Already the richest middle-distance sled dog race in the world, the Kuskokwim 300 is vying for a new description: affordable.
The race committee staging the series of sled-dog races out of Bethel announced last week that it's raising the purse of the featured 300-mile race to $120,000 -- a $10,000 hike. At the same time, the shorter Bogus Creek 150 and Akiak Dash races will see their purses grow to $30,000 and $12,500 respectively. The purse comes from Bethel gaming operations, including pull tabs, and sponsorships.
Race manager Zach Fansler said Kusko entry fees will be eliminated for many racers in an effort to encourage greater participation. Last winter, 24 mushers led by two-time champion Rohn Buser finished the Kusko 300. Nine completed the Bogus Creek 150 and 11 crossed the finish line in the Akiak Dash. Other years have seen even fewer finishers.
"By eliminating the entry fees, local mushers and first-time mushers will be more likely to attempt to race," Fansler said.
To get their entry fee waived, Kusko 300 mushers must register before Dec. 15. They'll actually pay $400 now, which will be refunded if they reach the start line for the Jan. 16 race.
In addition, race organizers are cutting the maximum size of Kusko 300 dog teams from 14 to 12 dogs in an effort to trim travel costs.
"We believe that this will help mushers who travel to the Delta cut down on their expenses," said Fansler, who estimated it costs $2,500 to $5,000 to bring a team to Bethel. "It is costly. If you're located near Anchorage, it's a little cheaper."
By contrast, the Copper Basin 300 -- another January middle-distance race that starts a week earlier -- has a full field of 45 mushers, including such stars as four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and Yukon Quest champions Aliy Zirkle, Sebastian Schnuelle and Allen Moore -- plus a waiting list of 20. The Copper Basin charges a $500 entry fee and last season offered a $15,000 purse, just an eighth of the Kusko's. This season's purse has not yet been set.
"There are several things going on here," said musher John Schandelmeier, the 1990 Copper Basin champion and 1993 third-place finisher in the Kusko, who is on the waiting list for this year's Copper Basin. "The (Kusko) purse is good, but not if you have a 15th-place team. The (Copper) Basin costs about a grand. If you have a team that isn't in the top four, you don't get anything back. However, a kennel can put two teams in the CB 300, and the additional entry fee is the only extra cost.
"Additionally, the K300 is a real tough race (with) only 10 hours rest for 300 miles. The wind can blow out there too. Trail conditions can be anything from water to whiteout. It will cost you seven to 10 days to run in Bethel because of the transportation issues -- and the musher is on their own. No handler to babysit them.
"The Copper Basin is a relatively easy 300. Checkpoints every 50-60 miles. Your truck is there (with much of the route beside roadways). Lots of moral support and a handler can watch the team while the musher sleeps. Eighteen hours of rest for the musher and the team. A real easy rookie race. Even if it's cold (and the Copper Basin has seen temperatures chillier than minus-40), it's not far to the next checkpoint."
Still, the rugged Kusko consistently lures top-drawer talent. Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King of Denali Park has won the Kusko a record nine times. Fellow Iditarod victors John Baker, Martin Buser, Lance Mackey and Dallas Seavey have all raced it too.
And in recent years, such local mushers as Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak and Peter Kaiser of Bethel have been in the mix. Williams was second in 2011 by just 60 seconds, and Kaiser has twice finished third.
"It's a good thing that we have well-known outside (the Delta) mushers coming because it brings notoriety to the race," Fansler said. "There's something of a split opinion locally. Some say it's taking way from local guys, and maybe that was true 10 years ago. But now we've got mushers that can do it. They don't want to win a race that doesn't have the big names in it."
And the prospect of a big payday remains for top mushers. Rohn Buser, 25, of Big Lake, earned $20,000 for his victory in 2012. Only the top 15 Iditarod finishers earned that much, for a race that's three times as long with a total purse of $650,000.
"Even if you finish in like 10th place, you're going to break even on your travel expenses at the Kusko," said Buser, who's won two of the last three Kuskos after capturing fifth place in his debut as a 17-year-old.
Money counts, but some mushers consider the Kusko a rugged proving ground to see which dogs are strong enough, tough enough and fast enough to succeed two months later in the Iditarod.
"There's a reputation for our race," Fansler said. "It's a hard, hard race. It's a difficult run. You've got to be up to speed on everything. One thing I was incredibly proud of last year was that 24 teams started and everyone finished. That's rare."
And for villages along the Kusko trail, such as Tuluksak, Kalskag and Aniak, the race is anticipated each winter.
"The Kusko has the support of the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim community," Buser said. "The entire region is really dog friendly. It's their flagship race.
"The K300's reputation has always been exceptional. The trail that's put in is first rate. They always bring their A game."
And in contrast to the Iditarod, which extends across two weeks, the Kusko is a speed race that usually crowns a champion in less than 48 hours.
"We're very lucky because we have a large community investment," Fansler said. "The communities really embrace the race."
Contact Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org