A round-up of 2024’s K300 Weekend events
Over the last weekend in January, Jessica Klejka completed her third Kuskokwim 300 (K300) Sled Dog Race; she scratched once in 2008. She grew up on Bethel’s trails and learned to race from an early age. When she was 12, she won the K300's Campout Race. At this year’s K300, she came in 13th. Her family was there when she arrived. The sun was starting to set with pinks and yellows over the blue and white Kuskokwim on the evening of Jan. 28. Klejka wore teal and purple; her dogs matched in royal blue.
At the K300 Mushers Meeting on Jan. 25, the evening before the race, Klejka said, “This is my favorite week of the whole year. Ever since I've been a kid we've helped out with the K300 in some form. Ridden the trail on snowmachines, or been a part of the Bogus [Creek] or Akiak Dash races, or brought straw up to Tuluksak. I've [been a veterinarian for] the race. So I will always be here in some form, I think, as long as I can."
Matthew Failor won the K300 in 2019. He said that the cold conditions of this year’s race were similar to that of his past championship.
“I've had the pleasure of doing this race now, this will be my eighth time,” Failor said. “We've been able to come out here for a few other occasions. For some weddings. Pete's wedding and Richie's wedding, up, upriver. And then the most famous bachelor party up and down the Kuskokwim River, which was for Richie Diehl.“
Failor came in second this weekend and brought his focused baby onstage at the awards.
“I’d Like to thank my dog team. I don't normally talk too much about them, but they're a great group,” said Failor. “Martin is one of my lead dogs. She got seventh place, second, second, second. Didn't think I'd be emotional.”
New mushing contender Raymond Alexie is a young superstar known for his stoicism, quiet confidence, and strategic and dedicated care for his dogs. He said that most of his dogs were between two and six years old.
“I can name all the dogs,” Alexie said. “There's Apollo, wait I'm trying to remember. Apollo, Scotty, Luna, Rustler, Rider, Saturn, then I think Baby or Abbey, it's in between those two. Iger, Thor, Loki, Willie and Whelan.”
Alexie said that he didn’t mind the conditions or know his competition. He just wanted to get miles on his dogs. After two years of undefeated racing, spectators wondered whether he would take Pete Kaiser’s crown as a K300 rookie. Alexie ended up scratching to protect his dogs from the harsh conditions.
Jason Pavilla has raced dogs since he was a kid in Kwethluk. Still, he was one of the multiple competitors who credited Alexie with giving them dogs or challenging them to compete.
“I've been mushing with my buddy Raymond and he's a rookie this year,” said Pavila. “Most all my life, and it's gonna be fun to hit the trail with him on this race, on his rookie race is going to be awesome.”
Pavila said that he brought 12 dogs to the K300. Most of them were youngsters.
“Training has been a little bit too rough with all the weather changing,” Pavilla said. “But I was able to get enough miles, and I'm pretty confident I can finish this race with my new dogs.”
Pavila ended up scratching too. So did two-time competitor Josh McNeal. Five competitors made the choice to forgo the finish line as harsh cold chilled the bones of mushers and dogs alike. But it didn’t mean the adventure was lost.
“Just being out out in the middle of nowhere and seeing their country,” said McNeal. “And, you know, I love racing to the villages and getting to meet all the the amazing people that are out here. And, you know, just so grateful that they're sharing their homes with us. And just traveling with the dogs, and just being disconnected from the world, not having to worry about taking phone calls, or emails, or any of that. Just being disconnected and being with my best friends, which are my dogs.”
Musher Ebbe Winthrop Pederson is Norwegian and lives in Takotna, a town of 57 on the upper Kuskokwim. He borrowed dogs from friends to compete in the 2024 K300. He said that racing is pretty similar in Norway since the races are modeled after Alaska’s, but he likes the Alaskan ones because mushers aren’t followed by snowmachines or coddled during the race. His attitude was more relaxed than most.
“I just want to finish. I just want to get to the finish line,” Pederson said. “I'm just [hoping] I just keep happy down the trail. That's my, that's my goal. Yeah. Yeah. No big ambitions.” Pederson finished in 17th place at 10:14 p.m. on Jan. 28 with nine dogs.
For the start of the race on Jan. 26, spectators lined the ice road in parkas and in trucks. The media team had handwarmers taped to phones and recorders. The -15 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, which felt even colder, made the crowd less nervous about the weight on what months before had been the unfrozen Kuskokwim River.
“I loved seeing the people lining up and watching everyone pass through, and screaming and excited for everyone,” said Helen Johanson at the craft fair the next morning. Her family was selling homemade women’s knives and crafts at the market. "It's always a family event when we come home for this weekend, and this year is, this year was her birthday,” Johanson said, pointing to her sister. “So Happy Birthday to Diane. So we came here for her birthday in combination of the 300; we're having the fireworks for me last night.”
“So far the fireworks were fantastic, I totally enjoyed watching them. Too darn cold to be outside, but I watched them from my house. And I'm so glad that we were able to have this event at the VFW so that crafters can sell some of their products and people can get out and about there," said Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) treasurer and secretary LaTesia "Tish" Guinn at the craft fair.
At the market, many customers and viewers said that despite the racing festivities, this was their favorite part of the weekend.
“I am very curious what they're selling. Crafts, arts and crafts. That's one thing we don't get to see a lot, only on Saturday Markets,” said Balassa Larson. “And I wish everyone that is racing good luck. It's very cold out there.“
Across town, a set of basketball games were going down at Bethel Regional High School. A group of Gladys Jung students unanimously agreed: the best part of the weekend was basketball.
The Jangle Bees band played at the cultural center, and this year people danced the whole way through. The concert started just after mushers came in from the Akiak Dash, where 16-year-old rookie Schouviller Wassillie Jr. took first place. Tired mushers and volunteers showed up for the rare event with a liquor license.
“I feel like there's a really good turnout this year, the lights not working kind of added another element of fun to it,” said Abigail Miller, who was selling tickets and checking ID’s for wristbands at the door. “I noticed there was a lot of people with, like, lights on and, like, markers lighting up the runway instead of, like, those big overhead things.”
“The K300 did start off pretty good this year,” added Tom Osterman, who was selling tickets beside Miller. “Probably the best.”
And of course now we’re at a concert with millennial covers,” said Miller. “It couldn’t really get much better.”
In the end, another Pete Kaiser victory in the K300 got him closer to Jeff King’s record as the winningest K300 musher of all time. The rest of town tried to stay warm.