BETHEL, Alaska – The Kuskokwim 300, a highly regarded mid-distance sled dog race in Bethel, Alaska, begins Jan. 16. It’s a first test of the season for several mushers who will also compete in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race, which begins March 7 in Anchorage.
The Kusko 300 boasts a formidable field. As of Jan. 4, 31 mushers had registered, among them several Iditarod champions: John Baker (2011), Martin Buser (1992, 1994, 1997, 2002), Jeff King (1993, 1996, 1998, 2006), and Lance Mackey (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010).
It also boasts several Alaska Native mushers, among them some of the most formidable challengers in past and present Iditarods.
John Baker, Inupiaq, has 13 top 10 finishes in 19 Iditarods and is the first Inupiaq and fourth Alaska Native to win that race. He won the Kusko 300 in 2010.
Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabaskan, finished 36th in the 2013 Iditarod and 14th in 2014 and was the 2014 Iditarod’s Most Improved Musher.
Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, has two top 10 finishes in five Iditarods and finished fifth in 2012.
Chuck Schaeffer, Inupiaq, raced in the 1985 and 1990 Iditarods, finished second in the 1991 Kusko 300 and third in the 1992 Kusko 300, and finished fifth in the 2011 and 2012 Kobuk 400.
Mike Williams Jr., Yup’ik, finished 13th, 11th, and eighth in three of five Iditarods.
Mike Williams Sr., Yup’ik, is a veteran of 15 Iditarods and three times was honored with the Musher's Choice Award.
In the year leading up to the Iditarod, there are six mid-distance races in Alaska, two long-distance races, and several club, festival and village races. The Kusko 300 is considered a good testing ground for Iditarod contenders.
As of Jan. 4, Baker, Diehl, Kaiser and Schaeffer had registered to compete in the Iditarod. The Williamses are foregoing the 2015 Iditarod to train and build resources for 2016.
“We are racing young dogs right now,” Williams Sr. said. “We are getting ready to have Mike Jr. be very competitive on the Iditarod next year -- get our training in, hopefully garner some of the sponsorship we need to win the race or at least be one of the top contenders. Our goal is to be the first Yup’ik mushers to win the race.”
Between the Kusko 300 and the Iditarod: the Yukon Quest, from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, which starts on Feb. 7. The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest’s field of 27 competitors also features some 2015 Iditarod contenders: Jason Campeau, Rob Cooke, Allen Moore (2013 and 2014 Yukon Quest champ), Hugh Neff (2010 Yukon Quest champ), Ray Redington Jr., Brent Sass, Scott Smith, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Brian Wilmshurst, as well as Mackey (Yukon Quest champ in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) and King (Yukon Quest champ in 1989).
Finishing well in the Kusko 300, the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod is important for most mushers, whose annual costs of dog care, training, and travel can range from $50,000 to $100,000 or more.
According to the Kusko 300 website, this year’s race has a purse of $110,000. Prize money will be awarded to the top 20 finishers, with $22,000 going to first place, $16,500 to second place, $11,000 to third place.
According to the Yukon Quest website, that race has a purse of $127,110. Prize money will be awarded to the top 15 finishers, with 18.93 percent of the purse going to first place, 13.52 percent to second place, 10.81 percent to third place.
According to the Iditarod website, the purse this year is $725,100, the largest in the history of the race. Prize money will be awarded to the top 30 finishers, with $70,000 going to the champion, $58,600 to second place, $53,900 to third place, $48,400 to fourth place, and $44,300 to fifth place. Each musher who finishes the race outside the Top 30 will receive a check for $1,049.
While winning is important to Schaeffer, it’s more important for him to contribute to the Alaska Native presence in the races. Dog mushing has been a part of Alaska Native culture since time immemorial, and he hopes his participation will encourage the younger generation.
“I look at it from a traditional standpoint,” he said. “My dad was the last one to own dogs in Kotzebue when the snowmobile came along … On [training runs] from Nenana to Kotzebue, I go through a lot of Yukon River and Kobuk River villages. There’s not too many [Native] mushers anymore.”
He added, “My dad and mom would be very proud of me for doing this.”