January has been Kuskokwim 300 month since 1980 (with a slight change to February last year), and despite continuing Covid issues, the race took place again in its normal month. Many readers of this page know a bit about this unusual event but how this race has survived and thrived is truly a remarkable story.
Photo by: Katie Basile with winner Pete Kaiser in orange parka
It all started in the Angstman living room in 1979. That living room is now Angstman Law Office, and has been the unofficial home office of the K300 since that time. This year, with no public gathering place, it was the actual race headquarters for the tiny staff monitoring the race for the two days it took to complete.
Consider these facts when thinking about this event. The race pays a purse of $150,000 for the longest event, plus almost $200,000 for shorter races conducted throughout the winter. The only race that tops that amount is the Iditarod, which requires a large administrative staff to stage. The K300 gets by with a paid race manager and a bunch of volunteers. More importantly, the races are conducted in a very harsh environment with difficult logistics. Racing events in the Bethel area have experienced a variety of challenges in 43 years. As race chairman for that entire period, those challenges are still vivid. Here is a partial listing. There have been severe weather conditions including cold temperatures as low as 55 below ambient and 100 below wind chill. There have been winds exceeding 50 miles per hour. The race trail has featured glare ice and deep snow. There has been open water and overflow as deep as three feet on the trail. There have been blizzards and heavy rainstorms. All of these have happened during races causing logistic issues for the organizers and nightmares for the racers. Paul Gebhardt had one of the most famous quotes regarding a year with lots of deep overflow on the trail (2008). At a check point he asked how deep the water was in the next section of trail. When told up to three feet he said, “When it hits my balls I’m turning back.” Here is a photo from Dolly showing Gebhardt making his way along an icy stretch of trail a few years ago.
There have been financial challenges as well. Fundraising is not easy in a small community plagued by poverty, but community support has been phenomenal. That support survived two different episodes of race manager theft that threatened the future of the race. There have been controversies involving rule violations which has caused more than one racer to swear off the event. But most racers recognize that the K300 is a race put on by volunteers doing their best to make the race the best in the world, and many competitors believe it is just that. Here is a post race comment from a guy who has been in a bunch of races.
And the K300 is not just getting by. Despite Covid and all the related challenges putting on the event, the race today is on solid footing, featuring the best management it has ever experienced. In recent years, the Board of Directors has had an influx of young folks motivated to keep the K300 operating at a high level. At a time when young folks are less active in community events than was common in the early days of the race, the K300 appears to be in good hands moving forward. Now those youngsters have to find a way to dump that old guy from the Board who might be standing in the way of progress. There are retirement homes for old sled dogs, how about for old racers and board members?
The fact that the K300 has survived all of these challenges is noteworthy when comparing the race to other sporting events around the country. Most sporting events have one or more major corporate sponsors who write a big check and then turn over management to a team of highly paid event organizers. To stage such an event with no major corporate sponsors and a one person paid staff is unprecedented. And to do it with the weather and travel issues that exist in rural Alaska makes it seem impossible. Hats off to the community of Bethel and the Kuskokwim villages for a job well done. It's doubtful any small town in America stages an event of this magnitude with volunteers. Once again this year, volunteers came from many areas, including a group who paid their own way from Philadelphia to serve as checkers in Kalskag.
Legal work must be done even during dog races. A car crash in the Matsu Valley left a teenager severely injured. He was a passenger in a car driven by his friend, who had minimal insurance. Fortunately the injured teen’s family had a significant Under Insured Motorist policy on its vehicle, and that policy settled its exposure to the client. The Covid backlog is breaking and several cases are now in serious negotiation for settlement with trials looming. It promises to be a very busy year as jury trials convene after a long delay.
Mandatory Moose & Other Critters
There are more critters and cartoons this month than normal. ALO readers clearly prefer that stuff, so here we go. The Mandatory Moose is actually a herd of moose from the area south of the Angstman cabin. It’s hard to get a count but it is obviously in the dozens.
