Rookies bookend Kobuk 440 sled dog race
Sharing a name and their rookie status, mushers Jessie Holmes and Jesse Salyer bookended this year's Kobuk 440 race.
Holmes clocked with a total run time of 41 hours, 7 minutes and 20 hours, 4 minutes of rest time, finishing nearly a half hour ahead of his nearest challenger, last year's winner, Nick Petit.
"To win this race as a rookie is no small feat and that just says to me the kind of dog team I'm driving," said Holmes. "It's exciting because they just turned three years old in the Kusko and to see what they're going to do as they become fully mature at four. They've had a great year two and a great year three. Next year will be year four and I just expect to keep seeing amazing things if I keep treating them the same way."
One of the highlights for the winner was getting to travel through the Kobuk Valley villages and meet people along the way, he said.
"It was overwhelming, every village with so many positive vibes and excited people that you feel like you're at the finish line of a great, big, giant race at every village. There were lots of kids who were excited to see you," he said. "I'm on a TV show, 'Life Below Zero,' and it seems like nobody ever knows that, but out here everybody knew that. I got to meet a lot of really positive people. People were excited for me, that I was in first. That energy was contagious and I left every village really charged up and wanting to make those people proud even though they were just new friends I was making. I added them to the big, giant group of people I already wanted to make proud."
Salyer, another first-timer, brought up the tail of the 15-musher race with a total run time of 64 hours, 9 minutes, and 23 hours, 3 minutes of rest to take home the Red Lantern prize.
"It was a really fun, enjoyable race. Most importantly it was a learning experience," said Salyer. "This is my very first race and I realized that I have a lot to learn. I guess that will never end."
With the end in sight, Salyer made the decision to hold off on finishing sooner in the best interest of his team.
"We ended up having to camp about 20 miles from Kotzebue. I could actually see the lights of the city, but that's what the dogs needed. It was best for the dogs and quitting was not an option. So, we rested until they were ready and then we ran again," he said. "We finished at a solid 8.2 miles per hour, which is exactly what we're looking for and everyone came into the finish line happy and rolling around, tails wagging. They ate great and we all went to bed. So, I'm looking forward to the next race and just seeing how we perform after this experience."
The often-coveted Red Lantern prize this year was an enormous handmade afghan in the color of the northern lights.
"It's a huge, beautiful blanket and I bet it took a year to make. It's something that I'll treasure forever," said Salyer on awards night. "Being a bachelor, I don't have many of these, so it's something I'm very appreciative of and thankful for."
Trailing winner Holmes was second-timer Petit, who finished the race with a total run time of 41 hours, 43 minutes, and total rest time of 20 hours on the dot, who said it was fun to race against Holmes, whom he first met at this year's Iditarod. He acknowledged rookies tend to do well in the 440.
"I think it's just because if you're just here to have fun and see what you can do with your dogs and you don't know what you're up against as far as the trail, you just go out and do your thing," said Petit. "It worked pretty good for [Holmes] this year. His thing appears to be parallel to my style, so we're going to have fun racing each other, I think."
Petit said he particularly enjoys this race because it's the final cap on the season. After the 440 is over, many mushers return home to do tours in the summer, before training for the following year. The dogs are in good shape and there's no stress about "next weekend's race."
"The whole trail was fun. Two years in a row the trail has been really nice here. The people are really nice. It's a race I'm really enjoying," Petit said. "I'm definitely planning to keep coming."
A rookie also came in third place. Wade Marrs had a total run time of 42 hours, 9 minutes, and 20 hours, 4 minutes of rest.
"It was great. I loved it," Marrs said. "It was really calm, laid back, and fun. I would love to come back."
Jason Mackey pulled up in fourth place with a total run time of 43 hours, 1 minute, and 20 hours, 4 minutes of rest.
In fifth was Richie Diehl, who also won the vet-nominated humanitarian award this year. He had a total run time of 43 hours, 53 minutes, and a total rest time of 20 hours, 3 minutes.
Sixth place went to Kotzebue's own Katherine Keith with a total run time of 45 hours, 24 minutes, and a total of 20 hours, 1 minute of rest.
