In what Kobuk 440 competitors and organizers say was an unimaginably tough race as mushers battled storm after storm and “zero” visibility, one musher was not only the winner but had the only team to complete the entire course from Kotzebue to Kobuk and back.
Ryan Redington prevailed through the entire Northwest Alaska course as early leaders Jeff King and Nic Petit pressed their help buttons between Kobuk and Ambler, causing them to be withdrawn from the race.
The 38-year-old winner from Knik, the grandson of Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr., finished in 48 hours, 48 minutes. Ryan Redington also won the Kobuk 440 in 2019 and said he encouraged other mushers to try the race in the future during a livestreamed award ceremony Tuesday night in Kotzebue.
“I can’t say enough good things about his race,” Redington said. “The village people along the way are the best, so supportive and so happy to welcome us there. And so much laughter — I’ve never laughed so much in this race.”
Redington’s time was actually longer than that of the second-place finisher, Tony Browning, who was in fact first to Kotzebue on Tuesday morning but who completed a shorter course, racing to Ambler and back with a time of 42:57.
For Browning, who has competed for 43 years, the Kobuk 440 was the final race of his career.
“I just want to thank God for being able to come here and finish this race and get to see all my friends again,” he said.
Browning and seven other mushers were ranked according to their combined time first to Ambler and then back due to the changes in the course after a storm and blowing snow caused race organizers to make major route changes halfway through the race on Sunday morning. That reroute was only part of a series of challenges in the twists and turns of a dramatic Kobuk 440 that would ultimately result in two experienced mushers needing to be rescued.
Longtime musher Hugh Neff of Fairbanks, who placed seventh with a time of 51 hours, 48 minutes, said the race was one for the books.
“As far as racing goes, I’ve done quite a bit and I’ve never seen anything like this year’s 440,” Neff said. “It’s just a magical experience as long as you don’t worry too much about the weather. It’s the way people came together and dealt and persevered through difficult times.”
Other finishers echoed Neff. Rookie musher Gunnar Johnson said the miles on the trail left a lasting impression as he attempted to navigate.
“It was a brutal, amazing race unlike anything I’ve ever done mushing and I don’t think I’ll ever do anything like that again,” he said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Johnson said he was astounded by the strength of his team, which consisted of dogs borrowed from other kennels.
“Going through that storm on the way to Shungnak, I saw dogs do things that just blew my mind,” he said. “You just wonder, how do they do that? What keeps them going through conditions of 50 mph winds where you can’t see anything. It was crazy, and they were amazing.”
A race like no other
First, teams had to deal with the threat of COVID-19. Mushers had to have a mandatory negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the start and checkpoints were closed to the public in all of the villages. Race officials said they’d been planning how to host the race safely for nearly a year and worked closely with the city and tribal governments of all the checkpoint communities.
But there’s always the expected unexpected element to prepare for in Northwest Alaska.
“Weather is the word of the day!” said Kobuk 440 president Paul Hansen, “and we’ve been getting lots of it right from the start.”
The race should have started at noon on April 1. But that morning, officials had to call a delay. Storms had caused shipments of supplies, drop bags and even some mushers to be delayed. On April 2, a dozen dog teams and their mushers took off from the sea ice in Kotzebue for a loop through the villages of the Northwest Arctic Borough: Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Kobuk, Shungnak, Selawik, back through Noorvik and ending in Kotzebue.
Winds at the race start caused near whiteout conditions and temperatures were well below zero.
“It was blowing 30 mph and there was snow kicking up from the ground and maybe it was snowing from the sky too at some point!” Kobuk 440 race secretary Hannah Atkinson told the Arctic Sounder. “It was a hard way to embark on a 440-mile trip.”
Atkinson said they expected the race to be extra difficult this year after the region was battered by heavy snow and storms. They knew the trails would be drifted with deep, powdery snow, particularly until teams hit the Kobuk River.
But Mother Nature would have more challenges for the group of seasoned and rookie mushers.
Things were going smoothly enough until Ambler. Paul Hansen said the search-and-rescue teams from Kiana and Ambler helped break some trail. Once teams reach Ambler, they would typically begin a loop of 80 miles out to Kobuk through Shungnak and back into Ambler. On Saturday night, Jeff King, Nic Petit and Tony Browning had nearly completed the loop when they were caught in a groundstorm. One musher told race officials that the whiteout conditions were so poor that at one point he couldn’t even see his wheel dogs.
Both King and Petit strayed from the trail in the poor visibility and eventually ended up activating their spot trackers for assistance outside of Shungnak, withdrawing them from the race. Hansen told the Sounder that King spent some time in the Shungnak clinic warming up and being treated for possible exposure and frostbite. Philip Hanke also was withdrawn from the race after passing Kiana.
In an interview with KOTZ Radio, King described his brutal race and how his team had to slip and slide headfirst in the wind on glare ice before they eventually sought help.
“I was so thrilled by my team, but jeez, even the start was as monumental a weather challenge as I’ve had in 40 years,” King told KOTZ.
By that point Hansen said the race needed to make some serious adjustments to keep teams, staff and volunteers safe. Race marshal Ed Iten decided to hold all teams in Ambler until conditions improved. Meanwhile, race officials worked out a way to keep things going as safely as possible. They decided to go for a reroute, knocking off the 80-mile loop from Ambler out to Kobuk entirely. Officials worried that the loop would spread the teams and their resources too far in the event that more rescues would need to take place.
But that wasn’t the end of the changes. Officials feared the southern loop through Selawik would create more of the same challenges.
“The trail is about 90-95 miles between Ambler and Selawik with wide-open tundra,” said Hansen. With 30 mph winds in the forecast, that could become a dangerous tunnel for blowing snow and more whiteout conditions. Instead, they opted to send teams back down the Kobuk River toward Kiana and Noorvik. Though the snow would continue to be deep and the trail difficult, Hansen reasoned that the route would still give teams a bit more cover from blowing snow.
Early Monday morning, the race resumed. Tony Browning was the first out with his team of 10 dogs.
In the race’s 33-year history, organizers have never had to make such massive adjustments while the race was underway, said Hansen. Last year was the only year the race was canceled and that was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for all that has been different, the organizers say they have done all they can to keep some things the same.
“So much of it is the social aspect,” said Hansen.
The race is about the communities and the different ways it brings groups together, he said. Normally checkpoints would be overflowing with residents of each village, but as a COVID-19 measure, checkpoints this year were closed to volunteers only. In Kotzebue, mushers and handlers would typically stay with host families. This year they stayed quarantined together at the Nullagvik Hotel.
Some community traditions stayed strong.
“Before the race, elders marked the trail and kids from one of the schools made a new dogbox for the 440,” said Hansen.
The race also continued with the tradition of having a musher draw the name of a child in each village to win an Easter basket. Despite the rerouted checkpoints, Hansen said there will still be drawings for those communities too.
Kobuk 440 finishers
1. Ryan Redington 48:48
2. Tony Browning 42:57
3. Gunnar Johnson 48:14
4. Kevin Hansen 49:16
5. Sam Brewer 49:40
6. Dempsey Woods 50:43
7. Hugh Neff 51:40
8. Reece Madden Time TBD