KOBUK 440

When I started thinking about running the Kobuk 440 people told me a lot about it.The amazing hospitality and food were mentioned at great length. Of course people were quick to point out that to run it means you’re pretty much doing five 90-mile runs above the Arctic Circle with 20 hours minimum mandatory rest. “It is like running half an Iditarod,” quipped Kelley Griffen before the start. You have to love a race that has an arctic parka as part of the mandatory gear and yet everyone tells you to bring rain gear and garbage bags. On its Facebook page it says it’s “The biggest and baddest race in the Arctic Circle.” And then there is that mass start. Well it’s all true and it’s all good. If you are thinking about running it, the answer is DO IT.To be fair there is a certain amount of logistics involved in getting a team to the village of Kotzebue, Alaska for the start. Do your homework. A few phone calls to airline cargo and shipping folks are well worth the effort. Airlines fly dogs to Kotzebue from Anchorage, so add some extra travel time there your race plans. The Kobuk 440 race organization is an all-volunteer group who, with great community support, not only plan and run a world class dog race, but also provide visiting mushers with host homes and help getting their dogs and gear around. Staying with local hosts is just one of the ways the mushers get to interact with the community, and part of what makes this race such a valuable experience. The community came out in full support at the mushers’ drawing where the Kotzebue Northern Lights Dancers preformed. There was a great meal and mushers drew their starting numbers. Numbers are only a formality: the race begins with a mass start out on the ice in front of the village post office. The afternoon start makes for a nice night’s sleep and a relatively relaxing race day. Teams were either pulled or run to the mass start area for the gear check and then we all waited for the hat to drop. Now put aside your thoughts of total chaos and clips worthy of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” By the time teams are at the Kobuk start, most have thousands of miles on them, and are pretty race ready. I am not saying it didn’t have a crazy frontier gold rush kind of excitement, dogs taking off, crowds cheering. But with well seasoned teams it was just not the comedy of errors one might envision. Mass starts are exciting and fun. Add that to the list of things learned.The excitement of the start and the fun of getting to race with such quality teams pretty much carries you through the first run—which is good because it includes a very long flat boring stretch of ice, Kotzebue Sound. You hardly even notice it on the way out. But trust me, on the way back, this section of trail will become burnt into your memory as the longest, flattest, most never-ending run of your life. This section, like so much of the Kobuk trail, is marked with willow branches that sport tags of reflective tape. In open areas there are long rows of them lining the trail so you can run from marker to marker in bad visibility. With the regularity of streetlights or guardrails they guide you through windswept and wide open. On the way out I thought, how beautiful to look down along this never ending procession of willow markers and be heading out on this great adventure. On the way home I remember thinking, Oh Dear Lord, will this never end? If it were not for those stupid sticks I would not even be able to tell we were moving. The big wide open with very little sleep can really affect your perceptions. That goes on the list of what I learned.Along the way you stop at many of the rural villages surrounding Kotzebue, and the checkpoints they provide are another reason this race is worth running. When you arrive you can bet there will be people around wanting to know who you are, especially the kids. The kids swarm around making you feel like a teen idol. But I will not delude myself. They come to see you and the dogs, yes. But mostly they come for the Easter Baskets. At every checkpoint each musher draws a name from a can with all the local kids’ names in it. The lucky kid gets an Easter Basket, donated to and passed out by the Kobuk 400 race organization. Prizes are not just for kids. Villages also donate prizes for mushers, usually hand crafted items. And not just for 1st place either, fun categories like first rookie in, traveled the farthest to get here, youngest musher. A marten hat for being the first woman into Ambler is a special prize, made even more so because while there I got to meet the trapper who trapped the marten for the hat. Wonderful hospitality in the bush. Learned that.The checkpoints are volunteer-run, and many people have been involved in helping the race for years. This year’s race was actually dedicated to long-time volunteer Stanley Custer, Sr. from Shungnak. Villages also go all out in the food they provide. Caribou stew and ribs, whitefish and salmon, homemade donuts and breads—everywhere we went there was more good food. And in the village of Kobuk where many mushers pass through, the kids from the school had made lunch bags out of recycled clothes and packed the mushers each a to-go meal that they gave us at the checkpoint. I learned that you can gain weight on the Kobuk 400.This year’s race was kind where it came to water on the trail. More than once I went through frozen sections, but could tell that in the right conditions that it would be a big watery mess. But never fear, I do not think you could run that far in that part of the state and not get some kind of good strong weather to deal with. This year a blowing snow storm delivered vertigo-causing white-out conditions. River banks disappeared. Lest you think I am exaggerating about the show-stopping conditions, let me cut to an e-mail conversation I had with Chuck Shaffer, Kotzebue dog musher, Kobuk 440 Race organizer and official, who was out on the trail that day with a group of race volunteers on snowmachines. “Would be neat (to share the story) from a snow machiner’s perspective about running into teams on the river that had absolutely no trail and probably thought we were god sent to have provided one. There were some sections of the river where I hadn’t seen so much snow drop in so little time. We had passed a team that all you could see were the handlebars of the sled and as we passed, a little black head of a dog appeared and a musher jumping out of the sled. It was Kelly and she had actually nowhere to go until our trail provided her a means. Took us an hour to break out a little portage trail just a few miles down river.” Mother Nature changes everything. I already knew that, but it was a good reminder.The willow markers are in fact placed close enough that you can see them to get from one to the other even in horrible conditions. And yes, the snowmachines were a godsend. Like Kelly, Jim Borquinn and I had also stopped in the worst of the storm, and had been slowly finding and breaking trail as the machines came through. Another storm note: Cathy Jones, who did the race web updates, was so dedicated that when planes did not fly due to weather conditions she hopped on a bale of straw and hung on in the back of the dog box being towed by snowmachine between checkpoints. Kobuk 440 race volunteers will do whatever it takes. I learned that.I had gone to the Kobuk looking for a good challenge, and as I said on finally getting to Kiana after that long run through the storm, “It was a be careful what you wish for moment.” The fun of a dog race is that everyone dealt with the same conditions, and I am glad to report that all made it through safely. As a matter of fact there was not one single scratch on this year’s Kobuk 400, which speaks pretty highly of the mushers and teams entered in this year’s race. Sometimes you just have to go out and get experience in order to learn, and the Kobuk 440 is a great teacher. At the finish banquet, champion John Baker said how much he enjoyed this year’s race and the mushers who ran it. I must agree, adding to it that it is also the wonderful community involvement and breathtaking country that make this race an event worth running, if only once in your race career. To see and experience something that words on a page just cannot do justice to. I can try to tell you, but some things ya gotta learn for yourself. •

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