Seventh and eighth place went to the daughter-father pair of Ellen and Jeff King, respectively, with Ellen coming in at 46 hours, 44 minutes of run time and 20 hours, 6 minutes of rest. Jeff had a total run time of 46 hours, 37 minutes, and a total rest time of 20 hours, 15 minutes.
Ninth place went to Hugh Neff with a total run time of 48 hours, 37 minutes, and 20 hours of rest.
In tenth place was Dallas Seavey with 52 hours, 7 minutes of run time and 20 hours of rest.
Eleventh went to local musher Kevin Hansen with 50 hours, 40 minutes of run time and 22 hours, 12 minutes of rest.
In twelfth place was Kaktovik musher Martin Apayauq Reitan, with a total run time of 52 hours, 18 minutes, and 25 hours, 41 minutes of rest.
"[The dogs] were all pretty good, no major problems. But, it got really warm this week and I think that was a major thing," Reitan said. "We had a plan that didn't take into account daytime heat that much. So, Day 1 we ran all the way to Kiana and we should have maybe rested a few hours in Noorvik and maybe gotten a bit more evening time running, but it was alright."
Reitan is the son of Norwegian Iditarod musher Ketil Reitan. The father-son duo is midway through a trek across the Arctic by dog team and snowmachine. Ketil took the team through the Iditarod while Martin followed on the machine. Then, they set off from Nome with Martin on the team and Ketil on the machine. They stopped over in Kotzebue so Martin could participate in the 440.
Previously, he's run the Knik 200, Copper Basin 300, and the Two Rivers 200.
"This was a really special race. For some reason it wasn't that tough. I was more tired and worn out during Copper Basin but that was a lot more hills and a lot of tough trail conditions and here it was all nice," Martin said. "Also on the Copper Basin there was so much darkness. Here the days were so long, it was a great boost to the system to have sunlight but it also slowed down the dogs quite a bit."
When Ketil first arrived in Alaska from Norway three decades ago, he traveled by dog team across the Arctic, as well. Last year, he and his oldest son followed a similar route in their trek. This year, he and Martin, the younger son, are trying out something new. In interviews with the Sounder, Ketil has said one of his main reasons for wanting to take his boys on these expeditions is to get them in touch with the traditional ways of their people on their mother's side.
"It's nice to be running dogs where Inupiaq people live," said Martin. "There's not many races that go where Inupiaq people live so that's nice. It's part of my heritage. That's how people would travel back in the day and I'm kind of sad to see all the dog mushing is going away but there's a few people who are still doing it and the sport is alive."
Martin was honored with the sportsmanship award, nominated by the first and second place finishers, Holmes and Petit. They were coming back around from the Kobuk loop as Reitan was entering it in the other direction. When he saw them coming toward him on the trail, he hopped over to a less well-maintained trail about 20 feet to the side to give them the right-of-way.
"[I did that] just to get out of their way," Martin said. "They're really trying to compete and I'm trying not to interfere with the top guys. Maybe if I'm up there with them sometime, I'll appreciate someone else doing a similar thing."
Following Reitan in thirteenth place was Kristin Bacon, with a total run time of 56 hours, 32 minutes, and a total rest time of 23 hours, 18 minutes.
Jim Lanier came in fourteenth at 60 hours, 24 minutes run time and 22 hours, 45 minutes rest time.
Following Lanier was Salyer for the Red Lantern.
The final musher in the race was local Dempsey Woods, who faithfully ran his team all the way through the course to the final Noorvik checkpoint. Once he had surpassed 36 hours after the winner came through, however, he was disqualified from placing.
The race team continued posting updates on Woods' progress through the villages until Tuesday afternoon, when they announced a dog box was being sent to Noorvik to pick up him and his team. The race's Facebook page was full of congratulations and words of support for Woods, who is locally beloved for continually representing the Northwest Arctic in the race, as he has done for years.
The full leaderboard and results can be found on the race's website, kobuk440.com. Additional updates from throughout the race can be found on their Facebook page.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.