Even though it's April and most of the snow has melted across Southcentral Alaska, defending champion Jeff King and 11 other racers have gathered in ideal sled dog racing conditions north of the Arctic Circle for the last big race of the year. The Kobuk 440 starts at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Kotzebue.
"At this time of year, it's one of the last places with really good snow," noted Carmen Daggett, president of the Kobuk 440 Racing Association. "It's really unique. The whole race is put together by volunteers. The hospitality is really good, the scenery is really good. What's not to like?"
The 440-mile race, expected to end Sunday morning, travels from Kotzebue to Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak and Kobuk before looping back to Kotzebue.
King, 59, kicked off his busy 2015 racing season by finishing third at the Kuskokwim 300 in January, then scratching midway through the Yukon Quest before grabbing seventh place in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race last month.
Now he's trying to end his season with a third consecutive Kobuk 440 victory and the $11,000 winner's share of the $35,000 purse. He'll face 2012 Kobuk champion Ken Anderson of Fairbanks, who was ninth in the Iditarod; 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker of Kotzebue; 2012 Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff of Tok; veteran Tony Browning of Nenana, who finished one spot behind King in the Kusko; and Iditarod veteran Cim Smyth of Big Lake.
"Have dogs, will travel," wrote Neff on his Facebook page before heading north to Kotzebue.
Weather is expected to alternate between sunny and cloudy, with nighttime lows sinking to minus-10 and daytime highs likely in the single digits.