On Friday evening, Jan. 17th, at 6:30 p.m., 14-dog teams left in tandem in a dual start, two by two, until all 24 mushers bid farewell to the comforting lights of Bethel for the dark barren tundra of the unknown. The first 23 miles were rough to say the least. Tussocks ~ rocks of ice the size of baseballs and basketballs ~ were frozen to the ground and littered the trail. Snow was scarce, making a rough, turbulent trail for the mushers clinging to the backs of their sleds. The eager huskies, though, smiles spread across their faces, ate up ground, playing 'crack the whip' with their white-knuckled drivers.
It all proved a little too much for the 24-time finisher of the K300, Mike Williams Sr., when he lost hold of the handle bar on his sled and his team got away. It's unspoken musher code to give an abandoned musher a ride, so Martin Buser accepted his duties and collected Mike when he was the first to encounter him on the trail. Meanwhile, Mike's team rolled on, musherless.
A little further up the trail, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who left the shoot wearing bib number 9, was able to alert Kristy to the loose team. He had barely passed on the news when the runaway team came careening by. Despite a quick grab, Joar missed the sled by inches. Instantly the two mushers called up their own dogs and were in hot pursuit of the team. Kristy, now ahead of Joar, managed to pull up alongside the empty sled and made an attempt to drive the two simultaneously. With a foot on each break, she juggled the sleds and finally brought them to a stop. Joar caught up and secured the snow hook for Mike's sled and, with Kristy's go ahead, left the lone musher holding a combined total of 28 dogs... and every last one was going crazy! After 5 minutes that felt like 5 hours, with team after team of other competitors passing by, Martin and Mike finally caught up. Mike was reunited with his team and, after a quick thank you, everyone was back in race mode and gunning down the trail.
It was this feat that later earned Kristy the Sportsmanship Award, voted on by her fellow mushers.
Back on the trail... The race went on and mushers filed in and out of Tuluksak and onto the Kuskokwim River. Glare ice quickly turned to slush, then standing water. Teams had no choice but to trek on in water that was anywhere from ankle to knee deep. Add insult to injury, it began to rain. Rohn Buser, Paul Gebhardt, and Jeff King were the first to reach Kalskag, the second checkpoint 100 miles into the race. Soaking wet teams managed to find dry places to camp while race coordinators, checkers, and vets pondered their next move. Would they allow teams to continue on down the river where conditions were reported worse or have them turn back? Three hours later Paul Gebhardt left Kalskag for Aniak, 67 miles away.
The next 67 miles are known as the White Fish Lake Loop. Almost half of this section of trail is run over tundra, swamps, and woods, giving teams a brief reprieve from the river, only to reunite with it in Aniak. Organizers were again fearful of the open water leaving Aniak. The idea of going back on the White Fish Lake Loop was also floating around among mushers and organizers. But teams were undaunted by the looming insecurity of the river. They continued on down the original trail.
The night made travel eerie. Teams would encounter black holes in the river ice. With the hair raising on the backs of their necks they would urge the dogs across, letting out a sigh of relief when the dogs made it and swimming wasn't required. This would be the norm all the way back to Kalskag where teams constantly found themselves on the "ice road" or lost, unable to locate any trail markers. Mushers looked forward to the mandatory 4 hour rest in Tuluksak, and knowing that the finish was only 50 miles from there.
Just after 9 o'clock in the morning, Rohn Buser would claim victory after an elapsed trail time of 38 hours and 48 minutes. Only 7 minutes behind (in what amounts to a close finish in a race like this) was 9 time K300 champion Jeff King. Kristy finished with 9 dogs in harness and in 17th place. Musher after musher trickled in, until all 24 teams finished by noon on Monday, Jan. 20th. Not a single one scratched. It isn't a stretch to assume that every musher thought to themselves during the race, 'I will never run this race again' or 'I hate this race' only to cross the finish line with mental preparations for next year.
All the racers congratulated each other on a race well run, no matter the placing, it was an accomplishment just to have made it around. All 24 finishers were awarded with cash prizes and one musher was given the coveted Humanitarian Award. While every musher strives to meet the needs of every dog on their team, this one award is given to the musher who displayed the most care and compassion for his or her team while also remaining competitive. Kristy was this year's Humanitarian Award winner! Nothing compares to this, except maybe winning the race itself.
The Kuskokwim 300 celebrated its 35th running, and to date has never been canceled. The 2014 race would be considered by many one of the roughest Kuskos of all time. We will have to wait another year to see what the K300 will throw at its tough and determined racers and organizers for 2015.