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Kobuk 440, one of the last mushing races of the season, takes off April 4

A dozen dog teams line up for the mass start to the 2021 Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race.
Berett Wilber
A dozen dog teams line up for the mass start to the 2021 Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race.

The Kobuk 440, one of the last sled dog races of the season, begins Thursday, April 4. Eleven mushers and their teams are signed up for the mid-distance race that runs along the Kobuk River.

The 440-mile course begins in Kotzebue and passes through six villages before returning back.

Paul Hansen is the president of the Kobuk 440 Racing Association. He said that this year’s trail might be a little rough, but Northwest Arctic Borough Search and Rescue is helping smooth it out.

“You know, we had the warm weather. So there was a little bit of overflow and slushy snow. And when the snowmachines go through that, then it creates kind of a rough trail, rough, icy trail,” Hansen said.

Hansen said that several veteran mushers are signed up. Two-time 440 winner and last year’s champion, Jessie Holmes, will be returning, along with New Hampshire-based musher Bailey Vitello, who earned last year's “Rookie of Year” award. Eddie Burke Jr. came in third in 2022 and signed up as well.

Hansen said that he’s looking forward to seeing veteran musher Tony Browning, who first ran the 440 three decades ago in 1993.

“You know, he's one of the mushers I respect the most here,” Hansen said. “Tony always comes with a really good team.”

Also returning this year are Kotzebue locals Jim Bourquin and Kevin Hansen, Paul Hansen’s son. Jessi Downey, a fan favorite from last year with family ties to the Northwest Arctic community of Noatak, will also be racing and competing against her boyfriend, Hunter Keefe. Keefe scratched from this year’s Iditarod race after one of his sled dogs died.

There are two rookies on this year’s roster: Minnesota-based Emily Ford and Jody Potts-Joseph, a musher from Eagle River. Potts-Joseph also stars in the reality TV show “Life Below Zero: First Alaskans.”

Hansen said this year's race has a $60,000 purse, but he doesn't know the breakdown yet. He said that it will be announced during the musher’s drawing the night before the race. The 440 starts on the ice on Front Street in Kotzebue at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 4.

Desiree Hagen is the news director for KOTZ in Kotzebue.