The last major sled dog race of the season got underway Thursday in Kotzebue. Fifteen mushers drew bib numbers Wednesday night at the start banquet for mid-distance Kobuk 440.
Fog enveloped parts of Western Alaska most of Wednesday, which was enough to keep flights grounded and mushing fans from the Kobuk 440 start banquet, but Kotzebue’s local radio station, KOTZ, broadcasted the event live.
Kotzebue local Harriet Snyder gave the blessing before mushers and race officials dove in to platefuls of sheefish in the High School cafeteria.
Local musher Louie Nelson will marshal this year’s race.
“One thing we have to remember is, once you get into the villages, the villages are really excited to see all the mushers, so we have to act as outstanding sportsmanship and show that, and they’ll love you more,” he said.
Nelson dedicated the race to elder Clarence Jackson of Noorvik, who passed away last fall.
“Clarence has been a really good friend of mine for years, and every time I’d come to Noorvik, he was always there to welcome me into the village, and we’d have something to eat and talk about old times, and this year we’ll miss him,” he said. “But this year, the race is dedicated to Mr. Clarence Jackson.”
Fifteen mushers will start the last major competitive sled dog race of the season. Danish native Mille Porsild is one of only three women who will compete this weekend. She doesn’t race often, but she told a small crowd she was delighted to have an opportunity this year.
“It’s really, really special to be out here in Kotzebue,” she said. “I’ve looked so much forward to coming to do this race, and I can’t thank the race organization enough and everyone in Kotzebue for the wonderful hospitality and wonderful food and really looking forward to going up the trail and meeting all these beautiful communities.”
Three mushers who finished in the Iditarod’s top ten plan to drive teams in the Kobuk 440, including Nicolas Petit.
“It’s really nice to come to little races like this — or big races, actually, where you feel so welcome,” he said. “I’ve been to races where we feel like criminals, so it’s really nice and welcome, and so, thank you.”
Petit will be the last musher to leave the start chute. Kotzebue’s own John Baker will also leave near the back of the pack after pulling bib number 14. But with a considerable amount of enthusiasm, he told the crowd he had no plans to remain at the back for long.
“I don’t know what number I am, but I’ll go sometime … but I’m going to come back quick!” he said.
Dog teams leave the start line on the sea ice midday Thursday. They’ll pass through six Western Alaskan villages. The first team is expected across the finish line sometime Saturday. Whoever it is will claim a large portion of a purse estimated at $50,000 this year.