The Kuskokwim 300 begins Friday night in Bethel with a stellar field, a big purse and a good trail.
The field of 21 mushers includes seven who finished in the top 10 of last year’s Iditarod, including winner and hometown hero Pete Kaiser. Another three cracked the Iditarod’s top 15.
They’ll be racing for a purse of $160,000, one of the biggest in the sled dog racing.
And they’ll be racing on a trail made hard by the recent cold snap and improved by recent snowfall. Jeff King, a former Kusko champ and four-time Iditarod champ, told a student reporter for the Lower Kuskokwim School District that conditions look good.
The cold snap, he said, “really froze the lakes and the rivers, and it’s probably safer than it’s been.”
King, of Denali Park, is among 10 Kusko drivers who notched top-15 finishes in last year’s Iditarod. That group includes:
Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel, runner-up Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Willow, fifth-place Travis Beals of Seward, sixth-place Matt Hall of Two Rivers, seventh-place Paige Drobney of Cantwell, eighth-place Ramey Smyth of Willow, 10th-place Aaron Burmeister of Nenana, 11th-place Richie Diehl of Aniak, 13th-place King and 14th-place Wade Marrs of Willow.
Other top names include Nic Petit of Girdwood, the winner of last weekend’s Copper Basin 300; Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, a four-time Iditarod champ; and Matthew Failor of Willow, the defending Kusko 300 champion.
Failor last year ended Kaiser’s run of four straight Kusko titles. Several weeks later, Kaiser captured his first Iditarod title.
The race begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday, and Kaiser will be the second musher to leave the start line, followed by Ulsom. The first musher to leave will be Dennis Kananowicz of Glennallen.
The Kusko 300 is one of the sled dog races this week in Bethel.
The Bogus Creek 150 begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday, and the 65-mile Akiak Dash begins at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Kusko 300 follows a trail that stretches from Bethel to Aniak and back. A winner is expected to reach the finish line sometime Sunday.
Kusko 300 start order
1. Dennis Kananowicz
2. Pete Kaiser
3. Joar Leifseth Ulsom
4. Dave Turner
5. Wade Marrs
6. Nicolas Petit
7. Aaron Peck
8. Matthew Failor
9. Richie Diehl
10. Jeff King
11. Travis Beals
12. Will Rhodes
13. Tony Browning
14. Aaron Burmeister
15. Ramey Smyth
16. Jim Lanier
17. Dakota Schlosser
18. Paige Drobny
19. Joanna Jagow
20. Matt Hall
21. Lance Mackey