Field of 25 mushers prepares for another intense Kuskokwim 300

BETHEL — When the famed Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race kicks off Friday evening on the frozen river in front of town, a field of 25 mushers including four Mackeys, four race first-timers and a like number of Iditarod and Yukon Quest champions can expect a mostly decent if icy trail.

But they are ready for about anything.

In this often fast and ultra-competitive race, the weather can turn gnarly fast, young mushers can pull off upsets and no one can count on an easy ride.

It's the 37th year of the Kusko 300, set up to encourage and reward mushing in Western Alaska and especially the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, said Myron Angstman, head of the Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee.

With a $130,000 purse, the K-300 is the marquee event in a season of races under its banner. Even the Bogus Creek 150, which also starts Friday in Bethel, pays decent money. The last-place finisher among the eight Bogus Creek mushers who signed up is guaranteed $2,000, Angstman said.

The community embraces the event. Volunteers open their homes to mushers and their yards to dog teams. There was a Kusko 300 benefit concert Wednesday night and a meet-and-greet with mushers Thursday. After the racers leave Friday evening, they might look back to catch a glimpse of the fireworks show on the river behind them.

Lance Mackey, whose brother Jason, nephew Patrick and niece Brenda are all in the Kusko 300, is a four-time winner of both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest but he's never been first through the chute for this one.

"We like to joke and say you need to run the Iditarod or the Quest to qualify for the Kusko. This race has everything there is to offer in 300 miles," he said. "I've had sand blowing around. Whiteout conditions. Water — standing water."

Mackey, who has battled a series of health problems, looked fit and said his hands in particular are doing better getting a correct diagnosis — a troublesome infection — and was able to treat it.

His nephew, Pat, 24, is one of the three racers entered who have never before completed any mid-distance race. A fourth is a first-timer in the Kusko.

Pat Mackey picked "a doozy" for his debut, Lance said. Pat said he has been working toward running the Kusko and was excited to be doing such a big race with family. He lives in Fairbanks but trained some on hard, icy flatland trails around Nenena and Denali.

His lead dog, one of Uncle Lance's, is named Mayor and is strong in big wind, which is almost always a factor in the Kusko, which goes from Bethel to Aniak and back and measures out a tad shy of 300 miles.

Some of the intensity comes from racing on little sleep. Under the rules, mushers are only required to take two breaks totaling 10 hours over those 300 miles of hard trail. Most 300-mile races require total layover times in the 18-hour range.

"That puts it in a class of its own, like a long-distance sprint almost," said two-time winner Rohn Buser, 26, whose first win came when he was 22.

Defending champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel — the first Western Alaskan to win the Kusko 300 in 29 years — helped mark the race course Wednesday by snowmachine. He said conditions were good and that the ice near Bethel was textured.

Near Bogus Creek, there's deep snow. But upriver, it's glare ice, Angstman told the mushers Thursday.

The two young rivals, Buser and Kaiser, both said they felt relaxed on race eve.

Angstman and race marshal Nels Alexie warned mushers to pay close attention and follow the rules — violators wouldn't get warnings. Last year, Buser, the second-place finisher, and his father, four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser, both separately veered off course onto a shortcut and were docked some of their prize money. Both said they didn't mean to take a wrong turn. But under the rules, they should have backtracked, Alexie said. That was an imperfect end note to a spectacular race, Angstman said.

"Last year is gone," Martin Buser said. "This is 2016."

Buser and Lance Mackey are among four Iditarod champs in the field. Jeff King and John Baker are the others. There's also four Quest champions in the race — Mackey, King, Brent Sass and Hugh Neff

Eight mushers who signed up dropped out. One was Nathan Underwood of Aniak, though his son, Isaac, 34, is still racing. "We focused all our energy on one team," Nathan said.

Another Aniak musher, Richie Diehl, 30, is competing in his seventh Kusko 300. He bred a number of his racing dogs.

"They are coming up through my program," he said."I am finally getting to see something I put together, and they are maturing."

He said he'll probably start with Treason and Vandal, a sister and brother duo, in the lead.

Diana Haecker, 48, of Nome, is one of the race rookies.

"I better get my mind on the dog race right now and not allow any thought that will detract from it," she said. "If I start thinking about the Lance Mackeys and Jeff Kings and Rohn Busers and all the other big-timers that are here, I'd be running home right now."

She's dedicating her race in thanks to Angstman, an attorney who successfully defended her right to keep a kennel outside of Nome.

King, another four-time Iditarod winner, will be trying for his 10th Kusko win. He's the winningest musher in race history.