Updated, 7 p.m. Saturday:
Four teams had scratched as of 7 p.m. Saturday because of the icy conditions, said Kuskokwim 300 race director Madelene Reichard.
Race leader Jessie Holmes, 35 of Nenana, left the Bethel halfway mark checkpoint just after 1 p.m. but turned around and decided to quit the race. Aaron Burmeister, 42 of Nome, also returned to Bethel to end his race. Brent Sass, 38 of Manley Hot Springs, and Cim Smyth, 41 of Big Lake, called their races over in Bethel.
"It's the same thing for all of them," Reichard said. "The dogs aren't used to running on the ice, and people were wanting to keep their dogs healthy."
Updated, 4:30 p.m. Saturday:
Some of the fastest mushers in this year's Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race — including defending champion Pete Kaiser — arrived at the Bethel midpoint Saturday morning after about 16 hours of racing and minimal rest.
Then they had to turn around and do the whole thing again.
Kaiser, the hometown favorite who has won the last three races, pulled into the staging area on the tundra at the edge of Bethel at 10:40 a.m., and rested there exactly two hours before heading back out with 11 dogs in harness. By then he was in seventh place, though not everyone ahead of him on the trail had yet taken their required six hours of rest during the race's midpoint. The rest can be split among three checkpoints however the musher wants.
Less than 30 minutes after Kaiser, Jessie Holmes of Nenana blasted into Bethel, and he was the first one to leave. He would have to stop an hour in Tuluksak to rest his team, under race rules.
A strong group of mushers arrived in Bethel behind the two leaders.
This year's race course is an overland, roughly 150-mile loop between Bethel and Bogus Creek that mushers will have to do twice.
As of 4 p.m. Saturday, Holmes was leading the race out of Bethel for the start of the second loop, followed by Joar Ulsom – who also had to rest one more hour, then Jeff King of Denali Park, Aaron Burmeister of Nome and Ray Redington Jr. of Wasilla.
Taking up the rear of the 18 teams in the race was Bethel's Victoria Hardwick, who is competing in her second Kusko 300. She scratched last year.
Mushers said dog teams were slipping all over the icy trail from Bethel to Tuluksak but found better footing and more snow from Tuluksak to the Bogus Creek turnaround.
The race will end Sunday.
BETHEL — The temperature is dropping, the wind is biting and the dogs are howling.
The Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race started Friday evening on a novel, icy course that is expected to be wicked fast. Mushers say they expect the new double-loop route, created with safety in mind, to play mind games with their dogs – and themselves.
Teams will not only start and finish in Bethel but also will turn around in the hub community at the midpoint of a race known for rich prizes and tough competition, wild weather and welcoming villages.
With temperatures significantly warmer than normal for most of December and into January, the Kuskokwim River was dotted with danger — more open holes than anyone could count. The race committee decided teams should travel overland from Bethel on what defending three-time champion and Bethel resident Pete Kaiser calls "a ribbon of ice."
A lineup of 18 mushers, including Kaiser, nine-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, and a list of fierce competitors including Richie Diehl of Aniak, Jessie Holmes of Nenana and Brent Sass of Manley Hot Springs took off in pairs starting at 6:30 p.m. on a small frozen lake on the edge of the tundra. At stake: $150,000 in prizes including $25,000 to the winner plus a bonus to be determined.
Usually Kusko 300 teams travel 150 miles largely on the Kuskokwim River, then turn around in the village of Aniak. They then head back to Bethel for the finish line on the frozen Kuskokwim.
This year's race was rerouted into two overland loops of 140-plus miles between Bethel and Bogus Creek, a spot north of the hub community. The exact mileage won't be known until the GPS tracking devices provide data, but it will likely be around 285 miles total, said Myron Angstman, race founder and president of the Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee.
Musher Cim Smyth, 41 of Big Lake, racing in his sixth Kusko 300, expected new mental challenges. Mushers may need to take extra care to watch their dogs' speed and mental state. Consider the checkpoint of Tuluksak, which teams will pass through four times over the course of the race.
"They may be sick of leaving by the time we get to Tuluksak for the fourth time," Smyth said.
Heading into Bethel, dogs will want to run fast and hard – the first time, Smyth said. He expects to use voice commands to slow down as the team approaches the halfway mark. Most teams are expected to take a short break in Bethel. The race is asking for the community to bring food for mushers to the checkpoint, an elementary school
Then teams must head back out to do the whole loop again, maybe into the Kuskokwim's famed head winds.
That will be "a real mental blow," Smyth said. "Are we done? No, not done. They are going to think that over and over again."
At best "that is kind of challenging for musher and dogs to go around in circles for 300 miles," Kaiser, 30, said.
Still, mushers said they appreciate the reasons for the changed course.
"You've got to think about the safety of others that have never been in the area," said Mike Riley, a leader of Bethel Search and Rescue. The organization has been swamped this winter with river rescues. What if a racing musher fell into an open hole? he said.
"Many of them were unmarked, I might add," Angstman said. But even marked, a hole in the ice is hazardous for dogs trying to get footing or chasing something in the distance.
"A dog team out of control on an icy trail – marking an open hole isn't the answer," he said.
Holes are starting to freeze over, which may make them look solid before they are, Angstman said.
The new course brings question marks. Where should mushers take their six hours of rest required during the race's middle portion? Some liked to spend four hours in the village of Kalskag, which isn't even on the course this year.
Will the Bethel mid-race checkpoint at Mikelnguut Elitnaurviat – a Bethel school for kindergarten through second grades — draw big crowds who normally don't get to checkpoints? That could be exciting, as long as residents are kept away from sleeping dogs, said Sass, 38, who is rebuilding his team this year with seven rookies – 2 and 3 year olds – anchored by five veterans.
Meanwhile, the double loop brings excitement of passing teams head-on going the other direction, Kaiser said.
He's more familiar with the trail than most and has trained on it all season preparing for the race he's won the last three years.
His competitors say they aren't that worried about Kaiser's backyard-trail advantage.
"You still have to have an excellent dog team to win this race," Sass said.
The real key, Sass said, is a musher who keeps his head on task the entire race. The Kusko 300 is famed for how hard mushers push themselves. With just 10 hours of required rest during the race, most run it with a couple of short naps.
Kaiser noted some disadvantage to sticking close to home this season. Glare ice and lack of snow combined for tough trail conditions. He wasn't able to train his dogs as long or hard as he wanted, Kaiser said.
Meanwhile, King, 61, is still hoping for a 10th win.
His team is the best he ever had, he said.
But then, "all the teams are so much better," said King, outside his Bethel host family's home on Friday replacing a broken bolt on his sled.
Last year's Kuskokwim 300 was dangerously cold – minus 45 in Kalskag and Aniak not counting the wind chill.
It was surreal, isolating.
"I remember feeling like I was a scuba diver," said King, working barehanded on his sled on a 10-degree morning in Bethel. "I was warm but I could tell right outside of my parka was life-threatening cold. I didn't like it."
The dogs need extra care in such extremes, too, he said.
"I'm really losing my get up and go when it's that cold," King said. "I am going to try and find my get-up-and-go this time."
Kaiser said he's not letting up.
He expected to start with small females Frieda and Lucy in the lead.
Smyth, in his sixth Kusko 300, said no wonder it remains such a draw.
"It's a crazy race. It's all out. It's everything you got. It's well organized. They've got a great purse. And it's a good place to go and test dogs."
The race is expected to wrap up Sunday morning.