Alaska sled dog races adjust rules as mushing grapples with latest coronavirus surge

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A little over a week until western Alaska’s premier sled dog race and COVID-19 case numbers skyrocketing to unprecedented heights, Kuskokwim 300 organizers have announced plans for a crouched race.

“My impression is that people are realizing the seriousness of the situation,” said race director Paul Basile from Bethel, where the K300 is headquartered. “Our entire region is classified as a high-risk area.”

The K300 consists of a grueling 300-mile, medium-distance marquee race that awards handsome prize money each January, as well as several shorter competitions held throughout the winter. All are still planned. However, organizers are taking additional steps to curb the spread of the coronavirus due to the increasing incidence of Omicron variant infections in Alaska. This fall, the K300 board announced that vaccinations would be mandatory for all participants – mushers, handlers and volunteers.

Over the weekend, the organizers took further steps. Indoor areas at checkpoints in small communities upriver from Bethel such as Kalskak and Tuluksak will be closed to the public. They are asking spectators to stay in vehicles at the finish line on the frozen Kuskokwim or to practice social distancing and comply with local mask rules. Both a planned concert and an award ceremony are cancelled. And there are strict testing protocols in place for mushers and handlers, particularly those traveling to the region from elsewhere.

“The surge that’s hit Alaska in the past few weeks has forced us to scale things back down,” Basile said, adding that organizers are consulting with local health officials at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation to develop guidelines had.

“No musher has raised any concerns about this policy,” Basile said.

Two mushers who were registered for the competition recently withdrew: Brent Sass and former winner Jeff King, although neither opted out in protest of protocols.

“We are very disappointed to miss the Kuskokwim 300, but logistically it makes sense to compete in the Willow 300 race instead,” Sass wrote on Facebook, referring to a middle-distance race along the road system that was taking place at almost the same time.

“The trail is certainly not looking good, there’s a lot of COVID stuff going on and travel is certainly an issue,” King said in an interview.

Although King has competed in nearly every K300 since 1988, getting his entire team aboard a plane in the Bush this year has proved exceptionally difficult due to recent winter storms that have pounded his portion of the Denali Borough and air traffic has been over the west coast was still obstructed.

“All the logistics just made the difference,” King said.

Like Sass, he opted for the Willow 300 along the street system, a race where both he and fellow Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey are technically considered rookies.

“We have a seniors bet going,” King said.

Distinguished from sled dog racing along the road system, the Kuskokwim 300 is known in Alaskan mushing for the hospitality and strong community involvement that is a fundamental part of the event. But many of these social elements make public health protocols even more difficult. Typically, mushers and handlers are matched in town for the race with host families who house them and help coordinate space for their canine teams.

“As long as we have willing and healthy volunteers, it’s really a big part of the K300 experience for the community and the mushers,” Basile said.

It’s more difficult this year.

“Until now, host families have always been willing to host mushers or handlers,” Basile said. “We’re prepared for people to change their minds about it.”

They also arrange backup options when hosts test positive.

For a year, Alaska’s major sled dog events have had to figure out how to safely hold races characterized primarily by their outdoor sporting dynamics and extreme social distancing, but still bringing large groups of fans and volunteers close by, sometimes too far away , congregate communities with little medical or public health infrastructure. While mushers spend most of their time with a pack of sled dogs in the wild, this isn’t always the case for volunteers and veterinarians who are cooped up in community halls and shelters for long periods of time.

Last year, just as vaccinations were being rolled out in Alaska, the K300 took place, with many of the same precautions and restrictions now being re-imposed. For the first time in its 49-year history, the Iditarod changed its course into a loop that exited and returned to the road system, rather than continuing on to Nome. The Yukon Quest, Alaska’s only cross-border race, has been split into two parts, with one part on the Canadian side and another outside of Fairbanks, given the difficulty of coordinating international border crossings amid a pandemic. That’s the arrangement for the Quest again this year, with two races in Alaska and two in Canada.

However, the approach to the pandemic this mushing season varies greatly from race to race.

Both the K300 and the Iditarod have strict vaccination requirements for all participants.

“While we know that some in our community are not yet vaccinated, there are no exceptions to this requirement,” the Iditarod’s COVID-19 policy concludes.

Other events are basically ignoring the pandemic all together.

There is little mention of the virus on the websites and social media pages of several prominent races, all of which serve as qualifiers for the sport’s major events, let alone any public health measures or vaccination requirements.

For example, in the 10 pages of rules for the Willow 300, which requires 18 hours of rest at checkpoints, COVID-19 is only mentioned once.

“Due to Covid 19, all mushers can sleep/rest in their dog carrier or other designated locations at road system checkpoints. Mushers are not obliged to do this, but have the opportunity to do so. However, there may be limited space to rest at road system checkpoints,” the entry said.

According to Basile, racers were significantly less interested in the COVID-19 rules than they were in the Delta’s notoriously unpredictable weather.

“In general, that’s a bigger problem for mushers,” he said.

The region had a cold start to winter, followed by a big thaw in late December, then another blast of cold air that sealed ponds and stretches of river under smooth, glaring ice.

“It’s been pretty rough out there,” said Basile, who along with other members of the K300 race committee decided to reschedule the Bogus 150 race earlier this month due to poor track conditions.

But in the last few days he’s been hearing reports of snow upstream and a bit more in the forecast. Just enough for him to feel optimistic.

“If we had a race today, it would be pretty good and very fast,” said Basile.