KALSKAG — Racing through brutal cold on a trail coated with fresh, fluffy snow, Eureka musher Brent Sass led clutch of five mushers out of the halfway checkpoint of Aniak on Saturday afternoon as the leaders of the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race turned for home.
Sass trailed early race leader Jessie Holmes of Nenana into Aniak by six minutes at 1:11 p.m., but while Holmes paused 12 minutes at the checkpoint, Sass blew through to take command of the world's richest middle-distance sled dog race.
By 4 p.m., the top six mushers were all out of Aniak: Ray Redington Jr. of Wasilla at 1:56 p.m., Peter Kaiser of Bethel at 3:01 p.m., Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof at 3:19 p.m. and Richie Diehl at 3:56 p.m.
"I kind of figured it wouldn't warm up that much — it was probably 40 to 50 below all the way up from Bethel last night," Kaiser told KYUK radio of Bethel in Aniak. "Bu it's nice to have snow. I'd take snow every day over glare ice — or water."
Well before sunrise in Kalskag, Holmes, 34, dished out a mix of high-fat meats, kibble and hot water to his dogs in the darkness. A native of Alabama, Holmes said he moved to Alaska and started using sled dogs on his trapline before becoming interested in competitive mushing about six years ago.
After winning last year's Yukon Quest 300 — the middle-distance companion of the ultramarathon between Whitehorse and Fairbanks — in record time, Holmes focused on the world's richest middle-distance race, which offers a much fatter $150,000 purse.
"I started from the ground up," said Holmes, who also runs ultramarathons and has appeared on the National Geographic show "Life Below Zero."
He called the Kusko 300 "the toughest race out there."
"It is the race that you can learn a lot at," he said. "There's no easy way out.
When asked what his goal was for this year's Kusko, Holmes said, "I'm afraid to say," before conceding that he would like to win.
And if not, "My goal is to keep coming back here until I can win," he said.
But Sass is no slouch. The 2015 Quest champion finished second at last year's Kusko to two-time defending champ Kaiser of Bethel.
Nineteen of the 20 mushers who started Friday night remained in the race; only Rob Cooke had scratched.
Earlier Saturday, Lewis Pavilla, 40, of Kwethluk delivered a ferocious closing kick to pass rookie Maurice Andrews and make history as the first four-time winner of the Bogus Creek 150, a companion race to the Kuskokwim 300.
Pavilla came from 18 minutes behind at the final checkpoint of Tuluksak to pass Andrews during the four-hour run to the finish line.
Pavilla earned $7,500 for his victory, and passed three-time champion Jackie Larson to become the winningest musher in Bogus Creek history.
"It feels good, a little frostbitten all over my face, I lost my dry face mask somewhere back there," Pavilla told KYUK Radio in Bethel. "It was challenging trying to cook with propane because the propane (stoves) were frozen up so we had to cook with fire," said Pavilla.
In the Akiak Dash, Greg Larson topped Thomas Carl by 21 minutes, winning in 20 hours, 25 minutes. Katie Lamb took third place.