BETHEL – Those involved call it the best mid-distance sled dog race in the world. The town and region embrace it. Now mushers say they are ready for an icy hard, fast and lucrative Kuskokwim 300, which starts Friday on the river that defines this part of Alaska.
The 36th Kusko 300 will be more like a Kusko 260. Low snow on the tundra puts almost the entire course on the frozen Kuskokwim River upriver to Aniak and back, eliminating a loop to Whitefish Lake that lengthened the race to 300 miles. The official mileage won't be known until the GPS-tracked racers finish, said race manager Zach Fansler. But this year's course is roughly 130 miles each way. Beginning at 6:30 p.m., the mushers headed upriver toward Kwethluk one by one. On a warm winter night, race fans lined up on the frozen river. The last to leave, to loud cheers, was Pete Kaiser, the only Bethel musher in the race. On KYUK radio, announcers gave each musher's background in English -- and Yup'ik.
All day, there were signs of the race in Bethel. Residents open their homes to mushers and locals haul around K300 dog teams in their trucks. The race is sponsored by "the people and businesses of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta," the race banner proclaims. Along with major backers including Ryan Air and Northern Air Cargo, AC Value Center and First National Bank, Angstman Law Office in Bethel and Gold Rush Liquors in Anchorage, there are dozens of smaller ones. Bethel's Baba's Pizza and Sammy's Market. Local automotive shops and gas stations. The Mud Hut restaurant and Meyer's Farm. A big player is public radio station KYUK, which will give trail updates for both the Kusko 300 and companion Bogus Creek 150 every hour. When mushers cross the finish line, the station plays the songs they picked.
Last year's defending champ, Rohn Buser, 25, is one of three father-and-son pairs in this year's K300.
"It's cool because everybody brings their A game," Buser said. "The people that put on the race, the people that run the race, it's just a top-notch event. That's one thing that makes it so special."
His father, four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, holds the record for the fastest Kusko 300.
"Ours is not a rivalry," Buser said. "Ours is a mutual goal."
The miles may peel off even faster during this race-on-ice. But no records will be set because of the shortened course, race founder and K300 board President Myron Angstman reminded mushers at a Thursday evening pre-race meeting.
Twenty-five teams made it to Bethel for the start. Six others withdrew because of concerns about the trail or other issues. But it's still the biggest field in two decades, Fansler said.
The race attracts both Kuskokwim River locals and mushing superstars from elsewhere in Alaska and even overseas, with some of the first group aiming to make the leap to the latter.
This year the Kusko 300 Race Committee waived entry fees and trimmed the maximum size of a team from 14 to 12 dogs to trim travel costs for mushers without big sponsors. The committee also raised the prize money to more than $123,000, the richest ever and the biggest for any mid-distance race in the world. The purse, drawn from pull-tab revenues and sponsorships, is on par with the longer and tougher Yukon Quest.
Nathan Underwood of Aniak, 58 and the father in one mushing pair, is racing but says he really would rather watch the progress of son Isaac through GPS tracking.
"He's dog savvy. He can get more out of the dogs than I can. He's got a connection with them," Underwood said of his son.
Isaac, now 33, has been riding in a dog sled since he was a baby, Underwood said. "In summertime, he's always there with the dogs, brushing them, petting them all the time."
Their kennel in the K300 turnaround point of Aniak trains 40 dogs and they both hope to bring home prize money, which pays for gasoline, the most expensive item in their household budget. They netted silver salmon from the Kuskokwim late last summer at the end of a frustratingly limited fishing season. But in the end, they caught thousands of fish, plenty for themselves, their dogs and a big extended family, Nathan Underwood said. A Bethel family doctor, Bill Eggimann, backs them with donated dog food. He said he wants to support their healthy, sober ways.
Nathan Underwood joked that the more famous mushers — with their logo wear and big-name sponsors — are "factory teams."
Last year, Isaac Underwood won the Walter Williams Memorial Sled Dog Race, a 41-mile race out of Akiak. It's named after one of the six brothers whom Kusko 300 and Iditarod musher Mike Williams Sr. lost to alcohol. Williams, who mushes with a sobriety theme, and his son Mike Jr. are the other father-son pair in this year's Kusko.
Maybe one day he'll aim for the Iditarod, but he's not thinking about that yet, Isaac Underwood said. He and his father trained hard for the Kusko 300, running a 12-mile loop around the village.
His goal? "Just to have happy dogs at the end of the race."
Another young Kusko 300 musher from Aniak, Richie Diehl, 29, already has raced twice in the Iditarod. Last year, he was 14th and won the award for most improved musher.
All told, the racers who have gathered in Bethel have more than 200 Iditarods under their sleds, according to a count by Martin Buser. Four Iditarod winners are in the mix, including Buser, John Baker, Lance Mackey and Jeff King, who has won four and also is the K300's winningest musher, with nine victories, including 2013.
"Being in Aniak and watching them all my life come through Aniak — Martin, Jeff — it's something that's pretty cool now that I'm able to race against them," Diehl said. He's still building up. One day, he said, maybe he'll win the Kusko 300 — and the Iditarod.
At the Long House hotel race headquarters, mushers signed autographs Thursday afternoon for fans.
"Is that DeeDee Jonrowe?" Larissa Strunk, 15 of Quinhagak, exclaimed. She remembers seeing a video with Jonrowe when she was in the fourth grade while in Bethel as part of a student video project.
Veterans said they expect a blistering pace. With only 10 hours of mandatory rest for the whole race, most mushers won't sleep at all on the trail.
The terrain, unpredictable weather and minimal rest combine to make the K300 especially intense, said Mackey, a four-time winner of both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.
"I've run every 300-mile race in the state and I can say it is by far the toughest 300," he said.
King, who is aiming for a 10th Kusko win at age 58, said he'll be wearing knee pads in case he takes a tumble onto the ice.
The dry, icy course "sounds to me like a good trail," he said. "We've been in water in this race that's knee deep for 6 and 8 miles at a time."
His girlfriend, Kristin Bacon, is running some of his dogs, too, including his most cherished lead dog, Skeeter, King said. He wants to keep Skeeter strong for the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, he said. His kennel is lean, with just 21 dogs in training, King added.
Before the race, crews smoothed out a massive ice jam on the river that had looked impassable. It's now crushed ice and looks to be relatively free of big, dangerous cracks, said Underwood, who drove down the race course Wednesday from Aniak to Bethel.
The winner of the Iditarod often gets his or her season rolling with a good run in the Kusko, King said.
"In the mushing world, this is clearly known as a top-tier competitive distance event," he said.
Watch for holes
Mushers will mainly follow the truck road well-marked on the river, K300 President Angstman said in outlining the course.
"It's been worse," Angstman told mushers Thursday. In fact, "the footing is surprisingly good considering it's almost all ice."
But stay away from the blue reflective markers indicating open holes and thin ice, he warned.
"Blue means don't go there," he told mushers.
The race is run largely in the dark, and on ice, there's little braking power, said Jonrowe, who started her career as a Bethel resident. Mushers need to be careful, she said.
"The Kusko always intimidates me," she said. While racing the first Kusko 300 — her first distance race — back in 1980, a big storm hit. She holed up for a day and night. "The National Guard couldn't find me. The state troopers couldn't find me." Finally a young man from Tuluksak brought her to safety, she said.
Six weeks later, she ran her first Iditarod.
The Kusko 300 winner is expected to return to Bethel before first light Sunday.