Kuskokwim mushers cope with extreme cold, rain and glare ice: ‘It’s been weird’

A dog team tied up in a harness
Kuskokwim mushers have been training in extreme weather conditions ahead of the 2022 K300 Sled Dog Race. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Kuskokwim mushers have trained in all kinds of weather this past winter, starting with the coldest November on record in Bethel, rain in December and then glare ice in January.

Some of the mushers competing in this weekend’s Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race say it’s been some of the most challenging training conditions of their careers.

Those mushers include Jason Pavila of Kwethluk who’s gearing up for his first K300. He said he’s nervous. He’s been mushing for about 10 years, including winning the Bogus Creek 150 at the age of 15. But in all that time, he’s never trained in weather like this.

“It’s been weird,” Pavila said. “This is the first year I’ve actually trained dogs with a raincoat.”

In December, an extended period of rain and warm weather melted the snow. During that time, Pavila trained his dogs using a four-wheeler, doing little 5-mile loops to Kwethluk’s airport.

“It was pretty boring going back and forth. Same things over and over,” Pavila said.

Pavila, an 18-year-old high school senior, is balancing schoolwork and playing basketball with training in difficult conditions.

Other Kuskokwim mushers, like five-time K300 champion and former Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel were completely sidelined in December due to weather.

“During that whole two weeks of just sitting around waiting, you’re just unsure how long it’s going to be before you get back on the runners,” Kaiser said.

“That two weeks was one of the harder two weeks in the middle of training that I’ve had to deal with,” said last year’s K300 champion Richie Diehl.

But Kaiser said that the break wasn’t too big of a setback for his team. In fact, he said that it could actually help.

“Definitely time off is not a bad thing, especially if it’s timed right. It can help, you know, refresh the team mentally, physically, all that stuff,” Kaiser said.

In 2019, bad weather in Bethel forced Kaiser’s team to take a 10-day training hiatus about a month before the Iditarod, which he ended up winning.

For some Y-K Delta mushers, the difficult training conditions caused them to withdraw from the K300. Four mushers dropped out of the race this month. Fr. Alexander Larson of Napakiak, who finished fourth in his first K300 last year, said he was considering doing the same.

“I was planning to withdraw too, but I did one long run which made my dogs’ difference,” Larson said. “I think some of my dogs will do good. I think they learned a lot from last year.”

Last year, Larson and other Kuskokwim mushers were able to practice for the K300 by running the Bogus Creek two weeks before. The two races also shared the same route.

“Running the Bogus, it helped a lot. That’s what I was looking forward to this year, but didn’t happen,” Larson said.

The Bogus Creek 150, originally scheduled for earlier this month, was postponed until February due to weather conditions.

Other top K300 contenders from out of the region have been a bit luckier with the weather. Former Iditarod champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom runs a kennel out of Willow. He said that the training conditions have been pretty good there this year. And even when it’s been bad, he’s been able to move his team around on the road system.

“That’s where we’re kind of lucky compared to the guys on the Kuskokwim. We can load them in the truck and drive 2[00] to 300 miles and find snow,” said Leifseth Ulsom.

This year, the K300 is back on the traditional race route, going from Bethel to Aniak and back. That’s a relief for 2019 K300 champion Matt Failor, who got lost on last year’s course.

“I’m going to try to make sure I do not repeat that. I don’t want to get lost,” Failor said.

Diehl is also happy for the race to return to its traditional course, which travels through his hometown.

“That’s one thing I missed last year was, definitely there was a part of me that was like, ‘Darn, I wish I would’ve got to take this winning team through Aniak.’ But I guess we’ll try this year,” Diehl said.

Diehl is looking to repeat his win, but he’ll have to beat a field of 15 other mushers who have each overcome their own set of challenges to compete in the 2022 Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race. The race begins Friday at 6:30 p.m.

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