Musher Ryan Redington won this year’s Kobuk 440 in Kotzebue Tuesday, after he and the other teams battled some of the toughest conditions in the competition’s history.
As the only team to complete the original upper Kobuk loop trail through the storm, 38-year-old Redington, from Knik, took home the $16,000 first prize.
The weekend storm had scattered other Kobuk 440 mushers along the trail in dangerous weather, and rescue teams spent a nerve-wracking night searching whiteout conditions to find them.
Once all were safe, a restart along a new route took place Monday morning in the Northwest Alaska community of Ambler.
That meant the race’s actual winner couldn’t be announced until officials made adjustments to account for different distances the teams ended up traveling.
But that didn’t dim Nenana musher Tony Browning’s arrival in Kotzebue just before sunrise Tuesday. He was the first to reach the finish, and it was a meaningful end: This was his last sled dog race, after a long career mushing.
“I wanted this to be my last race, the Kobuk, because it’s my favorite race,” Browning said.
‘A little feeling of the past’
Though the race is ending for the year, its impact on the Northwest Arctic has not.
The only sled dog race above the Arctic Circle, the mission of the Kobuk 440 is to celebrate the Inupiaq tradition of long-distance dog mushing.
That’s something Kotzebue musher Kevin Hansen, who raced the course for the second time this year, thinks about a lot out on the trail.
“I think about it often actually when I’m out running dogs,” Hansen said. “About how, you know, my ancestors lived back in the day, and how they depended on dogs for their mode of transportation and really survival, to help them survive up in this country.”
As Hansen illustrates, the race isn’t a re-enactment of a historical way of life. It’s part of a continuous legacy, as contemporary as it is traditional, on routes people have traveled for thousands of years.
Martin Cleveland helps run the checkpoint in Ambler, and said it remains an important experience for the community.
“These kids, nowadays, I’m glad they get to see it,” Cleveland said. “They may not see it if they grow up to be adults. We do not know what the future holds for us. But I thank them for coming up this way. Every year, it’s always fun. The kids, being exposed to dog mushing, gives them a little feeling of the past.”
It’s a team effort for more than just the racers and dogs. It takes all the communities along the route to make the race happen.
The village of Ambler has been on a boil water notice for several months, but community members hauled water from the river every day so mushers and dogs could stay hydrated.
And even a dozen hungry mushers couldn’t eat all the food that was donated and cooked, much of it made by volunteer Lolo Johnson.
“Homemade chili, spaghetti, caribou soup, chicken, potato salad, macaroni salad, donuts, cinnamon rolls, bread,” Johnson listed. “We made biscuits and gravy, we had bacon… cakes, cakes, cakes. Oh, we had blueberry cheesecakes.”
‘Are we on the trail?’
Along with trail crew and search and rescue teams who took care of humans during some of the most aggressive weather the race has ever seen, critical support for the four-footed racers came from two volunteer veterinarians, including Dr. Jessica Klejka, a Kobuk 440 and Iditarod veteran.
She didn’t run a team this year, but did encourage her husband Sam Brewer to try. It was his very first mid-distance race, and it didn’t go as expected.
“We were mushing along and I got to the point where I could not see my leaders, Radar and Sally,” Brewer said.
“Of course, that’s something someone would say, ‘It got so bad I couldn’t even see my leaders.’ Here, I was watching it happen. Well, no one will even believe me if I say that, they’ll think I’m hyperbolizing. And we kept going — and it got to the point where I could not see Rudy and Ruble, my wheel dogs.”
In the meantime, Klejka was worrying about him in the storm. She watched as veteran mushers Jeff King, then Nic Petit, who were directly in front and behind Brewer on the trail, pressed emergency buttons requesting support from the trail crew.
“Sam has never ever texted me from his inReach ever before, like ever in his life,” Klejka said. “And I got a text from an inReach that said zero visibility. Are we on the trail? I said go into hunker down mode. I look on the tracker And Nic makes it to Sam, it looks like they’re on top of each other, they’re within a thousand feet. But they don’t see each other.”
It wasn’t the sunny, light-filled, spring race his wife had described.
“I slept out under a tarp for about eight hours,” Brewer said.
But Brewer persevered. He ended up as one of only three mushers who made it to the Shungnak checkpoint. The trail crew had to track him down and tell him to turn around for the re-start in Ambler. And by the time he reached the finish line in Kotzebue around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, beneath the icicles in his beard, he was all smiles.
“The team did awesome the whole way,” Brewer said. “They were incredible. Lot of interesting experiences in this race. Learned a lot. Lot of fun.”
As race winner Ryan Redington put it, if it was easy, no one would talk about it.