Rookie John Snyder of Akiachak won this year’s Kuskokwim 300 Red Lantern Award. Snyder was the 16th and final musher to cross the K300 finish line. He arrived in Bethel at 1:18 a.m. Monday.
Despite the early hour, a large crowd gathered to welcome Snyder and his seven-dog team as he finished his race.
“I wasn’t expecting a crowd. I was expecting my family, that’s all. I was so happy,” he said.
Many of his friends had driven down from his hometown of Akiachak to greet him. This year’s K300 was Snyder’s first. He’s new to mid-distance mushing. Before now, Snyder’s longest race had been his rookie Bogus Creek 150 run last year.
Snyder started this year’s K300 at a fast pace, a common rookie move, but then pretty soon, he said, he intentionally slowed down his team.
“To watch for what to do and what not to do. I wanted to learn that trail,” Snyder said.
That trail was hard-packed, icy and windy. At the Whitefish Lake loop, near the race’s halfway point at Aniak, his team hit a rough spot that left his two lead dogs injured. He dropped them at the Kalskag inbound checkpoint, roughly 200 miles into the race.
“I thought I wouldn’t get to the finish line,” Snyder said. “I was using both of my back-up lead dogs.”
But training paid off. Snyder had rotated his dogs through the lead positions when he trained them. He found the back-up leads listened to his commands, and the rest of the team followed. Leaving the final checkpoint in Tuluksak, just upriver from his hometown of Akiachak, his team once again picked up speed.
“I guess they recognized their training route. They knew they were going home,” Snyder said.
But when they didn’t turn toward Akiachak and kept going downriver, the dogs once again slowed down.
“From there, we took a little time to get to Bethel,” Snyder said.
Eventually, he and his team arrived at the finish after more than two days on the trail.
“Me and my dogs, we trained so hard, and I wish we could have done better. But it’s my very first race, and I’m proud of myself and my dogs. Especially my dogs,” Snyder said.
Snyder repeated the fact that he was proud of his dogs many times.
Snyder grew up mushing and started his own kennel two years ago. He bought many of the dogs in Nenana, where they’d been bred for long-distance racing. Snyder’s brothers had recently died, and he saw mushing as something positive he could do for himself and his family.
“Just to keep my wife, kids, and my parents happy, and to be a role model for my brother’s kids,” Snyder said.
Snyder said that he’ll continue mushing as long as he’s able. He wants to race the Iditarod as soon as he’s able to qualify and, hopefully, find a sponsor. He said he learned a lot during his first K300 to help him get there.
“How to maintain the dogs and when to feed, and when to give them some water and change the booties,” Snyder said.
For now, he plans to proudly wear the K300 belt buckle all rookies receive after finishing their first race. And now that he’s tried the race once, he said, he’ll be back.