Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The 2024 K300 Red Lantern Award went to a musher from Crooked Creek

Isaac Underwood holding the Red Lantern Award at the 2024 K300 Banquet on Monday, Jan. 29.
Josiah Swope
Isaac Underwood holding the Red Lantern Award at the 2024 K300 Banquet on Monday, Jan. 29.

It’s almost 5:30 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 29 on the icy Kuskokwim River. The sky is dark.

Less than 24 hours prior, underneath the Kuskokwim 300 (K300) banner that marked the race’s start and finish, Bethel musher Pete Kaiser won the race. The eight-time K300 champion was welcomed by the sunrise, several dozen fans, friends, and family.

But now, in the same spot, the scene is different for Isaac Underwood, the musher from Crooked Creek whose mother and father were among the few who welcomed him back. Instead of a boisterous crowd, the chilly air was filled with the sound of a humming generator, powering the spotlight that marks the path toward the chute entrance and the finish.

In the distance, Underwood’s headlamp flickered and bounced, catching the attention of K300 Race Manager Paul Basile.

“You can see his headlight there as he approaches,” Basile said.  

The silhouette of the 43-year-old Underwood and his five dogs attached to the steady moving sled sharpened as he approached the finish line.

Finally, after 57 hours and 7 minutes spent on the trail in -22 degree Fahrenheit weather with the wind chill making it feel more like -40 degrees, Underwood finished in 18th place.

“At 5:27 [a.m.], Isaac Underwood crosses the finish line of the 2024 K300. The red lantern,” Basile said.  

2024 K300 Red Lantern winner Isaac Underwood crossed the finish line with 5 dogs at 5:27 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 30.
2024 K300 Red Lantern Award winner Isaac Underwood crossed the finish line with 5 dogs at 5:27 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 30.

Underwood immediately tended to his five dogs. The dogs wore black booties and blue jackets that were lighter in color because of all the frost that had piled up. Ten-year-old Chester, the leader, crossed first, then Tundra the two-year-old, followed by the veterans. Brownie and his brother Junior are five, and six-year-old Spotty Boy pulled the sled through before Underwood put on the brakes one last time.

“Hey Isaac, congrats,” Basile said.  

Underwood's father and mother greeted him at the finish line. According to his father, Nathan Underwood, he’s not much of a talker.

“Isaac doesn’t waste words to let us know. I mean, when he was younger he probably would say maybe two or three sentences, paragraphs to me all summer. And when he actually had something to say I would fall off of my chair,” Nathan said.

Underwood has been racing dogs since he was a teenager. He was influenced by his father, who also was a musher. He’d help him with dog chores.

“I grew up with dogs, and I’ve always watched my dad," Underwood said. "The dogs, they’re just energetic and I love being around them.”

This was his 11th appearance in the K300. His top finish was fifth place in 2021, and last year he also finished in 18th place. But Underwood said that training for this K300 was difficult.

“This was the first race, and I’ve had slight trouble getting some training miles in Crooked Creek with all the snow.”

Underwood traveled almost 120 miles from Crooked Creek to Bethel on a snowmachine with his 12 dogs to compete in the race.

“At least it wasn’t windy [with a] wind chill,” Underwood said.

Underwood’s father said that he doesn’t know where his son got his grit.

The Red Lantern Award presented at the Mushers Banquet held on Monday, Jan. 29.
Francisco Martínezcuello
The Red Lantern Award presented at the Mushers Banquet held on Monday, Jan. 29.

“I wouldn’t say it was from me. His mom? Yes, she’s pretty tough. He comes from some real strong bloodlines on both sides. Up north and upriver,” Nathan said.

The K300 is a special race, according to Underwood’s father. He loves the toughness of it, but even he admits the conditions were challenging.

“It was really brutal. Not once did I hear him say that he was cold. And he was always focused on the dogs, [taking] care of the dogs. And finally asked him this morning, since he never did once say that he was cold. I asked him, 'Did you get cold?' and he says, 'just my chest area,'” Nathan said.

Mushing is a sport that can defy logic to the uninitiated. Five of the 23 teams that started the K300 dropped out of the race this year. But to mushers, it’s not just a sport. It’s more than that, Nathan said.

“The only reason we race is just to supplement, to be able to hold onto dogs. I always told them that we’re not a professional team, so to speak, but we’re trying to just hang on to a tradition that’s been passed on. And when you lose something, it’s very hard to get back. So he was raised with dogs, all his life he rolled around even when he could barely open his eyes,” Nathan said.

The Red Lantern Award serves as a beacon for Underwood. A reminder of tradition, and passion, the love for his dogs, and the lengths that he will go to for them.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
Related Content