BETHEL (AP) -- The Jeff King father-daughter team led off the 24th running of the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race.
''I'm not really racing to win, unlike my dad,'' Cali King, the 18-year-old rookie from Denali Park, said Friday. ''After I stop the first time, I probably won't see him again until he's passing me on the way back down.''
Sixteen mushers are vying for $100,000 in prize money, including $20,000 for the winner, who should return to Bethel on Sunday morning.
Jeff King has won the race six times, but as usual he has some stiff competition. He'll have to beat last year's Iditarod champion and runner-up, Martin Buser and Ramy Brooks, respectively, plus Iditarod veteran and previous Kusko winner Charlie Boulding.
King was leading the race Saturday afternoon. He arrived at the Aniak checkpoint at 1:22 p.m. and headed out on the trail again 13 minutes later. He was followed by Buser who left Aniak at 1:49 p.m. and Boulding at 1:54 p.m.
Buser, who narrowly lost the race last year to King, said the field is typical. ''It may be small, but it's high caliber.''
The pack of big-name front-runners will be challenged by many of the area's top racers, including Ed Iten of Kotzebue and Mike Williams of Aniak. Four rookies are making their inaugural runs.
Iten was in fourth place Saturday afternoon.
Mushers who dream of running the Iditarod need to complete 500 miles of sanctioned races, including at least one 300-miler. That's what brought Cali King to the starting line Friday night, just a week after finishing 22nd in the Copper Basin 300.
''It made me a little queasy to think about another 300'' so soon, she said. ''It's going to be interesting, for sure,'' she said.
She and her father hope to start the Iditarod together on March 1.
Cali is the oldest of three King girls who have caught the mushing bug. Next weekend, Ellen, 11, competes in her first sanctioned race, while 16-year-old Tessa is preparing for both the Junior Yukon Quest and Junior Iditarod races.
Cali said she's tried not to think about her father winning the race that she's trying to finish. And Jeff said he's not worried about his daughter.
The two will likely pass each other on the river, him heading to the finish line as she mushes toward the turn-around at Aniak.
''I'm sure it'll be great,'' said the younger King. ''I'll wave to him and give him a high five on the way by.''
Deep cold followed by rains last week make this year's Kuskokwim 300 trail a hit-and-miss affair. It features stretches of glazed ice, pockets of open water and packed snow.
''It looks like a really nice trail,'' said Boulding, of Manley Hot Springs.
The weather is always a gamble on the Kusko 300, he said. Temperatures in Bethel rose nearly 70 degrees in one recent 24-hour period, and storms can hit at any time. Early Friday, the forecast called for 2 to 4 inches of snow.
''Out here, that can mean anything,'' Boulding said, and weather can definitely affect a race.
In 2000, Boulding made Kuskokwim history when he set out alone into a blinding snowstorm from Kalskag. Most thought he would return, but Boulding kept going until he won.
Would he take such a risk again? ''I'd rather not,'' he said.
Buser, a Big Lake musher whose team ran out of steam last year to place second behind King, said this year's low snowfall has affected his dogs' training. They've been forced to train behind a four-wheeler instead of a sled, he said.
''I'm happy with the team's strength from all those four-wheeler miles. I guess the race will show whether they're up to speed.''
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