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Mushers Brace for Fast, Icy Trail in Kuskokwim 300

A banner reading "Start/Finish" and adorned with antlers hangs over an icy, snowy field against a colorful sunset.

Twenty-five mushers will take off from Bethel over a fast, icy trail to Aniak and back Friday in the 36th annual running of the Kuskokwim 300.

That’s down from an expected field of 31 mushers after six teams withdrew at Thursday’s pre-race meeting, including Unalakleet’s Donald Towarak.

With almost no snow on the ground along the race’s traditional route, and icy conditions prevailing, race organizer Zach Fansler says crews have staked out a trail that sticks mostly to the truck road along the river this year, cutting out the the Whitefish Lake loop. That means the race is now a direct run to Aniak and back to Bethel. Cutting the loop means a shorter race, too, with race officials estimating the trail to be about 270 miles. Mushers will be doing the race with just 12 dogs this year, compared to the 14 dog limit in previous years.

The field is stacked full of competitive mushers, young and old, including Rohn Buser, the race’s defending champion. Also in the race are some of the biggest names in mushing, including past K300 champions like Jeff King and Martin Buser. Many other top-ten K300 finishers will be in the race as well, including Dee Dee Jonrowe, Lance Mackey, Aaron Burmeister.

Western Alaska mushers may have an advantage on this year’s hard, icy trail. Nome musher Rolland Trowbridge, who described the trail as looking “like Hoth,” the ice planet in the popular Star Wars films, said his team, and the teams of other western Alaska mushers, will have something of a home field advantage from training on similar conditions all year. Still, he said, it will be a difficult race.

“It’s jumbled ice, they’ve cut a trail through it. You can imagine broken sleds, damaged brakes, dogs with sore feet and paws from dealing with slipping on the ice and dealing with an uneven surface that is rock hard,” he said.

“I don’t look forward to falling on that river,” Trowbridge added. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

Trowbridge’s handler, Tara Cicatello, is also running the race with another team of 12 dogs from his 37-strong Maritime Kennels TSR. Trowbridge, who came away from his rookie run of the K300 last year as the race’s red lantern, said he plans to run the first 100 miles of the race in tandem with Cicatello.

Other western Alaska mushers hitting the trail include Kotzebue’s John Baker, and both Mike Williams Sr. and Mike Williams Jr., the latter of whom is running his ninth K300. There’s also Bethel’s Pete Kaiser, and Aniak mushers Isaac and Nathan Underwood and Richie Diehl.

Last year’s winner Rohn Buser crossed the finish line in Bethel at 9:18 Sunday morning. With the fast and shorter trail, race organizers said this year’s finish could come even earlier.

KNOM will have full coverage of the Kuskokwim 300 starting tonight at 6:30, and Saturday and Sunday with updates at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 6 p.m.