Raymond Alexie is on a hot streak.
The 19-year-old from Kwethluk, a town about a dozen or so river miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel, is three for three in the Delta Championship Series, a winterlong competition of sled dog races organized by the Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee.
The latest notch in his belt was last weekend’s Bogus Creek 150, a demanding, fast-paced jaunt to a remote camp upriver and back with just a short rest at the turnaround point. The event is considered one of the premier proving grounds for up-and-coming mushers as well as seasoned local talent — and a stepping stone toward higher-profile races like the Kuskokwim 300, which is regarded by many as the toughest mid-distance race in Alaska.
“I didn’t think I’d win it, because there’s professional mushers like Pete and Richie,” said Alexie, referring to Pete Kaiser of Bethel and Richie Diehl of Aniak, two of the region’s most decorated mushers. Both Kaiser and Diehl have previously won the Bogus Creek 150 and Kuskokwim 300. In 2019, Kaiser was the first Iditarod champion from the region in the race’s history.
But this year, Alexie keeps crossing the finish line first. He won the 50-mile Holiday Classic race earlier this month and the 32-mile Season Opener in December. Kaiser has come in second in two of the three races.
“It was smooth, a well-marked trail,” Alexie said of the Bogus Creek course. “Going back, it was a little tougher than going up.”
After a four-hour mandatory rest at the Bogus Creek camp, he left just barely behind Kaiser, overtaking him about a half-mile down the trail. The two teams slogged through fresh snow and a minor blizzard. Alexie ski-poled the entire time trying to maintain an edge.
“After I passed him, I was pushing myself,” he said. “After Tuluksak I was constantly looking back, because I thought he’d pop up out of nowhere.”
Alexie not only kept his lead but widened it to finish 27 minutes ahead.
“He seems to have the fastest team around,” said Kaiser. “In a race like that, it’s not very long, and everyone takes the same amount of rest, so that’s what it comes down to.”
Alexie didn’t exactly burst out of nowhere. In recent years, he’s done well in short Kuskokwim races, and he is a third-generation dog man. His grandfather ran a trapline by dog sled in his youth, before snowmachines arrived in the region. His father began mushing in high school and finished the Iditarod in 2009. The family has a 22-dog kennel in Kwethluk, some of which came out of a puppy litter from Iditarod champion Martin Buser that the youngest Alexie has spent several years training up.
“It’s always been very competitive,” Kuskokwim 300 race manager Paul Basile said of the Bogus 150. “A lot of Kuskokwim mushers don’t do the K300 or don’t do it consistently. And I think for a lot of them it’s the biggest race and the biggest purse of the season.”
One way the Kuskokwim races have managed to consistently lure plenty of interest and talent is with hefty race purses. The Bogus Creek 150 paid out $60,000 total, with Alexie pocketing $8,775 of that.
Those payouts are one reason why competition in the Bogus Creek race has gotten fiercer in recent years.
The other reason is COVID-19.
It used to be that the Bogus Creek 150 happened concurrently with the Kuskokwim 300, and mushers had to pick one to run. In 2021, the race committee staggered the events across different weekends, initially as a way to reduce crowds and coronavirus transmission risks.
“But what happened is it turned out to be really popular,” Basile said. “Participation was up, and having it separately on its own weekend cast a little more light on it.”
Pre-pandemic, it would have been a lot less likely for Kaiser and Diehl to compete alongside Alexie and 17-year-old Colton Napoka of Tuluksak, who finished 13th out of 15 and was crowned rookie of the year.
Across much of Alaska, recreational and competitive mushing is in decline, particularly among younger people, for a variety of reasons: high costs, collapsing salmon stocks, professionalization of the sport, the ubiquity of online entertainment and increasingly digital social lives. According to Basile, though faced with those same pressures, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is something of an exception to that broader trend, with an abundance of hungry young talent.
“It’s extremely exciting for us right now to see young people not only competing in the sport but succeeding,” he said.
Kaiser didn’t sound stung by his losses to Alexie but instead is enthusiastic about his competitor’s victories.
“It’s real neat. That’s where me and Richie were 15 years ago when we started racing, so you kinda see the same pattern, the same path. And you need that — new racers and younger races to enter the sport — or everybody just gets old,” Kaiser said. “It’s healthy for the sport and the racing scene to have younger mushers coming up.”
Behind Kaiser on the leaderboard was Diehl, followed by Napaskiak’s Jackie Larson. Rounding out the top five was another Kaiser, Ron, Pete’s father.
Alexie was ambivalent about competing in this year’s K300 at the end of the month. He has some injuries on his team from early season training runs and is more inclined to run the Akiak Dash that same weekend.
As for his future in mushing, he wants to keep going but said he may need to take a break next season to go to flight school.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Kwethluk is about a dozen miles upriver from Bethel, not downriver.