Thursday, January 17, 2008

2008 Kuskokwim River Sled Dog Races



People who come to Bethel to visit tend to see it as a pretty doggy town any time of year. Most everybody has dogs (pleural) and loves dogs. Bethel has perhaps a dozen resident mushers who each have dog yards with 20 dogs or more, and the largest dog yard has close to 50 dogs. On any cold, clear night, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the beautifully mournful sound of a dog team howling to the moon.

In the middle of January each year, Bethel becomes Dogtown, USA, when our biggest event occurs. We hold a trio of sled dog races on the third weekend of the new year: The Kuskokwim 300 (which is 300 miles), the Bogus Creek 150 (150 miles), and the Akiak Dash (50 miles). These three races bring about 500 dogs to Bethel. The K-300 has a 14-dog limit per team; the Bogus Creek, a 10-dog limit; and the Dash, a 7-dog limit. A musher can start a few dogs short if necessary, but a smaller team has a much harder chance.

The two shorter races tend to be comprised of mushers from Bethel and the surrounding villages, as the expense of flying a dog team to Bethel is huge—over a thousand dollars—if one does not have the sponsorship of an air cargo company. The K-300 draws some of the top professional mushers from all over Alaska, and sometimes from the lower 48, and occasionally, Europe. With a 1st Prize purse of $20,000, even those with no air cargo sponsorship are willing to bear the cost of transportation. Prize money totaling $100,000 is awarded to the first 20 finishers—more than any other mid-distance race—and there are often just about 20 teams competing, so simply finishing the race can mean earning back the transportation cost to get here.

This year’s K-300 will, as usual, host some of the top names in dog mushing: Martin Buser (2007 champ), Jeff King (winner of the most K-300s), Dee Dee Jonrowe (former resident of Bethel), Mitch Seavey (2005 champ), Ed Iten (2004 champ), Paul Gebhardt, Mike Williams.

The undisputed master of the Kuskokwim 300 is Jeff King. He first ran this race twenty years ago, in 1988, and has run it almost every year since; he has only missed four K-300s since his first one. He has taken home the trophy eight times, far more than any other musher (2006, 2003, 2002, 2001, 1997, 1993, 1992, 1991). He has finished in second place four times, often by a matter of seconds, and in third place once.

In fact, no other musher has won our race more than twice, and only seven mushers have done that: Martin Buser in 2007 and 1994; Charlie Boulding in 2000 and 1996; Sonny Russell in 1990 and 1989; Rick Mackey in 1987 and 1985; Bethel musher Myron Angstmann in 1986 and 1983 (and competing again this year for the first time in a few); Rick Swenson in 1984 and the first K-300 in 1980; and Jerry Austin in 1982 and 1981. The only woman who has ever won the K-300 was—who else?—Susan Butcher, in 1988.

This year’s field also includes some second generation mushers: Martin Buser’s son Rohn, who was last year’s Rookie of the Year, finishing in 4th place; and Mike Williams Sr.’s son, Mike Jr, who was also a rookie on the K-300 last year, and was the 2006 winner of the Bogus Creek 150.

Previous years have seen offspring competing with their dads as well. Jeff King’s daughter Cali ran the race in 2003; Mitch Seavey’s son Dallas ran in 2004 and ’05, and was Rookie of the Year in ’04. Two of Myron Angstmann’s children have run the race, though not in the same years as their father; son Andy was Rookie of the Year in 2003, and ran last year; and daughter Sarah was Rookie of the Year in 2004.

The final field of mushers for 2008 numbers 22. Of those, three are women: Dee Dee Jonrowe, Melissa Owens, and Jessica Klejka. Dee Dee is a veteran of numerous K-300s. Melissa and Jessica are both rookies. Jessica is a senior at Bethel Regional High School, born and raised right here in Bethel. The whole town is cheering for her to do well.

Visiting mushers should be settled in with their host families now. The veterinary staff went to each home today to do dog team checks and assure that each dog is healthy, not palpably pregnant, and vaccinated. Tonight will be the televised meeting where mushers—in the order they signed up—will choose their starting positions for the race. Two dog teams will leave the shoot every two minutes (with the time difference made up during the mandatory rests) until all teams are on their way to Aniak in the K-300, and to Bogus Creek in the Bogus 150. The Dash is a mass-start race, with all teams lined up across the river and taking off at the sound of the starting pistol. It will begin and end on Saturday.

Tomorrow is the big day for the longer races. The Bogus 150 starts at 5 pm, and the K-300 at 6:30pm. The big fireworks extravaganza (that would be the one we can’t have in July because it doesn’t get dark enough) starts right afterward. Your blogger-on-location will be there to bring you all the excitement, in words and pictures.



Photo by The Tundra PA, of Melissa Owens and her dog team out for a practice run.

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2 Comments:

Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

I'm so glad you're going to blog this race again. It's clearly the highlight of the year for you up there. Thanks for sharing again (and always.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008 4:43:00 PM  
Anonymous muebles madrid said...

Thanks so much for your post, pretty helpful material.

Friday, November 25, 2011 10:17:00 AM  

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