On Friday night, the Kuskokwim 300 celebrates its 40th annual sled dog race. Eighteen mushers are signed up to compete, including multiple K300 and Iditarod champions. Over four decades the race has attracted Alaska’s best mushers, while offering a growing purse and serving as a cornerstone of local mushing. But as KYUK learned during a Wednesday morning K300 talk show, the founders could not have known how well known and respected that the race would become, or the local champion it would shape.
The year was 1979 and as former musher Bev Hoffman remembers, an old friend of hers got an idea.
“He’s on the back of the sled of the Iditarod, and he has a lot to think about while he’s going all those miles to Nome,” Hoffman said. “And he goes, ‘We can do this. We can do this.'”
“It was a little bit more involved,” Myron Angstman replied. Angstman is the K300 Board President and a two-time K300 race winner. He thought that a race of less than 1,000 miles sounded pretty good. He remembered thinking, “This is too damn far. We should have something a little shorter.”
At the time, Angstman was racing his first Iditarod. He had a job, a family, a dog kennel, and he wanted a race closer to home. Meanwhile, Bethel had dog teams, a trail, and a lot of volunteers.
“So it seemed like we could pull it off,” Angstman said.
He called together Bethel's mushers at his law office.
“And he says,” Hoffman recalled, “'I think we could pull off a 300-mile race to Aniak and back.’ And we’re all going, ‘Okay, it’s the mail trail.’”
Some of the mushers at that first meeting were John McDonald, Ken Hamm, Jim Barker, and “maybe Cory Flintoff,” said Angstman.
“Then we put a trail committee together,” Hoffman said. “And this was all before Pete is even thought of.”
Reigning four-time K300 champion Pete Kaiser wouldn't be born in Bethel until few years later. Now Kaiser has placed in the Iditarod's top 10 five times; a career that started with the K300's races.
“Well, it’s probably the reason I am a musher, honestly,” Kaiser said.
K300 offered a premier race and an entire winter of competition to the community of Kuskokwim dog mushers.
“Mushing was dying out,” Hoffman explained. “Snowmachines had moved in and a lot of the local mushers were giving up their teams, and I think we even talked about it that night at Myron’s office. That this was a way maybe to bring all that back.”
So they announced the race. Within two weeks, they knew they had something big. Joe Reddington, the father of the Iditarod himself, mailed in his entry fee.
And when that entry fee came in the mail,” Angstman said, “I figured, 'well, we got a chance here.'”
Rick Swenson and Susan Butcher followed, the two most competitive mushers of their time, and the race has stayed competitive. Pete Kaiser watched mushing heroes like Jeff King and Martin Buser race the K300. Then he began racing against them.
“It’s fun,” Kaiser said. “It’s kind of a little bit intimidating at first to share the trail with people like that, but they’re great guys and great gals.”
Angstman says that he could tell Kaiser was competitive, even as a young kid, watching him race in K300 Sunday "fun runs" around the island in front of Bethel. Kaiser has become what the K300 dreamed of nurturing: a Kuskokwim musher who’s risen from running the smallest local races to winning its biggest, now multiple times over.
But Angstman worries about the future of the sport. It’s expensive to start and maintain a kennel, even as a hobby. Fewer young people are competing. Kaiser says that a decade ago, he, along with Akiak’s Mike Williams Jr. and Aniak’s Richie Diehl, were the next generation of mushers along the river. Ten years later, they’re still the young ones.
“It’s hard to talk people into going out and being cold every day,” Kaiser said. “And I kind of wonder what’s going to happen here in the next 10 or 20 years.”
It’s hard to say where the race will be at that time, or even what it will look like. When the race began, there was one phone in villages to report trail updates. Now there are GPS trackers giving real-time musher positions every few minutes, but some things have remained the same. The weather has always been unpredictable. The event: run by volunteers. The caliber of mushers: the best around. And the race: beginning in Bethel, every year, like it will Friday night.