Kuskokwim and bogus mushers get welcome break from past years with snowy trail

Mushers listen to rules and trail conditions for the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race in the Bethel Long House Hotel on January 19, 2017. (Photo: Dean Swope / KYUK)

Friday, on the Kuskokwim River outside Bethel, nine mushers and their teams will dash under the start banner for the Bogus Creek 150. An hour and a half later, 20 more will follow over a trail twice as long in the 38th Annual Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race.

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At the K300 Race Headquarters, located at the Bethel Long House Hotel, dozens of men and women caught up on race rules, new changes, and trail conditions.

The big news is that there’s snow this year. Around six inches fell the day before the race, adding soft white to a race trail that has been hard glare ice and rough, brown tundra for the past two years.

“Conditions are fairly good for dogs,”  longtime musher Nathan Underwood said. “There’s a good snow cover the entire trail that I marked.”

Kuskokwim 300 two-time winner and defending champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel signs autographs at the mushers meeting at the Bethel Long House Hotel on January 19, 2017.
(Photo: Dean Swope / KYUK)

Underwood marked the majority of the trail downriver from his home in Aniak, to Bogus Creek. All along the trail, he said, the ice has a grip.

“Like a crust frozen onto it,” Underwood said.

Brent Sass of Eureka, who placed second in last year’s Kuskokwim 300, said all that snow is a welcome relief, and it means mushers will be changing the way they race.

“It’s definitely easier to control the team when you have more snow,” Sass said. “And the challenge when you’re on the glare ice is you’re constantly having to be driving and aware, and on the brake, and listening to the chhhhrrrrrrr for 300 miles. That’s what it was last year for 300 miles. When you have snow like this, you’re doing something different. You’re having to maybe motivate the dogs a little more. You’re having to jump off the sled and kick a little more, and maybe use the ski pole a little more, because there’s resistance because of the snow.”

The trail starts in Bethel, runs upriver to Akiak and then veers overland for 17 miles to Tuluksak to avoid a particularly rough section of river. At Tuluksak, the trail rejoins the river. After Bogus Creek, the trail diverges from the truck trail and becomes its own course. Race officials say that the path doesn’t cross any open water, and mushers are told to be on the lookout for moose near Kalskag and Bogus Creek.

Local mushers racing the Kuskokwim 300 include three-time Bogus Creek 150 winner Jackie Larson of Napaskiak, Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak, Isaac Underwood of Aniak, Richie Diehl of Aniak, rookie Victoria Hardwick of Bethel and of course, two-time winner and defending champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel, who said he’s feeling the pressure to win stronger than ever.

“It felt like maybe after that first win the pressure would be lessened, but I’ve felt more pressure this year than I ever have to try to keep it going,” Kaiser said. “But I think the team looks good, and it’s a lot of the same dogs that have won it twice now, and I think we’ve got a good shot. But it’s a who’s who of champion mushers in here and anyone can win the race, and I think everybody’s got a lot of respect for each other.”

Start time for the Bogus Creek 150 is 5 p.m., followed by the Kuskokwim 300 at 6:30 p.m.

Fireworks will mark the final musher’s departure, celebrating the Y-K Delta’s biggest weekend of sled dog racing and offering a tribute to a treasured Alaska tradition.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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