Dog teams in a snowy field
A dozen dog teams line up for the mass start to the 2021 Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race. (Berett Wilber/KOTZ)

The last major race of the mushing season in Alaska kicked off in Kotzebue on Friday afternoon as a dozen mushers set off on the Kobuk 440 in heavy winds and below-zero temperatures.

Thermometers registered 6 degrees below zero, but the heavy winds make it feel more like minus 34 degrees. 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 was 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 or 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 than usual this year for the mushers and their teams after a winter storm delayed most of them by a day. That forced organizers to delay the race, originally scheduled to start on Thursday by a day. 

Musher Jeff King begins loading his dogs onto his sled’s harness. (Berett Wilber/KOTZ)

Longtime musher and former Iditarod champion Jeff King was the last musher to arrive in Kotzebue. 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.

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 and his family set up his dog sled ahead of the 2021 Kobuk 440. (Berett Wilber/KOTZ)

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. 

“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.”

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. (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 pass through Shungnak and Kobuk, before looping back through Ambler and heading on a Southern route through Selawik. From there, they’ll pass through Noorvik one more time before finishing in Kotzebue. 

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

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