Saturday, January 19, 2008

Kuskokwim 300 Gets Underway

The 29th running of the Kuskokwim 300 got off without a hitch last night. The weather was on the warm side of perfect at +22F with occasional big puffy flakes of snow drifting gently down. It was a beautiful night.

Start time for the race was 6:30 pm, down on the river in front of town. Dutch and I were volunteers on the truck support crew, as my truck is rigged with side rails, drop chains to carry 20 dogs, and top rails to carry two sleds. It is an official “dog truck.” We were assigned to Jeff King and his handler, Dave Decaro, who will each be driving a team for K-300. In the photo at left, Jeff is the man in the green jacket, talking to the man in the brown jacket; Dave has hold of the dog.

I met Jeff at the airport on Wednesday and helped with transporting his dogs and gear to his host home. He and Dave arrived with 30 dogs, two sleds, and a ton of gear—food, dog boxes, tie-out chains, dog-food cookers, straw, and personal stuff. We had some down time waiting for Alaska Airlines to unload all the dogs, so Jeff and I talked about mushing in general and how he wanted to organize things for the race start.

He wanted us there to start loading dogs about two hours before the start time, so Dutch and I arrived at his host home at 4:30 pm. Jeff is very organized, and is such an old pro at this, he does not have any pre-race jitters. His host family had a crew of willing but inexperienced friends to help with doing whatever might be needed, and Jeff spent time instructing them in how to help.

We got the dogs into their harnesses and loaded into two trucks, and were ready to head for the river by 5:30 pm. The Bogus 150 had started at 5:00—which means we had to miss our friend Angela’s race start—and the staging area behind the start line was pretty empty.

As some of the photos show, the start line is a tall log arch with two chutes defined by temporary fencing about a hundred feet in front of it. Teams start two-at-a-time, with the musher and the sled on the start line and the dog teams in the chutes being held by the helpers until the “Go!” Then both teams take off and the next two teams move up into position. Teams start at two-minute intervals until all teams have left. The time difference between the first two and the last two teams, about 20 minutes, is made up during the mandatory six-hour rest.

All kinds of things can go wrong at the start, from loose dogs which can’t be caught, to inexperienced mushers who are not ready to go when their time comes. This year was one of the smoothest K-300 starts I remember. I did see a harnessed dog running frantically around loose at one point but it was quickly caught and put back on its team.

Dave and Jeff chose starting numbers 7 and 8 at the drawing on Thursday night, so they were in the chutes together for the start. Once they were on their way, our duties were done, so we moved around in front of the start line to watch the rest of the teams leave. Dee Dee Jonrowe (Number 16) has forsaken her traditional powder blue outfit with matching sled bag and dog harnesses for a completely new look: a fur-lined pink kuspuk with ruffled knee-length skirt and “Taco Bell” plastered across her butt. She has made several TV commercials for this sponsor which get airtime in Alaska, but I’m not sure if they are shown in the lower 48.

So now the K-300 is 20 hours old, and will be won in something like 40 hours. There are two mandatory rests: the first for six hours, which most mushers take at Kalskag, but have some discretion in; and the second for four hours which must be taken at Tuluksak on the way back. From Tuluksak to the Finish Line is about six hours with a strong team.

Currently Paul Gebhardt is in the lead, but that is only because he did not stop at Kalskag for his six-hour rest. Paul was actually the fifteenth musher to arrive at Kalskag, but because he kept on when the others stopped for their long rest, he was first out, and therefore in first place for now. The standings after all teams have taken their long rest will be a truer indication of the relative strengths of the teams and their mushers.

As feared, the warming trend continued past where we wanted it to stop. This morning the thermometer was nearly up to +40F, with dripping water sounds coming from the eaves of the house and quickly-receding snow everywhere you look. This weather is way too warm for a sled dog team to work at maximum efficiency and speed, and it makes for dangerous traveling conditions. The ice in the center of the river is very thick and safe, but the edges near the banks have open water, making it difficult to get on and off the river.

Dutch and I went down to the Finish Line before noon to see if we could catch the winner of the Bogus 150 coming in; it is usually a 17 to 20 hour race. A huge lead of open water is visible just upriver from Bethel. It is easy to see in the daytime, but may cause disaster at night.

We were there for the first Bogus 150 musher to cross the Finish Line, and were delighted to see that it was Pete Kaiser, a fine young Bethel musher who is the son of a friend of ours. Taking third place was our friend Angela Denning-Barnes, coming in 43 minutes and 15 seconds after Pete.

Winning the Bogus 150 means that Pete will receive free entry in to next year’s K-300; he will also be gifted a promising young pup from Jeff King’s yard. Jeff began this tradition years ago, as a way that he personally supports the area’s up-and-coming mushers, and every year that I remember he has brought a six-month-old puppy to give to the Bogus 150 winner. His puppies sell for well over a thousand dollars apiece, so it is quite a significant gift.

The winner for this year’s K-300 will probably finish tomorrow morning between 10 and noon. The K-300 website keeps reasonably up-to-date and accurate statistics on the Leader Board, so that armchair mushers like Dutch and myself can keep up with the trail action. When the mushers get to Akiachak inbound, they are about two hours from the Finish Line. Plenty of time for those of us who are warm and well-rested to get down to the river to cheer them in.


Last minute update: Ed Iten of Kotzebue is now in the lead, as of about 15 minutes ago.

Photos by The Tundra PA.

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3 Comments:

Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

As of 6:25 pm by your clock: Rohn Buser is in the lead, with his dad in 7th place.

DeeDee Jonrowe is 3rd.

Jeff King is 6th.

Jessica Klejka is 21st.

So exciting!

Saturday, January 19, 2008 6:27:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Dr. D--it IS exciting! The race never sleeps, and the mushers' positions are always changing. It is now quarter to midnight and Rohn is still holding the lead; what a dark horse, no one expected a kid to come out here and whomp all the pros! He is 17 years old! 'Course, he's been mushing since he was old enough to walk. What is interesting is that at just past the half way point, only about 90 minutes separate the first eight teams. That is really close, and with a lot of miles to go, anything could happen.

We are in the midst of another severe weather event--gale force winds are blowing outside right now. It takes huge mental toughness on the dogs' part to keep going in a bad blow like this; it will be a make-or-break factor for some teams, and may explain why Jessica has fallen so far behind. She is now in last place, a good 4 hours behind the team in front of her. I hope she can hang in there, but she may end up scratching. It is hard to get that far behind everyone.

And come morning, everything could look completely different!

Thanks for following with us, Dino!

Saturday, January 19, 2008 11:53:00 PM  
Blogger Star the wonder pup said...

How quaint, Shall we now romanticize dwarf tossing?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 4:32:00 PM  

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