BETHEL — Twenty mushers and most of their sled dog teams are set to race into below-zero temperatures on a wind-scoured trail Friday evening as the lucrative Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race gets going amid wind chills that could reach 45 below.
The whims of Mother Nature left two nervous mushers without dogs Thursday afternoon.
Kusko 300 rookie Roger Lee and veteran Paul Gebhardt weren't sure their animals would make it to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta's biggest city. First a western Alaska volcanic eruption delayed flights. Then a near-blizzard hammered Bethel.
Both mushers eventually made it into Bethel on an early Thursday morning Alaska Airlines flight, but their dogs were flying separately on Northern Air Cargo. By late Thursday afternoon a cargo jet had taken off from Anchorage with the dogs aboard.
"We can get them at 5," said Lee, who is eager to run the Kusko as preparation for his first Iditarod in March. "It's a relief."
Expect Lee, Gebhardt and the other 18 teams to leave Bethel starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday, departing on the frozen Kuskokwim River alongside town and headed northeast to Aniak, the turnaround point.
If it's anything like last year, the fastest teams should begin crossing the Bethel finish line, where they started, early Sunday.
The mushers are each vying for a slice of $150,000 in prize money — $20,000 more than last year's race and the richest purse of any middle-distance race in the world. The winner will earn at least $25,000 and the runner-up will get at least $16,000.
Temperatures for the region were expected to remain well below zero over the weekend. Snow and strong winds had canceled some flights to Bethel on Thursday and put the community under a blizzard warning.
Musher Brent Sass of Eureka posted a video on Facebook Thursday afternoon of his dogs in Bethel, snow falling and wind blowing.
"This Bethel weather has got us all smiling," said Sass, a former champion of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest who placed second in last year's Kusko 300. "Let it snow."
The National Weather Service forecast a 30 percent chance of snow in Bethel Friday night and a low of minus 24, with wind-chill values as low as 45 below.
In Aniak, some 150 miles into the race, mushers should expect a high of 26 below and a low of 27 below with 5 mph winds Saturday, according to the weather service. Sunday's finish line in Bethel could see temperatures as chilly as 20 below.
Myron Angstman, the Kusko 300 founder, a musher and the president of Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee Inc., said below-zero readings aren't unusual for the race, which can see temperatures swing more than 80 degrees from one year to the next. The race can serve up bitter cold one year and melting river ice the next.
Before Thursday's storm, Angstman said there was a light coating of snow on top of the river ice and the trail conditions were "fairly good, with a few bumpy stretches."
"Generally speaking, I would call it a very fast trail," he said.
The Kusko field includes racers from Bethel, Aniak, Willow, Fairbanks, Napaskiak, Nenana, Tok and more. Among them are Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and Yukon Quest champions as well as Bethel's Pete Kaiser, the two-time defending Kusko 300 champion.
Bethel will also host two other sled dog races with fat purses this weekend. The Bogus Creek 150, with a $50,000 purse, will start at 5 p.m. Friday, before the Kusko 300. The Akiak Dash will start at 2 p.m. Saturday and has a $20,000 purse — exactly what one of Alaska's other big middle-distance races, the Copper Basin 300, offers.
Reporter Lisa Demer in Bethel contributed to this report.