A dozen mushers brave wind, snow and whiteout conditions as the Kobuk 440 kicks off

A dozen dog teams line up for the mass start to the 2021 Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race. (Photo by Berett Wilber, KOTZ-Kotzebue)

Alaska’s mushing season is coming to a close. The last major race kicked off in Kotzebue Friday afternoon.

Braving heavy winds and below-zero temperatures, a dozen mushers embarked across the sea ice for their chance at claiming victory in this year’s Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race.

The sound of barking dogs filled the cold air on the Kotzebue Sound sea ice as 12 mushing teams prepared to embark on the Kobuk 440.

It was six degrees below zero, but the heavy winds make it feel more like 34 below. A white fog blanketed the teams.

The 2021 race comes a year after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 event. Veteran musher Hugh Neff from Fairbanks has run the race for years and said he’s excited to get back on the trail after missing out last year.

“For us, it’s the best part of Alaska,” Neff said. “Every year, everybody gears up for Iditarod of the Yukon Quest, which my wife is in charge of. But at heart, we live for this race. There’s just something … our whole year is geared up towards coming to Kotzebue.”

But coming up to Kotzebue proved to be a little tougher this time around for the mushers. The winter storm delayed most of them by a day. The race itself is starting a day late.

Longtime musher and Iditarod favorite Jeff King was the last musher to arrive. His dogs got there before he did and he thanked other mushers for watching them.

“As you might imagine it’s very nerve-wracking to have your dogs this far away and not have people familiar with them specifically,” King said.

Musher Jeff King begins loading his dogs onto his sled’s harness. (Photo by Berett Wilber, KOTZ–Kotzebue)

The Kobuk 440 is known for hosting a mixed bag of competitors, from locals like Kevin Hansen and Dempsey Woods to Iditarod favorites like Jeff King and Nic Petit. For several of the teams, this is their first mid-distance race ever. Ryan Redington of Knik, the winner of the 2019 Kobuk 440, said he’s expecting the competition to be fierce.

“There’s some really awesome dog teams here, so I think it’s going to be quite the competition for the top mushers, top rankings here,” Redington said.

Kevin Hansen, born and raised in Kotzebue, said he’s hopeful that his knowledge of the region will give him a bit of a leg up on the other mushers. But Hansen doesn’t do mushing full-time; he works as a physical therapist. He said having to balance his job with a very intensive hobby can be a challenge.

“So it’s a hobby that we try to kick into gear for these races,” Hansen said. “But we definitely don’t have the sponsorship and stuff of all of these other mushers. So it’s an advantage of knowing the country more and the trail conditions can work in our favor. But as far as putting together a professional team, it’s a little more difficult for us, and it’s not our main focus.”

Kevin Hansen and his family set up his dog sled ahead of the 2021 Kobuk 440. (Photo by Berett Wilber, KOTZ–Kotzebue)

Dempsey Woods has been raising dogs since he was a kid growing up in Shungnak. He doesn’t have the sponsorships of some of the other mushers, but Woods said he’s got his neighbors.

“It’s a challenge, but with this community of Kotzebue, I’ve got pretty much all the help I need,” Woods said.

The trail for the 2021 Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race. (Image courtesy of Kobuk 440 Racing Association)

Mushers will make their way from Kotzebue to the village of Noorvik, moving along to Kiana and then Ambler. Mushers will then hit Shungnak and Kobuk, before looping back through Ambler and heading down to Selawik. From there, they’ll hit Noorvik one more time before finishing in Kotzebue.

Winners are expected to cross the finish line early Monday morning.

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