Mushers may be used to facing wily weather head on, but not even Iditarod veterans were willing to risk the lives and limbs of their dog teams by running into winds chilling the mercury to minus 60 degrees at the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race in Bethel.
“Mushers met with the race committee and board members and we all agreed, unanimously, to postpone the race start. It wasn’t worth risking the health and well-beings of the dogs,” Mitch Seavey of Seward, one of three Kenai Peninsula mushers signed up for the K-300, said Saturday morning from Bethel.
Seavey, along with Kasilof mushers Paul Gebhardt and Jon Little, as well as 24 other mushers, were in a holding pattern Saturday after the race was postponed for a second time due to extreme weather.
Along with postponing the race from Bethel to Aniak and back, officials also agreed to shorten the course by roughly 45 miles, citing safety reasons.
Mushers and race officials agreed on the postponement after cold air that blew across western Alaska from Siberia had caused, according to the K-300 Web site, chill factors reaching to minus 60 degrees
This caused concerns about “safety for mushers and their dogs, as well as concern for the volunteers and veterinarians working the long cold hours at the checkpoints along the trail.”
“We want to wait until it’s safer for the dogs,” Seavey said. “Mushers can put on coats and more clothes and protective gear, but with the dogs it’s different. It’s a little more difficult.”
Seavey said in weather as extreme as Bethel is currently experiencing, it could be possible for dogs to incur frostbite-related injuries to the tips of the ears, bottoms of their feet and other extremities.
This was a risk he and other mushers weren’t willing to take.
“As cold as it is here, we know from reports it’s colder and windier up river, and this windchill is more than we want to put our dogs through,” said Paul Gebhardt.
“This isn’t like being on the (Kenai) peninsula or up in Fairbanks. You’re on a river exposed for 300 miles. There’s no woods to get into and get protection,” Gebhardt said.
Jon Little agreed that the dogs’ health and well-being was paramount. “It’s not a race to see who’s the toughest,” he said.
Like Seavey and Gebhardt, Little is no stranger to extreme weather. Two years ago he raced in temperatures of 25 to 40 below in the K-300.
“But that was without wind. It’s the wind that gets you, not the cold,” he said.
Postponing the race causes hurdles for the mushers.
“My meat supplies are diminishing, but everyone is in the same boat with that,” Gebhardt said.
“We’re starting to get into the stuff we would be feeding after the race, so we’ll be visiting a feed store today to buy more dog food at Bethel prices,” Little said.
“We’re also having to reschedule our flights home,” he added.
The race’s postponement will mean that several of the checkpoints, which are schools, will now have children in them when the mushers arrive Monday.
“I guess we’ll work around that, too,” Little said.
The Kuskokwim 300 is scheduled to start at noon today, when forecasters are predicting warmer weather at zero to 10 below, with the winds dying down.
“That will still be extreme, but not so extreme it won’t be good training (for the Iditarod),” Gebhardt said.
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