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Iditarod

16 dog teams set to leave windy Bethel en masse for the start of the Kusko 300

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: February 12
  • Published February 11

Volunteers on snowmachines hauled straw and other supplies while doubling as trailbreakers Thursday in preparation for this weekend’s Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race in Bethel.

Strong winds buried both the race trail and the road that organizers planned to use to take supplies to a checkpoint being set up about 30 miles outside Tuluksak, race manager Paul Basile said.

Thursday brought winds of 24 mph and stronger to the area, and Basile said the forecast calls for continued wind through the weekend.

“It’s definitely changed our logistics the last couple of days,” he said. “We’d really been hoping to get a lot of our supplies and some of our volunteers to our Tuluksak checkpoint by truck.

“We may be able to plow the road, but we can’t count on that, so we have a crew of snowmachine drivers who started hauling straw and other supplies up there today.”

Snowmachiners on Thursday were able to carry all of the straw needed for the checkpoint; on Friday they’ll ferry food drops and other supplies.

No villages beyond Bethel are part of the race course this year as organizers strive to make things as safe as possible amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the region hard last year. Last month’s Bogus Creek 150 was dedicated to Joe Demantle Jr., a beloved Tuluksak musher who died with COVID-19.

Sixteen mushers will vie for $160,000 in prize money in a race scheduled to begin with a mass start Friday at 6:30 p.m. Spectators are urged to watch from their snowmachines or vehicles.

Defending champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel will be chasing his sixth Kusko 300 crown. Those trying to stop him include 2019 champion and course record-holder Matthew Failor of Willow, nine-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park and two men who have mushed to recent victories.

Nic Petit of Girdwood is coming off last weekend’s victory in the Willow 300, and Richie Diehl of Aniak won last month’s Bogus Creek 150 in Bethel.

Organizers completely revamped the trail because of COVID-19. Instead of running from Bethel to Aniak and back, teams will make two trips between Bethel and a spot near the traditional Bogus Creek checkpoint. The only other checkpoint is the camp near Tuluksak, where access is limited to mushers and race personnel.

Despite the wind -- or maybe because of it -- conditions may be better than expected for a blown-in trail.

“The upside of having to move all these supplies by snowmachine is you have a lot of people with heavy loads traveling the trail today and tomorrow,” Basile said. “To whatever extent it can be pounded down, we’ll make a good go at that.”

Mushers were required to take COVID-19 tests 72 hours or less before traveling to Bethel and took rapid tests once in Bethel. No one tested positive, Basile said.

He said race organizers considered two things when deciding to go forward with the 42nd annual race amid the pandemic.

One was a desire to give people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta something to look forward to. “We said if there was a safe way for us to put on this event ... it’s something we ought to try to do,” he said.

The other was to give mushers a financial boost during tough times.

“The mushers out here certainly depend on our whole season of races to support their kennels, and visiting mushers do too,” Basile said. “In a year when tourism dried up for a lot of them, we felt if there was any way we could pull this off safely, we owed it to them.”

Friday’s mass start on the river will be followed by a fireworks display at 8 p.m. On Saturday, the 65-mile Akiak Dash begins at 2 p.m.

The first Kusko 300 finisher is expected to cross the finish line in Bethel on Sunday morning.

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