Increments of about 20 minutes separate the three front runners of the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race. Defending champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel arrived in Tuluksak, the final checkpoint before the finish, at 1:22 a.m. Last year’s runner up, Brent Sass of Eureka, arrived at 1:42 a.m. And Richie Diehl of Aniak, who finished fourth last year, arrived at 2:08 a.m. After a four-hour layover, the race to the finish will begin.
To greetings of, “Good morning, welcome to Tuluksak!” from fans and checkpoint workers, Kaiser arrived in Tuluksak with nine dogs; Sass came in with 10; and Diehl with 11.
“The dogs look good. I’m really happy,” said Tuluksak checkpoint veterinarian Jessica Klejka after individually assessing at each member of the teams, lifting each paw, looking under the dogs’ jackets, and feeling gums.
“There are a couple sore feet and a swollen wrist. A few have have diarrhea, but none are frostbitten,” said Klejka. “They look good.”
With less than an hour separating the three leaders, the race to Bethel is too close to call. Between Kalskag and Tuluksak, Sass had gained 14 minutes on the race’s leader after having left the previous checkpoint 34 minutes after Kaiser. Diehl left Kalskag 19 minutes after Sass and arrived in Tuluksak 26 minutes behind him.
Over a bowl of warm stew in the Tuluksak checkpoint, Diehl said the times of the three mushers are closer than he expected. “But there’s still a lot of race left, too,” he said, looking away from the white board listing the mushers’ departure times. "So we’ll see what we can do.”
And more energy may be available for figuring that out this race.
Both Diehl and Sass say they’re more relaxed coming into Tuluksak this year. They’ve both run this race several times now, so they know what to expect, and the conditions are the best the mushers have seen on the Kuskokwim in years. Last winter, glare ice and nearly bare tundra defined the trail. The year before, it was overflow.
“It was a lot more relaxing this year than last year. The whole trail was covered in snow. It was a much faster race last year,” said Sass.
“It’s a lot easier on me and the dogs, not having to always steer them around, especially on glare ice while the wind is blowing,” Diehl added.
Both Kaiser and Diehl plan to leave with the dogs they came with. Sass is dropping the dog who arrived in his sled. “You don’t want to be carrying anybody in the last stretch,” he said.
To lead him out of Bethel, Kaiser is choosing his dog Palmer.
Sass says his dogs Celia and Sound will lead him out of the final checkpoint. “And Sound is in heat,” he said with a laugh, “so she gives a little extra motivation to the males if she’s in the front.”
Diehl says he’ll leave with Willie and “whoever wants to go fastest. But Willie for sure.”
After a bite of something warm to eat, a quick nap, and tending to their team, Kaiser is set to leave at 5:22 a.m., Sass at 5:42 a.m., and Diehl at 6:08 a.m.
More competition will follow close behind. Jessie Holmes is set to leave at at 6:11a.m., Ray Redington Jr. at 6:40 a.m., and Tony Browning at 6:47 a.m.
“I don’t think there’s any really strategy now,” said Diehl. “We’ve all played our cards right to get here where we are at this point, and now it’s just 50 miles of trail left."