The Kobuk 440 is a 440 mile race which starts in Kotzebue and heads out to Kobuk before making a large loop back to the finish in Kotzebue. It is biggest race I am aware of in the region and the only one that comes through town. I have been asked about the Iditarod. I am writing a short post about it when I get a chance but it does not come this far north and I have not been down to see it.
Last year the Kobuk 440 mushers came through at the beginning of April just before Easter. Although they only came 5 days latter this year it felt like it was so much longer. We, along with the rest of Alaska, have had an unusually warm winter for the area. Our snow fall has also been lower than last year. Really the only reason they were able to race at all was because of a big snow storm a few weeks ago.
Since then though the temperatures have been in the high 30s and low 40s during the days, which are getting longer. There are now significant sections of trail that are bare dirt and tundra. Many of the river crossings are becoming dangerous and there is a large amount of slushy snow. It is my understanding that each musher has a chase sled (snowgo) that follows in case of emergency. These sleds are much heavier and more prone to breaking ice or getting stuck in slush. The up side is that it was 10 or so degrees last year when they came through and about 40 this time which made spectating much more enjoyable.
Leading up to the first musher the coffee house has been opening regularly for darts. The idea is, you get to throw a dart for $0.25. You can choose to throw at a board with the names, minutes or seconds. There are little circles all over a piece of cardboard with numbers or names in them. If you land in one of the circles then the number/name is recorded along with your name and if that is the time/name of the first musher through then you split that pot (the money goes into a different cup depending on which board you are throwing at). I had 23 minutes after a dollars worth of trys. Sadly the first musher came through closer to a quarter till so I was not a winner but it was still fun.
Prior to the event all the kids make posters at school and the day the racers are to come
through we go and hang them near the shoot. The shoot is really just some fencing with a bug start finish sign. The sign is a little odd because we are neither the start nor the finish of the race.
The racers are required to stop for 6 hours in Ambler which is the village they get to just before us so we know pretty well who is coming and generally when they will be here. The mushers are not required to stop in Shungnak other than to have their name and time marked on the score sheet and to draw a name from the bucket. Last year the bucket had all the kids names and whoever was pulled got an Easter basket (it being right before Easter). This year the race was after Easter so I do not know what the drawing was for.
Once past Shungnak the racers head on to Kobuk which is the furthest point of the race. After checking in in Kobuk they start their way back, heading back through Shungnak. In other villages this is really a two day event as there is enough time between going and coming but for us, most of the racers make the 18 mile round trip from Shungnak to Kobuk and back in about an hour. We end up with racers going and coming for about 18 hours before everyone is through. Needless to say it is always difficult to find volunteers to keep the score sheet during the late night watch.
One of my favorite things about the 440 is the trail markers. There are wooden stakes planted in the ground every 100 feet or so with 440 written on them. It makes it very easy to find your way around and more than once when I have gone off trail it has been helpful. I have also found a number of dog booties lying out on the trail. The racers put them on the dogs to prevent their feet from getting too cold. In very cold weather they have little jackets too. I would never have guessed how many they lose but there were a great many out on the short section between Ambler and Kobuk that I drove and I can only imagine how many are between here and Kotzebue.