The Norton Sound 450, a regional sled dog race along the western coast of Alaska, will run in 2015, race officials say, committing to a race that was canceled last year and severely shortened the year before.
The mid-distance race—officially dubbed the Paul Johnson Memorial Norton Sound 450—was first run in 2012 but significantly shortened in 2013 due to severe weather, and was canceled outright this past season due to funding, local training conditions, and schedule timing.
But an announcement from race organizers, and confirmed by race organizer Middy Johnson, declares the race’s return in full: mushers will run from Unalakleet to Kaltag and back before tracing the Iditarod trail through Norton Sound coastal communities from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, and White Mountain and ultimately finishing in Nome.
The race, set to start Wednesday, February 11, is run in honor of Iditarod veteran and long-time Norton Sound Sled Dog Club member Paul Johnson, who died of cancer in October of 2011.
Few other details were available as to which mushers might run the race, but the purse has been set at $30,000, significantly more than the 2013 purse of $10,000 that was split between the eight finishing mushers — but still a decrease from the $50,000 purse offered to the top 15 mushers in 2012.
Race officials say the Norton Sound 450 will also qualify mushers for the Iditarod.
Despite drastic changes to the course due to weather in the race’s short history, it’s already attracted mushing heavyweights, like four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, as well as Iditarod finishers like DeeDee Jonrowe, Aaron Burmeister, and Ray Redington, Jr. But the race has also been a chance for western Alaska mushers to shine: Bethel’s Pete Kaiser has won both of the Norton Sound 450 races, and locals like St. Michael’s Alex Otten, Unalakleet’s Mary Helwig, and Aniak’s Richie Diehl have all run the race in the past.
The Norton Sound Sled Dog Club has been supporting mushing in Unalakleet and around the Norton Sound region since 1971. In 1973, the club started the Norton Sound Portage 200 from Unalakleet to Kaltag and back.