BETHEL — A throng of Kuskokwim 300 race fans cheered as 25 sled dog teams hit the trail, two at a time, headed up the Kuskokwim River on glare ice in a piercing crosswind.
It’s the 37th running of Alaska’s premier mid-distance dog mushing race, and a stacked field of veterans promises to make it a fiercely fought contest from here to Aniak and back. The race trail is relatively flat, much of it is wind-scoured river ice, and, without much resistance on the sled runners, presents a challenge for mushers trying to keep dogs from running too fast too early and becoming too tired.
The race started Friday night after sundown, and as the temperature dropped to about 7 degrees, the 40 mph wind resulted in a wind chill that felt like 15 below on exposed skin.
That did not dampen the spirits of the mushers, nor the eager dogs, who barked and jumped in their harnesses while lined out before the start. They would eventually be led up to the starting line, and when the announcer gave the signal to go, the dogs scratched at the ice, some bootied paws slipping, and pulled hard out of the chute. Behind many of the dog sleds were with snowmachines tied on to hold them back for the first icy section of the trail.
Earlier, Salcha musher Jason Mackey, an Iditarod veteran who trains at a dog camp north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway, said the conditions on the Kuskokwim would help him and his team prepare for conditions in other upcoming races that are unlike those at his training grounds.
“This is all new to them, flats and wind and glare ice,” he said standing near his dog team, packed in the back of a host family’s pickup before the start. “They say it gets worse as you go up.”
There are four Mackeys in the Kusko 300 this year: Brenda, Lance, Jason and Patrick. They had all been giving advice to Patrick, a Kusko rookie and Jason’s son. It is also Patrick’s first 300-mile race.
Standing nearby, Patrick said he’s aiming to get all 12 of his dogs “around and back, happy and healthy.” Father and son also are both signed up to run the Yukon Quest 300 next month.
“He’s been doing this since he was big enough to pay attention,” Jason said, who added that he had been telling his son, “It’s a race, but it’s just another run.”
“I can’t stress that to him enough,” Jason said. “But he’s not going to go hot-rodding with those guys.”
“Those guys” included Patrick’s uncle, Lance, a four-time champ in both of Alaska’s 1,000-mile sled dog races: the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. Jason said his brother was hungry for a win in the Kusko after rebuilding his dog team for several years.
Lance, unloading his sled, said he was excited to see how his team would perform.
“Play time’s about to begin,” he said.
Defending champ Pete Kaiser, the lone Bethel musher in the race, paused to accept hug after hug from local friends, family and other fans while he started to unload his sled. Kaiser said he is running nearly the same team as he did last year, the first time a Bethel musher had won the race in 30 years.
“I know what they’re capable of,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser said he did not think he would have an advantage from training on the same river ice on which the race is run, because “everybody’s pretty much in the same boat,” he said.
Some mushers would not hold their dogs back as much and jump out to a big lead, hoping they’d be able to maintain it as their team’s grew more tired later in the race, Kaiser said. Others, like him, would seek to keep an even pace throughout, and then “reel in” the others.
Asked about the local support he gets in Bethel, Kaiser, also an Iditarod veteran, said that and representing his town are a huge part of why he’s a musher at all.
“If this race never happened, I’d probably be doing something different,” Kaiser said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I was on a different life path if it weren’t for this race.”
Contact staff writer Casey Grove at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: