Monday, April 3, 2023

2023 Kobuk 440 musher roster & race preview

Did you think the mushing season was over because Ryan Redington won the Iditarod (and then my blog unplanned just "went dark")? Well, you were wrong. The Iditarod kept Iditarod-ing, and now we have the final "big race" of the season with the Kobuk 440 taking place this weekend on the Northwest Coast of Alaska! As the snow is quickly melting in South-Central Alaska, they still have plenty further North, and we'll no doubt see another fantastic race.

While the cap for the race was 20 teams, they didn't quite make that number. Twelve solid teams will be leaving in the mass start on Thursday, so let's get right to it and meet the teams. As always I've compiled the list via the race's official list on their website. The list will be in alphabetical order until the Bib Draw is announced Wednesday (hopefully). So let's meet the mushers! I have their kennel names listed as well as links for their websites/socials.

Musher Roster

1 Jessi Downey (Aimaagvik Kennel) Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
2 Richie Diehl (Real Diehl Racing) - Facebook
3 Michelle Phillips (Tagish Lake Kennel) - Website / Facebook / Instagram
4 Bailey Vitello (Team Baily) - Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram 
5 Hugh Neff (Northern Whites Kennel) - Facebook / Instagram 
6 Jeff Deeter (Black Spruce Kennel) - Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
7 Jessie Holmes (Team Can't Stop) - Website / Facebook / Instagram
8 Jim Bourquin (Orion Kennel) - Facebook / Instagram
9 Kevin Hansen (Hansen Kennel) - Facebook / Instagram
10 Lauro Eklund (Skookum Expeditions) - Website / Facebook / Facebook 2 / Instagram / Instagram 2
11 Martin Early (Husky Homestead Kennel) - FacebookKennel Facebook / Instagram
12 Dempsey Woods (Miss Haley Kennels) - Facebook 

This is a great field of competitive teams and up and comers. It will be interesting to see how Holmes, Diehl, Phillips, Deeter, and Neff do. Neff, of course, is the reigning champ with a chip on his shoulder as more races decline his entry so look for him to push hard the whole way. Deeter's wife took the A-team to Nome and said that they would have placed much higher than 16th if Jeff had been driving. That may have been Katti not giving herself enough credit, but unless Jeff's bringing a puppy team to the Kobuk he should be right in the mix. Of course Michelle Phillips is the reigning Yukon Quest 450 champion and she sat out Iditarod so her team should be more than ready to go. Richie Diehl came third in Iditarod and barely lost the Kobuk last year, he should be a force here.

Weather conditions for the start (Thursday afternoon) will be in the negative temps (what else is new, right?) that will continue to drop as the race progresses throughout the weekend. The Kobuk is known for its storms that pop out seemingly out of nowhere. Forecasts are calling for cold and a typical wind, but so far no big storms are on the horizon.

The race starts in a mass start, no two minute intervals, which means there's no time differential to make up. There is a mandatory 20 hours of rest each team must take, and they can break that up however they see fit in the different checkpoints. 

How to Watch

Unlike what we just had with Iditarod (if you paid for Insider), the Kobuk like most of the mid-distance races relies more on social media posts and radio updates than they do video. Depending on weather and internet connection there may be live video of the start and finish, but with temps hitting below zero plus wind chill bringing temps even lower we could see a frozen feed (pun not truly intended). Still, there are ways to keep up with the race happenings, so let's make sure we have all of the links you need.

Official Website - You can find the rules, links to all ways of following the race, and the history of the Kobuk 440 here. Musher bios are also available. The official website may have links to live feeds, so also keep a look out for that. Click here for the link.

GPS Tracker - We're all attached to this bit of technology. If you wonder where the term "tracky boi" came from, you can thank the Kobuk 440. Their social media team were the first to coin the phrase... the phrase that sets some fans' teeth on edge, but it's becoming more endearing each year. Once again, you can follow the race thanks to TrackLeaders (link is not yet live). Beep-boop-beep.

Radio Broadcast - Race updates throughout the weekend will be broadcast over on KOTZ-AM. They have a livestream. They may broadcast the start, but it's unclear. Click here to listen in.

Social Media - This is where it's at. The most entertaining race has to be the Kobuk 440 for their amazing social media team. The volunteers know how to get and keep your attention. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter where they are most active as well as Instagram. KOTZ-AM also has a Facebook page that should share some race info throughout the weekend.

Schedule of Events

Wednesday, April 5
10:00am - Radio interviews
6:30pm - Musher Meeting/Bib Draw

Thursday, April 6
12:30pm - Race Start

Monday, April 11
5pm - Musher Meeting
6pm - Awards Ceremony

Got any predictions? Who are you cheering for? Comment below!

*Edited April 6, 2023 to include links and bib number.

As always, if you like what you see and want to support my addiction (I mean HOBBY) of following these races and stalking (I mean cheering on) the mushers, you can buy me a slice of pizza (that really goes to paying for my internet/web expenses).

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Mushing Radio: Iditarod Redington's Run

Join hosts Robert Forto Toni Reitter and Michele Forto as they talk about Redington's Run on the Iditarod podcast. 

Redington's Run

Well, he did it. It took 51 tries, but a Redington has finally won "Redington's Run". Joe Redington saw his dream of a long distance sled dog race come to fruition in 1973 when he literally bet his house against the odds and mortgaged it to the hilt to be able to pay for the "First Great Race". Originally believing The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race would be a loop out to the Ghost Town of Iditarod and back to Anchorage, it was suggested that it would get more attention if it started in Anchorage and went to Nome. 

Joe's vision didn't happen overnight, he'd tried as far back as the 60s to get this hairbrained idea off the ground. He enlisted his mushing friends (names like Mackey, Smyth, Seavey, and others) to share in his vision and he kept that dream alive until finally he was told to either get it off the ground or give up. It took him from the fall of 1972 to March of 1973 but he did it (with a lot of help from his friends). Originally set to run the inaugural race himself, Joe had to withdraw as this little thing of not having secured the funds to pay out the promised purse was something Joe was tasked to figure out.

Originally thought to be "Joe's Folly" (we like to label things as someone's folly up in these parts. Secretary Seward could tell Joe a thing or two about it, I'm sure), the Iditarod stood the test of time. It has battled anti-mushing propaganda, several economic busts, global warming, increasing changes to trail due to population expansion... but the love of dogs and the dream of doing "the impossible" spurs the imaginations of mushers in each generation.

Though Joe Redington is the Father of the Iditarod, he never won the race - never really even came close. His sons ran the race and got closer. His grandsons have run, with grandson Ray coming closest a few years back. Each year the media would pressure whichever family member(s) was in the race - was this the year they'd bring a win home for Dad/Grandpa? Joe Redington Sr passed away in 2002 and it became a "will this be the year you win it for Grandpa's memory?" The pressure from fans and other outside sources had to be immense, and then the added of the personal desire to get that bust of Joe on the mantel also weighed no doubt heavily.

Ryan Redington has steadily climbed the ranks in the mushing world. He's a multi-time Beargrease champion, but he couldn't quite take it all the way in The Big One. Last year was supposed to be the year. It was the 50th race, he titled it Redington's Run. He finished 9th in an incredibly difficult final leg. 

This year Ryan tried a little bit of a different tactic, probably brought on by the crazy warm temps the first few days of the race gave the teams. The slower pace seemed to level everyone out, though Ryan told Insider several times he wasn't sure his team was ready to win this year. Whether that was mind games or what Ryan was seeing at the time, one can't possibly know, but it felt like this would be yet another Iditarod without a Redington leading the charge.

Until Kaltag. Brent Sass had exited the race, Jessie Holmes had stalled, Nic Petit had never materialized. Suddenly Ryan found himself in front - not by a lot - but he was in front. Peter Kaiser was hot on his heels and had all of the analysts salivating over out good his team looked (stop I don't mean they were hungry for sled dog). But Ryan had been given an opportunity and he took it.

Before the race began, Ryan found a note in a fortune cookie that would give him the same sort of magic inspiration that Lance Mackey got in 2007 during a Bib draw. For Lance it was drawing bib 13, the same number his father and brother wore when they won their Iditarod titles. For Ryan it came down to his fortune cookie telling him the number five would be very lucky for him that week. Ryan drew Bib #5.

And so as he lead the way from Kaltag to Unalakleet he never looked back. Yes, there were bigger, stronger teams that all of the past Iditarod mushers and analysts were talking about. Yes, he'd crashed and burned on Iditarod before, but this time he told himself he needed to stay focused and keep the pace.

And then he was first to his mother's home village of Unalakleet - a first in the Redington and race history. Then first to Shaktoolik. Kaiser still close behind and gaining. Then Koyuk. And then the big move. Ryan and team ran straight for Koyuk into White Mountain. A "monster" run of 88 miles. His dogs and he looked beat. Mentally the dogs were in need of a break and Ryan needed a nap. So he fed and bedding the dogs for an 8 hour rest. While Ryan ran all the way, Peter stayed in Elim resting his dogs and giving Ryan a five hour cushion - or so fans thought until Pete made his way to the check point of White Mountain and he was only four hours behind. Still plenty of time between Ryan and Pete to give Ryan some breathing room. He contemplated staying past the mandatory eight.

But then 12:12am came around and Ryan was ready to pull the hook. Reports of those watching the feed grew concerned as Ryan's dogs seemed to need help waking up, but they started down the trail and while not a blistering record setting pace, they made their way to the checkpoint of Safety through wind that were forecasted to gust up to 40mph. Slowly they made their way through the Topkok Hills, through the blowhole and into the checkpoint. They continued on to the finish line coming in at 12:12pm. His small team of six dogs looked better coming into Nome than they had the night before, but are most definitely excited for warm beds and fresh snacks. They did their job and made their musher proud.

This was a long time coming, we've all said it, and watching Ryan achieve a lifelong goal was the perfect way to kick off "the next fifty years." Joe's grandson brought this race full circle not only achieving the Redington family dream and legacy, but inspiring the mushing community. Ryan is Inupiaq, holding up a long standing tradition of mushing that was passed down for thousands of generations of Native Alaskans.

Congratulations, Ryan, on completing your Redington's Run.

"Here's to Joe, and it's off you go
In the land of the midnight sun
They call this race the Iditarod Trail
But to me it's Redington's Run
In my heart it's Redington's Run!"
                                -Hobo Jim

Monday, March 13, 2023

Redington with four hour lead in White Mountain

For the first time in race history, there is a Redington sitting first (and alone) in White Mountain. At 4:12pm Alaska time, Ryan Redington and team checked into the checkpoint outside the village of White Mountain for their mandatory eight hour rest. The Beargrease champion came in looking tired after he and his team essentially ran the entire way from Koyuk to White Mountain in a gamble to put distance from his closest competitors of Peter Kaiser and Richie Diehl.

Leaving Koyuk, Ryan had a 35 minute lead running to Elim. While Pete ran close behind cutting the 6 mile gap from the run before to 3 miles, Ryan continued out of Elim on his way to While Mountain. Peter Kaiser stayed behind.

And stayed.

And stayed.

Then stayed some more.

In fact, Pete stayed so long that Richie Diehl came into Elim and rested a couple of hours before leaving again and THEN Pete left. Diehl's lead was short lived and Kaiser made his way in front of his "best friend"'s team. The Kusko Boys ran from Elim to White Mountain together coming in just a few minutes apart. Pete's run into Elim was an hour and seventeen minutes faster than Ryan's, but his team has a four hour and seventeen minutes deficit to make up on Ryan. With only 77 miles to the finish line there may not be enough time for that to happen. Richie Diehl is only eight minutes behind Peter Kaiser. We're looking at having a "mini Kusko" finish for second place.

That being said in the Iditarod Insider evening report out of White Mountain from Bruce Lee, Lee reported that in talking with Ryan Redington there may be a longer rest in store for the current first place team. Redington ran the 88ish miles from Koyuk to White Mountain in one shot with no significant rest. That was a monster run that is completely doable but it can be taxing this late in the race. It was gutsy, but as Ryan's team came into the checkpoint of White Mountain they were visibly exhausted mentally (and the musher physically). At one point the team kept trying to jump off the trail onto a snowmachine trail and Ryan had to stop and reroute them at least three times, after the third correction his lead dog gave the signal that they were done leading. That's not a good sign for how his race may go tomorrow morning, so it makes sense that with a four hour cushion the veteran musher allows his team a couple of hours "extra" rest. Two hours is still a big gap of time to make up in the roughly 10 hour run to the finish.

It should also be noted that Pete Kaiser had not planned on running the Iditarod this year. His name was noticeably absent from the roster for several months before he slipped in before the deadline. Sure, it wasn't last minute like Ramey Smyth who waited until February to throw his hat in the ring, but Kaiser let it be known that it wasn't something he'd seen himself doing until he did it. Now, here he is in second place with the possibility of winning his second Iditarod if Ryan's race goes to Hell.

And let's not forget Richie Diehl. He's been working for this for nearly a decade now and he's giving a former Iditarod Champion and a "legacy" musher a run for their money. If either one of them hiccups, he's poised to jump on them. He's no doubt excited to be having a magical run and challenging the favorites - plus his team just looks good (so does Kaisers).

In 50 runnings of Iditarod there's never been a Redington in first. In 50 runnings there's only been a handful of Alaska Native champions. In this, the 51st running of Iditarod - barring them all having their race blow up in their face - there will be a Native Alaskan champion (last done in 2019 by who else but Peter Kaiser the first Yup'ik champion). In the 51st running that Champion could be a Redington. In 1973 when Joe Redington's race first kicked off on its way to Nome, Joe hoped that it would inspire a new generation of Alaska Native mushers to keep with dogs and hold to their thousands of years old tradition. Sadly in the race's history that has been lost as sponsorships went for easy to access teams on the road system and it became increasingly more expensive and difficult to get to races from the villages. In 2011 John Baker ended a decades long drought and joined the small ranks of Alaska Native champions, in 2019 Pete Kaiser won and inspired a new generation of mushers in the Kuskokwim Delta, which has a healthy mushing community that holds an entire series of mushing competitions as well as a dog food co-op of sorts.

This is Joe's dream and legacy coming full circle 50 years and 51 races later. As Jeff King said at the start of Iditarod 51, here's to the next 50 years of Iditarod. Let's add to it - we made it, Joe. Your dream is realized. 

No matter who comes under that burled arch tomorrow, this is what Iditarod was made for. Yes the roster was small, and yes the legends of the last 50 years are all but retired, but it's in good hands.

*For those wanting to know when to expect the champion, Redington can leave out at 12:12am Tuesday, IF he leaves at that time it'll be an almost 10 hour run for most, last year he ran it in 9hours and 45ish minutes. So start checking in around 9:30am (this is all ALASKA time and yes we follow Daylight Savings). IF Ryan chooses to stay longer in White Mountain (not a bad idea) then it may be later in the morning or early afternoon. As always keep to social media and this blog and we'll keep it updated as we can.*

Redington still leading the Iditarod

Fans woke up and frantically checked the tracker (if they slept at all and didn't just will those little flags to move all night) this morning to find Ryan Redington maintaining a three mile lead over Peter Kaiser as the teams ran to Elim. Both had spent about three and a half hours in the checkpoint of Koyuk in the wee hours of the morning. Kaiser has a slightly faster team and has eaten up several minutes in each run from Unalakleet, what was a six mile lead last night is now only a three mile lead.

Redington reached the checkpoint of Elim checking in at 8:35am, Kaiser is making his way into the checkpoint now and it will be interesting to see if he's gained any time on the legacy musher. GPS shows Ryan as moving out of Elim though the current standings do not show him leaving (updates sometimes take time). It's 46 miles to White Mountain and their final mandatory 8 hour rest. It could be that both teams decide to make the run from Koyuk to White Mountain without stopping (a "monster" run at 88 miles). 

Depending on how the teams fare on the run to White Mountain we'll either have a clear favorite to win, or we'll be seeing them in some sort of ski pole duel down Front Street Tuesday afternoon.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Mushing Radio: The Third Third of the Race


Join hosts Robert Forto, Michele Forto, and Toni Reitter as they discuss the third third of the race. 


Redington rests in Shaktoolik as Kaiser, Diehl draw closer

Ryan Redington had an impressive 5 hours and 13 minute run time from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik before apparently taking a break in the checkpoint on the edge of the Norton Sound. Redington had nearly an hour lead over the next team of Peter Kaiser, but now as Ryan sits just about a half hour into his break in Shaktoolik, Pete is coming into the checkpoint. There are no live feeds in Shaktoolik so we have no real idea of how teams are looking as they come into a very windy run to then head back out into even stronger winds.

Speaking of wind, they expect a steady 25mph wind leaving Shaktoolik according to the morning report by Greg Heister and Bruce Lee. That isn't the most terrible weather we've seen in this stretch, but hard cold wind gets to even the most hardened of dog teams. The Norton Sound sea ice is still the trail they are planning to run, though yesterday there was concern about open water that does not seem to be the case today.

Both Kaiser and Redington will need a little bit of rest at the very least for the dogs to recover from their runs. Kaiser has just rolled into the checkpoint and Richie Diehl will be into Shak soon. If Ryan can keep his speed, he most likely has this race and Peter seems to have second in the bag in this case. Mushers like Bruce Lee and Dallas Seavey aren't counting Peter Kaiser out for the win, though, as both have been extremely impressed with how Kaiser Racing dogs look in Unalakleet.

The race. is. on.

We have a dog race

We've reached the West Coast of Alaska and you know what that means - the race is on! Ryan Redington chose to run the 85 miles from Kaltag to Unalakleet in one long run keeping his lead gained on the run from Eagle Island to Kaltag. Redington stayed in Unalakleet (his mother's "hometown") for just shy of four hours before heading to Shaktoolik Sunday morning. That's right, folks, a Redington is in command of the race... for now.

Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl have kept pace with the lead pack from day one, and with their race strategy both are in good position to make a push on the Coast. This is their kind of trail as they are from the Coast (just a little further south as Barb Redington likes to point out). The famed winds are an every day no big deal thing for their teams and they thrive on the third leg of the race.

The weather looks... calm... for the front runners. Sure, there's the ever brutal wind, but they don't expect any snow storms or ground storms to wreak havoc on the leaders. There's still no word on trail conditions out of Shaktoolik, just that they expect some heavy wind (but when is that not expected) at a steady 25mph. The wind could play a factor as many sled dogs dislike running into the wind (does anyone?) and it could stall a team if they aren't on their game.

Richie Diehl just blew through Unalakleet chasing down his best friend and competitor Pete Kaiser. Both are hoping to keep within range to take the lead if Redington falters. The best chance of that is the run out of Shaktoolik. Redington is in somewhat unknown territory - he's never led this part of the Iditarod - but he's got an entire family's history worth of knowledge on the race his Grandfather started. As long as he can stay focused on his race and his dogs and not panic or focus on what the others are doing we could finally see what the entire IditaFandom has wanted to see since the beginning - a Redington just might take this race.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Mushing Radio: The Champ Scratches

Join hosts Robert Forto Toni Reitter and Michele Forto as they discuss the 2022 Champ, Brent Sass scratching, and much more on this episode of the Iditarod 2023 podcast.

Ryan Redington first to Kaltag

Ryan Redington and his team of twelve dogs were first off the Yukon River and into the checkpoint of Kaltag a little before 1pm Saturday. The third generation Iditarod musher parked his dogs and quickly went to watering/feeding and bedding down his team before meeting with the Bristol Bay Native Corporation to receive the Fish First Award given to the first team off the Yukon. Ryan recieves $2000 and 25lbs of Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon (to be delivered this summer).

Iditarod released the statement:

"Iditarod musher Ryan Redington  (bib #5), of Knik, Alaska is the first musher to arrive at the Kaltag checkpoint at 12:47 pm with 12 dogs in harness.  

In doing so, Redington claims the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Fish First Award.   BBNC employee and shareholder Christine Brandon traveled to Kaltag to present the award, which consists of 25 pounds of fresh Bristol Bay  salmon filets, $2,000 and a wood burned art piece by BBNC shareholder artist Apay’uq Moore. 

“Bristol Bay Native Corporation congratulates Ryan and his team for a great race so far and for being the first into Kaltag,” said Jason Metrokin, BBNC President and CEO. “Both dog mushing and fishing are longstanding traditions in Bristol Bay, and we’re excited to honor both with the annual Fish First Award. We wish Ryan the best of luck and hope they enjoy the taste of Bristol Bay this summer.”

Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. BBNC has endorsed a  Fish First value for land and resource management in Bristol Bay. In all land management and  resource development decisions, adequate protections for fish and fish habitat will always be a  priority."

Soon after Ryan bedded his team down, Richie Diehl came into the checkpoint and is now parked beside Redington. Eyes are on the tracker and live feeds as Pete Kaiser should make his way into the checkpoint in the next few minutes.