Despite hours of mushing up and down the frozen Kuskokwim River in subzero temperatures, Jon Little describes Bethel as "a really warm place."
"The people of Bethel are friendly and big mushing fans that attract top-notch teams with their incredible purses," he said.
The Kasilof-based musher just returned from the Kuskokwim 300, an out-and-back sled dog race between Bethel and Aniak. It was Little's first time competing in the K-300, but based on the experience, it won't be his last.
"I went in with a lot of caution," Little said. "The K-300 has got a reputation for being unforgiving. If you don't play your cards right, you're walking back."
Little started out in temperatures of 25 below zero and it only got colder throughout the race. Reaching 40 below zero at one point, it was the coldest weather Little had faced since the 1999 Iditarod. Luck was on his side, though, since there wasn't much wind.
"You're racing across these large patches of bare, glare ice, with no snow. The wind could knock you sideways," Little said. "You can't stop, and if the dogs decide to go in a direction you don't want, there's nothing you can do."
Adding to the challenge of possibly being blown off the Kuskokwim is the fact that, compared to the groomed snow trails of some other races, running dogs on a frozen river means there's not much of a trail to follow.
Trail markers cut into the ice are all mushers have to keep on the right path and in snowy conditions or at night, these can be tough to spot.
"It can work on your nerves," Little said.
But Little faced the challenges head on.
"You just do what you have to do and you get used to it," he said.
Being mentally prepared is a key component to being a successful musher, and the same is true for a musher's dogs.
There's a fine line between pushing a team to succeed and pushing them too much. Dogs can become physically fatigued and mentally burned out as well a concept Little never lost sight of during the K-300.
"Dogs can open up on the ice, running 12 to 14 miles an hour or faster, and they're thrilled to be doing it, but they can hit a wall," said Little.
"I didn't want that to happen," he added. "I tried to keep the team trotting rather than loping."
This can pace the dogs out for the long haul, which is one of the differences between distance mushing and sprint racing, according to Little.
"It's like a marathon for humans. You've got to stretch their energy for these mid-distance races. Some mushers did the first 50 miles in three and a half hours, but weren't as happy going back," he said.
Not only do the dogs get tired more quickly when pushed too hard too fast, but they don't have anything left for the end of the race where competitors often run neck and neck.
Little's strategy was to be conservative, and it ended up paying off.
"The last 50 miles I just let them go and they loped all the way to the finish. We were able to pass three teams, including one at the finish line," he said.
Kotzebue's Ed Iten won the race. Little placed eighth overall and was satisfied with his final standing, he said, especially since a few members of the team were pups.
"I had five 2-year-olds that had never been that distance and they handled it well," he said.
His overall impression of his first K-300 was that it was a "great race," but isn't one for first-timers.
"I wouldn't recommend it to novices but for veteran teams this is a fantastic experience. It's an adventure flying dogs to the race. I would definitely do it again," Little said.
With the K-300 behind him, Little is concentrating on his next race the Tustumena 200.
"It will be totally different," he said. "The T-200 is all up and down hills and there's lots of snow, so it will be slower than the K-300."
Little said he will use the T-200 as a training race, like he always does.
"I will have nine yearlings in this year's race so my game plan is just to relax, not worry about speed, and just expose the dogs to racing."
He added that he would love the weather to be zero degrees and clear for the T-200, but the forecast is calling for less than ideal mushing conditions highs in the 30s with snow likely.
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