Kobuk 440 reroutes and restarts in Ambler, after ‘monumental’ storm upends race

Alex Beck, one of the Kobuk 440 race veterinarians, taking feeding dropped dogs in Ambler. (Photo by Berett Wilber, KOTZ – Kotzebue)

After being inundated by blizzard conditions, the Kobuk 440 sled dog race is back on track after mushers regrouped, rerouted and restarted the race in Ambler.

Whiteout conditions had two mushers requesting outside assistance through their trackers. Three village search and rescue teams, as well as the racing association’s trail crew, were deployed to guide mushers into checkpoints. Many were pinned down by the weather for hours, unable to find each other and unsure if they were on the trail at all. 

Hugh Neff has raced the trail for years, and made the decision to turn around and return to the Ambler checkpoint because he said he didn’t want to choose between the race or his life. 

“It was pretty intense there,” Neff said. “Obviously the fear factor was just — I mean you were dialed in, just trying to go tripod to tripod, just trying to stay on the trail. It was blowing hard, you know. If you had an item on your sled — or even your sled — get away from you, you weren’t gonna see it again.” 

Robin Gage, a member of the trail crew who helped guide disoriented mushers safely into Shungnak painted a picture of the weather that was harrowing. 

“I don’t know how to describe it for someone who’s never been in a blizzard but, just standing in a wind tunnel, just incessant, it just didn’t let up. You were surrounded by it,” Gage said. “And so at some point you just got almost numb to it, because you can’t – I don’t know if you get used to it, but you just, it’s there, it’s all around you. You can’t do anything about it. It just made everything much more difficult, even talking. It was hard to even hear a snow machine running. Turn the key, and – is it running? Had to look at the headlight.”

After all the mushers had either arrived safely, returned to Ambler or were far enough behind they weren’t at risk, race officials decided it was best to pause, let the dogs rest and figure out a new strategy. 

They didn’t want anyone venturing back out toward the last two checkpoints — Shungnak and Kobuk — or onto the planned return route, race President Paul Hansen said. 

“The original route was over to Selawik,” Hansen said. “The weather forecast for that route was high winds and blowing snow, and that’s all open tundra and was determined not to be safe.”  

dog bedded down and covered with snow
Afternoon snow covers a tired sled dog resting in Ambler. (Photo by Berett WIlber, KOTZ – Kotzebue)

Ed Iten, the trail marshal, assembled mushers for a meeting in Ambler late on Sunday to let them know how the rest of the race would go. 

To keep the field together and avoid putting people, dogs, and rescue crews at risk, mushers would head back toward Kotzebue by way of Kiana and Noorvik. They restarted at 2 a.m. Monday morning, under a clear, starry sky. Each musher will have to take eight hours of rest between the two remaining checkpoints. 

While there have been weather holds in the Kobuk 440 before, there’s never been a full-scale reroute mid-race. Veteran Jeff King who was withdrawn from the race, leaving his team and returning to a checkpoint by snowmachine for frostbite treatment, said it was a stand-out.

“I was so thrilled by my team, but jeez, even the start was as monumental a weather challenge as I’ve had in 40 years,” King said. 

The weather isn’t the only difficulty ahead. Race officials will have to do some complex calculations at the finish line to figure out who wins, no matter who arrives first, since the mushers have now traveled different distances depending on how far they made it before being recalled to Ambler. 

For example, Ryan Redington struggled through the whiteout conditions and made it all the way around the originally planned loop without assistance. Nic Petit completed the loop, but was disqualified from the race for requesting assistance through his tracker.

Like Tony Browning, racer Hugh Neff left Ambler, but turned back after struggling through the wind became too much. 

Other mushers got caught and pinned down in the storm, including Jeff King, who’s team starting slipping and sliding on glare ice as they faced into the wind. 

“It just got worse and worse and worse,” King said.

Rookie Sam Brewer and Gunnar Johnson had to hunker down for hours, but managed to make it to Shungnak before being told to turn around to make it to the Ambler restart. 

Mushers Kevin Hansen, Dempsey Woods, and DJ Starr never left the checkpoint once race officials told them to stay put. Philip Hanke and Reese Madden hadn’t yet reached Ambler by the time of the restart.

But there’s no question even before it’s finished the Kobuk 440 has lived up to its reputation. As race marshal Ed Iten put it, 

“They call it the toughest race above the Arctic circle, and you’ve got to reinforce that now and then,” Iten said. 

Race President Paul Hansen said mushers are now expected into Kotzebue in the early hours on Tuesday morning around 6:30 a.m.

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