The Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race has taken an unprecedented turn. For the first time, the race will run two laps to its halfway point and back because of warm weather and open water. Local mushers agree that it’s the safest way to run the race, but say that it could present some challenges.
This course has been talked about in the past, but this is the first time that the decision’s been made.
“Well, it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t unanimous," said Myron Angstman, K300 Race Committee Chairman and one of the race’s founders. “Tradition is a big thing and changing the method of competition throws things off a little bit.”
The committee came to the decision Sunday night, on an evening of 36 degree weather and rain in Bethel. Angstman says that the race will look as it never has before because, well, the river does.
“We have more open holes than normal, and the ones we have are bigger than normal,” Angstman said.
It’s causing many firsts. This is the first time that the race will double-back on itself and then repeat its course. This is the first time the race will not run through the Kalskag and Aniak checkpoints, and the first time that the race will start near H-Marker Lake.
This K300 will test dogs in a new way.
“The test now is going to be probably which team is best at overcoming the mental issue of going around the trail, resting, and getting up and going around the trail again,” Angstman said.
Passing teams head-on will also be a factor.
“The place where that’s most difficult is near Bogus," Angstman said. "There are some narrow spots there.”
The trail only crosses the river in a straight shot over the ice across from Tuluksak. Other than that, there are many shallow and well-frozen lakes, sloughs, and creeks along the route. The only open water is by beaver dams, which happens even in the coldest winters.
Local mushers agree that the new course is the safest way to run the race. Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak has been competing in the K300 for years. He says that the change isn’t ideal, but the river isn’t either.
“I just kind of laughed," Williams said, "because we’ve never done this before. But it’s understandable because of all the open water.”
Williams expects his dogs to race well on the repeated route, because he made a lot of short runs while training, sometimes coming into his dog yard and then immediately taking off again.
But three-time K300 champion Pete Kaiser calls the change a “curveball.”
“We’ve all trained for a specific event the way it’s usually run," Kaiser said. "But it’s the same for everybody, and everybody is going to have to deal with it.”
Musher Richie Diehl sits on the K300 Race Committee. The decision not to run to Aniak, his hometown, was difficult.
“I definitely wanted it to come all the way up, and it was good hearing other people on the board give their opinions on why we shouldn’t. It’s an eye-opener to me,” Diehl said.
But Diehl does sees a silver lining; he won’t have to make his dogs run home and then leave, something he says is never easy.
Williams, Kaiser, and Diehl say that the river’s open holes didn’t affect their race prep this season. They trained on the tundra, a strategy that will help them on this year’s overland trail.
The race checkpoints are now Tuluksak, Bogus Creek, and Bethel. Where the Bethel checkpoint will be is still being decided, but only Bethel and Tuluksak will hold dog food and accept dog drops. Like usual, the race will require teams to rest six hours in checkpoints, and then four hours on the final pass through Tuluksak.
Two other races happen during the K300. The Bogus Creek 150 will run as scheduled; the Akiak Dash is being postponed a week to January 27.
The reason that the K300 can’t run an overland course along the entire traditional route is because there is no overland trail from Tuluksak to Kalskag. Angstman points out that this gap affects all winter travelers, not just the K300.
“So I would urge people to come up with plans for us to come up with an alternative trail that does not go on the river," Angstman said. "Because that would be safe for everybody, including our race, and it would prevent this from happening in the future.”
The Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race begins Friday, January 19.