Iditarod

Alaska sled dog races adjust rules as mushing grapples with latest coronavirus surge

With a little more than a week to go until Western Alaska’s premier sled dog race, and COVID-19 case numbers shooting to unprecedented highs, Kuskokwim 300 organizers have announced plans for a hunkered-down race.

“My impression is that people recognize the severity of the situation,” said race manager Paul Basile from Bethel, where the K300 is headquartered. “Our entire region is identified as high risk.”

The K300 consists of a grueling 300-mile, mid-distance marquee race with a hefty prize purse each January, along with several shorter competitions staged during the winter. All are still scheduled to happen. But organizers are taking additional steps to curb the spread of the coronavirus as Alaska sees spiking infections from the omicron variant. This fall, the K300′s board announced vaccinations would be mandatory for all participants — mushers, handlers and volunteers.

Over the weekend, organizers took additional steps. Indoor areas at checkpoints in small communities upriver from Bethel like Kalskak and Tuluksak will be closed to the public. They are asking spectators to stay in vehicles at the finish line on the frozen Kuskokwim, or else socially distance and abide by local mask rules. A planned concert and awards ceremony are both canceled. And there are rigorous testing protocols for mushers and handlers, particularly those traveling into the region from elsewhere.

“The surge that’s hit Alaska the last few weeks has forced us to scale things back again,” Basile said, adding that organizers consulted with local public health officials from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in developing guidelines.

“No musher has expressed any specific concern about these policies,” Basile said.

Two mushers who were signed up to compete recently withdrew: Brent Sass and past winner Jeff King, though neither opted out as a protest gesture against protocols.

“We are super bummed to be missing out on the Kuskokwim 300 but logistically it makes sense to join the Willow 300 race instead,” Sass wrote on Facebook, referring to a mid-distance race along the road system happening at almost the same time.

“The trail certainly doesn’t look good, lots of COVID stuff going on, and travel is certainly an issue,” said King in an interview.

Though King has competed in almost every K300 since 1988, this year has proven exceptionally difficult to freight his full team aboard a plane to the Bush, with recent winter storms having battered his part of the Denali Borough and air travel still stymied across the West Coast.

“The whole logistics just kinda tipped the scale,” King said.

Like Sass, he opted to compete at the Willow 300 along the road system, a race in which both he and fellow Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey are both technically listed as rookies.

“We got a senior bet going,” King said.

Distinct from sled dog races along the road system, the Kuskokwim 300 is renowned in Alaska mushing for the hospitality and strong community involvement that are a fundamental part of the event. But many of those convivial elements make public health protocols even harder. Typically, mushers and handlers in town for the race are paired with host families, who house them and help coordinate space for their dog teams.

“As long as we have willing and healthy volunteers it really is a big part of the K300 experience for the community and the mushers,” Basile said.

That is trickier this year.

“So far, host families have been consistent that they’re willing to host mushers or handlers,” Basile said. “We’re prepared for people to change their minds about that.”

They are also arranging backup options if hosts test positive.

For a year now, Alaska’s major sled dog events have had to figure out how to safely hold races that are defined by their mostly outdoor, super socially distant athletic dynamics, but still summon large groups of fans and volunteers into close proximity, sometimes to remote communities with barely any medical or public health infrastructure. While the mushers may spend most of their time in the wilderness with a pack of sled dogs, that is not always the case for volunteers and vets packed into community halls and shelter cabins for long stretches of time.

Last year, just as vaccinations in Alaska were rolling out, the K300 took place, with many of the same precautions and restrictions now being reimposed. The Iditarod, for the first time in it’s 49-year history, rerouted its course into a loop that departed from and returned to the road system instead of continuing to Nome. The Yukon Quest, Alaska’s only transboundary race, split in two, with a portion on the Canadian side and another out of Fairbanks, given the difficulty coordinating international border crossings amid a pandemic. That is the arrangement for the Quest again this year, with two races in Alaska and two in Canada.

But approaches to the pandemic this mushing season vary widely from race to race.

The K300 and Iditarod both have firm vaccination requirements for all participants.

“While we realize that some in our community are not yet vaccinated, there are no exceptions for this requirement,” the Iditarod’s COVID-19 policy concludes.

Other events are basically ignoring the pandemic all together.

On the websites and social media pages of several prominent races, all of which serve as qualifiers for the sport’s premier events, there’s hardly any mention of the virus at all, let alone public health measures or vaccine requirements.

In the 10 pages of rules for the Willow 300, for example, which requires 18 hours of layover rest at checkpoints, COVID-19 is mentioned just once.

“Due to Covid 19, all mushers may sleep/rest in their dog truck or other designated places on the road systems checkpoints. Mushers are not required to do so but are given the opportunity to do so. However, there may be limited indoor space available to rest at the road system checkpoints,” the entry reads.

According to Basile, racers have been significantly less interested in COVID-19 rules than they have been with the Delta’s notoriously fickle weather.

“Generally that’s a greater concern to mushers,” he said.

The region had a cold start to winter, followed with a big thaw in late December, then another burst of chill air that left ponds and stretches of river sealed below slick, glare ice.

“It was pretty rugged out there,” Basile said, who along with other members of the K300 race committee opted to postpone the Bogus 150 race earlier this month because of poor trail conditions.

But in the last few days, he is hearing reports of snow upriver, and a little bit more in the forecast. Just enough for him to start feeling optimistic.

“If we were having a race today, it would be pretty good, and very fast,” Basile said.


Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, politics, drugs, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the paper he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

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