Since its start in 1980, the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race has never been canceled. It’s endured wet and sloppy conditions, teeth-chattering cold and once had so much open water on the river it turned into a two-lap race.
For the 42nd annual race, organizers have come up with plans they hope will let dog teams mush through the pandemic while keeping residents in Bethel and nearby villages safe.
The race committee on Friday announced several changes to the 300-mile race. Among them are two prerace COVID-19 tests for every musher, handler, veterinarian and other visitors connected to the race.
Residents will no longer host mushers in their homes; instead mushers will be offered lodging at a neutral site where they will be isolated from the rest of town. Dogs will be kept in a single lot with 24-hour monitoring. Race headquarters and events like the bib draw and awards ceremony will be closed to the public.
Those and other modifications -- including a potential change that could replace the Tuluksak, Kalskag and Aniak checkpoints with temporary camps outside the villages -- will be in place when the race begins on Friday, Jan. 15.
Registration opens Oct. 5 for the sport’s richest middle-distance race, which offered a fat purse of $160,000 for the 2020 race.
“Each year, The K300 Sled Dog Race is a light in the dark of winter; one that brings communities up and down the Kuskokwim together and thrills mushing fans all over the world,” Kusko organizers said in a statement announcing their plans. “Now more than ever, we could use a little light but it is not only fans who rely on these events. Sled dogs need to run and many mushers depend on prize money from K300 races to meet the expenses of operating a kennel.
"It is with these factors in mind that the Race Committee presses on.”
The race committee worked with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation when devising a plan, which is subject to change based on the status of the pandemic. It’s also working with leaders in Tuluksak, Kalskag and Aniak “to ensure the health and safety of their residents,” organizers said.
“If necessary, the Committee is prepared to have a race that does not enter any of the villages at all and instead utilize temporary camps for checkpoints,” organizers said.
Health-case facilities are limited in the Bethel area, which on Saturday had 16 active cases of COVID-19, according to Y-K Health Corporation data.
Visiting race participants must have proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of their travel date and must also pass a rapid test once in Bethel.
In addition to the Kusko 300, the race committee plans to host five community races this winter as well as the Kusko’s two shorter companion races, the Akiak Dash and Bogus Creek 150, held the same weekend as the Kusko.
The number of active cases in the Bethel region has been corrected to 14.
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