‘A pretty tough race’: Musher Tony Browning is first to cross Kobuk 440 finish line

Tony Browning was the first musher to cross the finish line of the 2021 Kobuk 440. (Berett Wilber/KOTZ – Kotzebue)

The Kobuk 440 sled dog race is winding down Tuesday as the first mushers and dog teams arrive back in Kotzebue.

Tony Browning, a veteran musher from Nenana, and his dog team dashed across the finish line first, around 7:20 a.m.

“It was a pretty tough race for sure,” Browning said. “The dogs did excellent. They came in motoring. I ran them kind of slow down the river, a little slower across the lake and then fired them up coming over the hills. And they just took right to it… whoosh.”

While Browning was first back in Kotzebue, a race champion has yet to be named: Race officials still must adjust teams’ times to account for different distances traveled during the weekend’s harrowing storm.

Blizzard conditions prompted two veteran mushers to hit their distress signals and forced others to turn around. Race officials then paused the race and rerouted the trail.

Alex Beck, one of the Kobuk 440 race veterinarians, taking feeding dropped dogs in Ambler. (Berett Wilber/KOTZ)

The competition restarted at 2 a.m. Sunday.

Browning said the last bit of trail from Kiana to Kotzebue was fairly calm, describing the snow as “sugary” and “grindy.”

Browning is a fixture in rural Alaska mid-distance mushing, having won the Kobuk 440 in 2000, four Nushagak Classics and the Nome Council 200 twice. He’s also placed in the top 10 at several Kuskokwim 300 races.

But, he said, this race will be his last.

“I wanted this to be my last race, the Kobuk, because it’s my favorite race,” Browning said.

Last week, before the Kobuk started, Browning described the competition as “extreme.” It’s Alaska’s last big mushing event of the season.

“It’s not something you can just go out there and just pull a hook and just go. You have to really know what you’re doing,” he said. “If you want to just finish the race, you have to know what you’re doing.”

Nine more mushers were still on the trail early Tuesday, with Ryan Redington and Gunnar Johnson on pace to arrive in Kotzebue at around noon.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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