Running with the big dogs, Nome rookie goes up against the best at Kusko 300

Rookie musher Diana Haecker of Nome knows you don't have to be at the front of the pack to be special — and she realizes she has no chance of winning the world's richest middle distance sled dog race, which kicked off Friday night in Bethel.

Haecker just loves dogs — all dogs. It's one of the reasons she got into mushing, along with marrying into the sport through her husband, Nils Hahn, a four-time Iditarod finisher. She was the 22nd musher to start the Kuskokwim 300 Friday, leaving just before 7 p.m. in the $130,000 race that awards the winner $25,000 and the 20th-place finisher $3,000. So Haecker just has to beat — or outlast — five of the 25 starters to claim a nifty check.

The first checkpoint of Tuluksak is about 50 miles up the Kuskokwim River from the start, and Haecker was anxious to get going.

"Don't get me started on dog talking. I could go all day," she laughed. She helped deliver all but one of her dogs as newborns in her kennel — and she helped bring their mothers into the world before them. She talks fondly about them, pointing out each one's personality and quirks.

"Every one of them is a super dog, in my mind," she said. "I have this tiny dog who is the smallest dog in the yard with the tiniest feet but her heart is so huge and she is one of my best lead dogs. Then I have my biggest dog, who is almost the size of a mini­horse, and he's just this gentle, beautiful giant."

They look pretty funny running together, she said.

As Haecker put the finishing touches on preparations for this year's Kusko 300, there were plenty of decisions to make:

• How many food drop bags to pack;

• Which parkas to bring;

• Which gear could be safely left behind.

Solid freeze on Kuskokwim

Race manager Zach Fansler had an encouraging forecast for the field of 25 racers.

"We've got a pretty solid freeze on the river, now," he said. "The reports we're getting back say that while the river seems solid, it could use some snow for grip. The forecast looks promising, though."

An icy trail is a fast trail and that's something Haecker will monitor. "That's going to be hard because for the last four to six weeks we've been mushing on new, perfect snow and breaking trail up and down the hills for 50 miles," she said. "I have a very strong team now, so to turn them loose on the icy, fast trail is a little bit of a concern, but I'll just stand on the drag and try to hold them back."

The weather is something race organizers have been fretting over, especially given the unpredictability of the last few years.

"We have one eye on that forecast at all times," says Fansler.

On Friday, the National Weather Service was calling for almost ideal mushing weather for Bethel over the next few days, dipping to single digits at night and reaching the teens or low 20s during the day. No precipitation was forecast.

The K300 is known for being an "all-­out and hard" race, Fansler said. Its purse is $5,000 more than last year's record.

'Helluva race'

"I think we're definitely one of the crown jewels of mushing," Fansler said. "We pride ourselves on that. We always get a very competitive field and I think that speaks volumes to the race and its place. The mushers are mushing really fast, they're pushing hard."

Jeff King of Denali Park, by far the winningest Kusko racer in history with nine titles, agreed.

"The Kusko 300 still seems to draw the best dog mushers in the state and the world. It's going to be a helluva race," said King, 59, who's also a four-time Iditarod champion. "I still know my way around the course but the competition is keen, very keen."

Last year, he finished third, beaten by what he called "two youngsters who grew up mushing (hometown champion Pete Kaiser and Rohn Buser of Big Lake).

"The only way to get more experience than I got in this is to have been born into it. There's now people who were born into it."

That can be nerve­wracking for rookies like Haecker.

"Ask me about how many countless sleepless nights I've had," she said.

However, she realizes she's running an entirely different race than those who are there to win.

"I'm there to gain experience and become a better musher. As you gain that experience, you become more confident in the situations you are confronted with out there on the trail, so you can handle them better," she said. "I know that I'm not anywhere at the level that they are and maybe, in my lifetime, I will never achieve that. But, I can improve myself and my dog skills and be inspired by the best."

It's both a practical and humble approach for someone who, despite not being a lifelong musher, has put years into the sport. She's been training her pack since they were puppies, building connections both with her dogs and among her dogs to ensure they become a cohesive team rather than "a bunch of individuals that do what they want to do."

'Very emotionally draining'

Haecker has also given up time with her family, who she says has supported her from the start.

"People don't realize how much goes into it," she said. "I have an 11-­year-old daughter. When December training really ramps up you're clocking the miles instead of decking the tree. I was running dogs on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, on New Year's Eve and on New Year's Day — mommy's running dogs."

It wouldn't have been possible without a family that understands the commitment mushing requires and a husband "who knows how to support your endeavors, cuts the meat and the fish, helps you bag your food, and helps you keep it together, because it's a very, very emotionally draining thing to run dogs," she says.

On the other end, it's exhausting to put on a race like the Kusko and its partner races, the shorter Bogus Creek 150 and the Akiak Dash, also happening this weekend. It takes countless hours, many by volunteers, and a lot of coordination to pull it off.

"I haven't had a lot of sleep, and I've had a lot of headaches but I think it's all worth it when you see mushers and all the volunteers come together and all the joy on everybody's faces at the start," Fansler said. "Just seeing and understanding what this means to all the communities out here on the delta. That's really, for me, what brings it all together."

Shady Grove Oliver is a reporter for Arctic Sounder. Alaska Dispatch News staffers Lisa Demer and Mike Campbell contributed.