Nome novice musher’s grit and perseverance earn him a second K300 Red Lantern
Around 9 a.m., just over an hour before sunrise, on Monday, Jan. 30, a handful of spectators gathered around two telephone poles jutting out of the soupy, yet still frozen, Kuskokwim River. The poles marked the finish line of the Kuskokwim 300 (K300), mushing’s premier mid-distance dog sled race. It started to rain.
Less than twenty-four hours prior, on Jan. 29, Pete Kaiser crossed the same telephone pole markers to solidify his seventh K300 victory. The river conditions weren’t the same. They were deteriorating quickly during unusually warm weather.
In the distance, through the mist, the small crowd could see the beacon of light that was 37-year-old Reese Madden’s headlamp. Madden, the last musher to finish the race, crossed the finish line at 9:12 a.m. on Jan. 30 making him the 2023 Red Lantern Award winner.
The Nome musher started the race with 10 dogs, but ended with six. He was determined to finish and persevered through trail conditions that challenged him and his team, like 4-foot craters he encountered along the trail about 20 miles outside of Kalskag.
“At one point, my biggest 70-pound dog, I thought he had [fallen],” Madden said. “And then I came up with my dog sled and it was such a big drop that I actually broke my brush bow on that drop and I was like ‘holy cow.’ He didn't fall down, he just stepped down into that hole because it was so big and it just kind of demoralized my dogs.”
When Madden left Bethel, he thought the trail was soft with little overflow along the way to Tuluksak. The beginning was deceptive, and all the confidence that he felt due to these relatively optimal conditions quickly eroded when he encountered this uneven cement-like snow mix of punchy, hard then soft, hard then soft trail.
“I rested for five hours and then I took off and the dogs were kind of just a little sluggish and kind of lost our speed,” he said. “And we went to Aniak and it was quite a long run. It was a little under nine hours I think it was. And we're fit for only a 50 mile run, and then I rested my dogs there for about five hours too.”
Conditions were so slick with glare ice that at some point at night his dogs were slipping.
“Just leaving Kalskag, I just kind of blew through there and I had to drop three dogs so I was really struggling to leave,” he said.
He lost a lot of momentum as a result. Then conditions got worse.
“I ran into overflow right in the same spot as I left and it got worse, and then by the time I got to Tuluksak and rested there it was starting to rain. Really warm, like 36, 37 degrees,” he said.
This forced him to rest his team more.
“I'm glad I did that because the last 50 miles, well 40 miles was pretty gnarly,” he said.
The environmental conditions on the trail had knocked out two other mushers.
Madden said that there was 4 to 6 inches of standing water and slush for about 20 miles, and then it got worse once he hit the Gweek River where the channel was about knee-deep in water.
“At one point the dogs are swimming across it. I was, you know, pretty much having to run through the water to get to the other side, dump out my bunny boots, keep going,” he said. “Then we hit the Kusko River that was all flooded, like 4 to 6 inches [of] standing water. Pretty much did 30 miles non-stop running in water and the dogs just ate up the trail.”
It was a steep learning curve for a novice racer.
“I made a lot of dumb, rookie mistakes like I carried enough food literally from the start to the end,” he said.”I just [had] too much gear, you know. I went out with a cooker, which no one else really does.”
But Madden said that he'll be back next year and the year after that. It’s what mushers do.
“I'm glad I finished and, you know, my goal every year is [to] come back and improve until I get that W,” he said.
What makes Madden’s story so compelling?
It’s not that it’s his second Red Lantern Award in the K300. It’s not the 10 hour improvement he made. It’s not even the fact that he came in dead last. The Red Lantern signifies the musher with perseverance and determination, which is to say the one with true grit.