The second video is a moose from Norway worked up over a musher and team. The dogs lucked out with no serious injuries.
Moose can be scary around dogs, as they sometimes view them as predators. There was a similar incident in Alaska in January that was widely shared on social media and resulted in much harm to the dogs. Bethel photographer Katie Basile took this shot of two moose viewing racers in the Akiak dash. Both moose crossed without incident.
Watch this fishing video to the end to see the surprising contents of the net.
Skip Ackerson sent a photo of a Barred Owl that frequents the Elk Farm driveway.
This is how a red fox hunts in deep snow. Jack the dog has a similar method of finding treats buried along the trail.
Sarah Angstman is a big fan of Dachshunds, and she would fall for this trick every time.
Odes to Vern Cherneski and Dan Branch
Dog racer Vern Cherneski died recently (Obituary in ADN).
He figures in an early Iditarod story from 1979. A broken sled on the first day of that race put a young musher from Bethel in a tight spot as he reached the Knik checkpoint. The sled wasn’t ruined but it was too broken to risk proceeding on a 1000 mile race. There were a bunch of trucks parked nearby and some of the spectators were in the Knik Bar enjoying refreshments. Some of the trucks were dog trucks, and that was the last best place to find a replacement sled because the race left the road system at Knik. It was noisy in the bar (surprise) but a loud announcement seeking a sled brought Vern to the door. He had a steel runner training sled on his truck, and agreed to sell it for $300. The check was written, and he promised to not cash it for a while because the account was empty at the time (expensive race to run). With that, the gear was switched from the broken sled, which was left with a sled builder who happened to be the checker at Knik. The training sled was a horrible sled for racing, but it managed to get 200 miles into the race before the repaired sled magically appeared at a checkpoint. The sleds were switched and from the very back of the pack, the team moved into a 25th place finish and Old Friendly Dog Farm became a long time participant in Alaska racing. An argument can be made that dropping out of that race at Knik would have led to a very different life outcome for the Angstman family. Thank you for the sled Vern.
Another musher from that era also died recently. Dan Branch was a Bethel lawyer who got into racing in his years on the Kuskokwim. Shortly before he died, he wrote a book, Some Day I'll Miss This Place, recalling his time in the bush.
His book was interesting. His view of the rural experience differed greatly from the view expressed in the ALO news every month. For example, someone told Dan early on in his legal career that he shouldn’t start out an interview with a Native person by asking questions. Instead he was told to wait for the other person to talk first. The book notes that he went through some rather awkward times where he sat across from someone for a long period of time before a word was said. New clients at ALO do not sit in silence. Dan has demonstrated good writing skills during his career, writing essays for various publications. This book is a collection of some of those essays. He obviously valued his few years time in rural Alaska, and ALO news readers will enjoy the book.
Seth Kantner has written an interesting Seattle Times article recently about life in Northwest Alaska - "Keep Alaska’s pristine wild lands free of poisonous industrial mining". Mining interests have their eyes on many undeveloped regions in Alaska and they have the ear of many Alaska politicians because of financial contributions. Seth’s passion for the bush is remarkable but he is up against tough odds with the current political climate in Alaska.
Speaking of finances, here are two items that explain much of the problem facing American today. Both come from Senator Bernie Sanders.
Financial inequities can’t go on forever. That is especially true when the lives of the billionaires are documented daily by social media. There was a time when great wealth was often hidden but now it is trumpeted loudly. Unfortunately, Sanders is one of the few politicians who is actually willing to take on the billionaire class. The ultra rich have bought off so many politicians that real change is virtually impossible. Sanders is still a hero to many as he should be, but there are not enough like him in Congress.
Finally this video of Ada. She has quite a vocabulary for a three year old. For example, she often correctly uses the word persnickety in a sentence. But this short video really tells the story. She was being asked to do a video thank you to her Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben for a Christmas gift. Her mom documented the moment which sounds a lot like a teenager.