village comes out in full support of the race and the mushers., And it’s just pretty amazing to see ... Every time you roll into a village, you know, there’s the whole village, and the kids are all waiting around for the mushers to come in and are excited to see the dogs and there’s so much food.”

From caribou soup to moose stew, from pancakes to potato salad, from cakes to bread, Royer said every village prepared a huge spread for the mushers and the support team.

Occasionally, volunteers would stop and come together to share a snack or a joke. Most of them were local, and Royer said she loved listening to them share their stories.

“When you’re racing, you’re so focused on your team, you don’t really get a chance to meet and visit with all the volunteers,” she said. “I wanted to get to know the actual people behind the race who make the race happen, and just in the villages. To me, it’s a race about villages and celebrating the villages... . It’s really the people that make it so special.”


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.