At 45 below, Kusko 300 mushers defrost in Kalskag

KALSKAG — At 3 a.m. Saturday, Willie Pitka sat on a folding chair in front of a desktop computer here, battling a slow internet connection and waiting for the Kuskokwim 300 website to update.

Pitka, 58, stayed overnight at the tribal office next to the village airstrip and the location of a checkpoint for the fast-paced, sleepless Kusko 300 that started Friday evening, sending 20 mushers and their sled dog teams into temperatures that dropped to 45 degrees below zero.

The teams dashed from Bethel and up the winding, snow-covered Kuskokwim River in frigid darkness, competing for their slice of $150,000 in prize money. All had passed through Tuluksak by about 1 a.m. Saturday, 50 or so miles from the Kalskag checkpoint, according to the online race tracker Pitka watched.

"I'm so excited, I don't know what to say," Pitka said in the building decorated with large sheets of yellow paper for mushers to sign that included children's drawings of moose, fish and trees.

[Jessie Holmes leads talented pack of front-runners toward Kusko 300 turnaround]

Pitka stayed awake through the night watching the mushers' progress. For him, the Kusko 300 is another winter holiday.

"There's Christmas, then New Year's Eve, then Russian Christmas and then the Kusko 300," said Pitka, wearing a Kusko 300 hat pulled tight over his ears. Most people in town, he said, know him as "boss man."

By 3:30 a.m. the race judge and volunteers from Bethel and Anchorage joined Pitka as he announced the status of incoming mushers — 15 miles out, 10 miles out and eventually only minutes away.

The tiny crowd of volunteers stood outside in bulky boots and puffy jackets as the first musher, Jessie Holmes, of Nenana, pulled in at 4:18 a.m., illuminated by generator-powered floodlights. A thick layer of ice coated Holmes' eyelashes. At one point during the race his eyelids had frozen shut, he said, sending him off course.

"It's just cold," Holmes said as he dished out a mixture of hot water, high-fat meats and kibble to his team of 12 dogs, many wearing jackets.

The Kusko 300 can see huge swings in temperature from one year to the next. Ross Boring, a longtime race volunteer, said he had witnessed temperatures as high as 40 degrees on the race trail that goes from Bethel to Aniak and back. In some years, water flowed over the river ice, prompting people to call it the "Kusko Swim," he said.

Boring rode his snowmachine the 100 miles from Bethel to Kalskag this week to break the trail for the race. He said his goggles had frozen over several times and told mushers that if they noticed a track that went in circles on the trail, it might be because he couldn't always see well.

"This is the coldest year that I'm aware of," he said of the temperatures during the race.

[Never mind the blizzard and subzero cold — $150,000 is on the line in Kuskokwim 300]

Low temperatures have gripped Interior and Southcentral in recent days, as well as Western Alaska.

On Thursday, a near-blizzard hammered Bethel, but mushers said Saturday that it left the trail with a good base of hard-packed snow. Some called it the best and the most well-marked trail they had seen in a long time, despite the below-zero temperatures.

"The trail is good. The weather sucks," said musher Brent Sass, of Eureka, a former Yukon Quest champion who placed 20th in last year's Iditarod. "It's bitter cold, just to the bone."

Sass checked in at Kalskag at 4:33 a.m., amid a steady flow of arriving mushers. Many chose to rest a few hours in the village —  a third of the way into the race. (Race rules require mushers to rest a total of six hours between the checkpoints of Kalskag and Aniak. They must also take a four-hour layover at Tuluksak on the return trail).

Sitting at tables in the quiet tribal office building, the mushers talked about the trail and the weather, swapping their subzero travel stories about their first 100 miles of the 300-mile race.

Wade Marrs, of Willow, said the zipper on his insulated snow pants broke in Bethel, leaving him without a layer for the race and wearing fleece pants under thin wind pants.

"It was very cold. I wasn't very happy," said Marrs, who placed fourth in last year's Iditarod.

Jeff King, four-time Iditarod champion from Denali Park and the winningest musher in Kusko history, walked into the checkpoint carrying his camouflage, floor-length parka. Thick icicles hung from his mustache.

Tony Browning, of Nenana, said his watch, GPS unit and cellphone stopped working in the cold. He said he had wanted to call his wife when he got to Kalskag to let her know he "hadn't frozen to death."

Pitka shook hands with the mushers and kept an eye on the race website from early morning Saturday into the afternoon. Only a few residents trickled into the checkpoint and Pitka suggested that the cold weather had kept them at home. He said the checkpoint was typically crowded.

About 250 people live in Kalskag, located 2 miles upriver from the village of Lower Kalskag, where a similar number of people reside. The two villages are connected by a road.

Loreen Steeves, 62 of Kalskag, said she started cooking for the mushers at 3 a.m. Saturday. Steeves is also the cook at the high school here, the mother to four and grandmother to 21.

On Saturday she piled a table high with moose soup, chili, akutaq, fish, cupcakes, pancakes, bacon and more. She said she asks the community for donations each year so she can feed those at the checkpoint.

"I like watching them being happy because of the food," she said, wearing a floral apron in the large, industrial kitchen.

Pitka called her the "backbone of the checkpoint."

[So cold at Kusko that 9-time champ King busts out new floor-length parka]

As it approached 1 p.m. Saturday, a bulk of the mushers had left and Pitka remained by the desktop computer.

Pitka said he wanted everyone to finish, but he was also rooting for the "local guys" to win, including Richie Diehl and Isaac Underwood, both of Aniak.

Diehl, Underwood and the other 18 mushers will travel out to Aniak and then turn around, passing through Kalskag again Saturday evening — and Pitka could not wait to see them again.

By nightfall, perhaps, he would have a better sense of who would win.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.