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As Breakup Looms, Rookies Take to Kobuk 440 for “End-of-the-Year Hurrah”

Damon Tedford prepares his sled

The Kobuk 440 is the last chance for mushers to race competitively before breakup melts away the season’s snow. There’s a variety of experience among mushers on the trail. For some, it’s a good time to show off teams that have been training all season for the state’s longest and toughest races. Other mushers are taking advantage of an opportunity to become familiar with an extremely remote part of the state that few ever get to visit.

Jason Mackey says he’s been waiting to run a dog team in the Kobuk 440 for nearly three decades.

“’89, I started thinking of this race.”

Mackey says it’s too warm to train his team at home outside Fairbanks in April, so he came above the Arctic Circle for what he calls “an end-of-the-year hurrah.”

“If you come up here early, it’s still wintertime. It’s a meltdown and 50 degrees at home, so we got up here early and did some runs out of here, so it’s been great.”

He’s pieced together a dog team from his own kennel. He’s also mixed in eight dogs from his older brother and champion musher, Lance Mackey, who also helped him put together a race plan.

“He’s come here twice and was third and first, so he knows how to win this race, he knows how to get into top, and so talking with all the other mushers, they said no one stops in Noorvik anymore.”

Roughly 50 miles from the start line in Kotzebue, Noorvik is the first checkpoint along the trail, and it’s exactly where Jason Mackey’s first stop was scheduled, so he called up his older brother.

“I said ‘Hey, you got me stopping for four hours, here.’ He made my whole schedule. He said, ‘That’s right. Them guys are going to be walking at the end of the race.’ I said, ‘I’m not questioning your know-how.’ He said, ‘just do what I say, and you’ll have a good race.’”

The younger Mackey isn’t the only rookie taking advice from other mushers. John Vanderwall is driving a team of dogs out of Paul Gebhardt’s kennel on the Kenai Peninsula.

ES: “Did he give you any advice?”
JV: “Have fun.”
ES: “Anything else?”
JV: “Nothing more than the general stuff.”

Vanderwall knows there’s some stiff competition at the front of the pack.

“I mean, I’m not planning on being able to hang with them. I just want to have a good time and finish.”

The Kobuk 440 is a qualifying race for the Iditarod, but Vanderwall says that race isn’t really on his radar.

“Not necessarily, but I filled out the paperwork, just in case.”

Canadian Damon Tedford is also here for the experience.

“Yeah, it’s north of the Arctic Circle, people are super hospitable here, it’s been an amazing experience for myself, the dogs and my sponsor.”

Tedford was the 2015 Yukon Quest Rookie of the Year. He’s driving a team of dogs out of Mitch Seavey’s kennel, a few of which placed second in this year’s Iditarod. But Tedford says he’s not quite sure how hard he’ll be racing.

“We’ll see what happens. I’m not going to run faster… execute it the best that we can, and we’ll see where that puts us.”

Mushers will hold back teams until they reach the race route’s turnaround at Kobuk. How the field shakes out won’t be clear until teams are heading back to Kotzebue in the second half of the race.