16 teams depart Kobuk 440 start in Kotzebue

A snow-encrusted sled dog in Ambler during the 2015 Kobuk 440. (Photo: Francesca Fenzi, KNOM)

Sixteen dog teams took off from Kotzebue this afternoon at the start of the 2018 Kobuk 440. Leading the pack across the sea ice was this year’s Iditarod Rookie of the Year, Jessie Holmes

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Other big names in this year’s race include Hugh Neff and French-born musher Nicolas Petit. Petit finished second in this year’s Iditarod, with many of the same dogs he left with today. He was candid about his goal for the 2018 Kobuk.

“I wouldn’t mind winning again,” Petit said.

Missing from the starting line was Kotzebue’s own Katherine Keith. She withdrew from the race just two days ago. But two of her handlers are competing with dogs from the kennel she runs with her husband, Iditarod champion John Baker.

“This is the first time that we have ever raced, and it’s a long race,” rookie Maja Bernhoff said. “So for sure we’re going to stick together as much as possible, you know?”

Bernhoff and her best friend, Julie Flotlien, moved to Kotzebue from Norway to handle for Team Baker Kennel. They’re hoping to run their first ever race side-by-side.

Bernhoff explained her team includes a mix of veteran dogs, who raced with Keith on this Iditarod, and yearlings who are getting their first taste of competition. The idea, she says, is for the young dogs to watch and learn from the more experienced ones.

As for a strategy for herself and Flotlien, Bernhoff says, “Oh we haven’t planned that at all …take it as it comes.”

The Norwegian rookie says they’re both just thrilled to be there.

As much as he’s hoping for a win, Petit echoed Bernhoff’s sentiments. He says what he’s looking forward to most is the journey.

“The beautiful scenery and the nice people everywhere,” Petit said.

Sixteen mushers left just after 12:30 Thursday afternoon, although 17 were originally registered. They’ll race the more than 200 miles to Kobuk and then back to Kotzebue, with the first finisher expected to arrive Sunday morning.

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