King breezes to Kobuk 440 win
KOTZEBUE — Denali Park musher Jeff King capped his race season just after midnight Sunday in Kotzebue with a record-breaking win in the annual Kobuk 440. He finished the marathon journey in just over 57 hours total. The past record, set by King last year, was around 63 hours.
A multi-time Kobuk victor, this was King's second consecutive win. He'll take home $12,500 for the effort.
A late-race storm rattled King only slightly, with memories of the blizzard that knocked him out of this year's Iditarod, robbing him of his fifth victory in the Last Great Race.
On the Kobuk, just before King reached Kiana, the wind picked up. It was mostly a tailwind, he said, but depending on which way the river turned, the gusts pushed him around a little on the icy trail.
"It never really was a problem because it was at our back pretty much the whole way," he said. "That whole thing with the Iditarod, where my biggest challenge was, was the ice was so slippery in the wind and today, just before Kiana, there was a couple miles of just bald, slippery ice ... and it reminded me of 50 mile-an-hour on the same kind of ice."
The memory was fleeting, as the wind on the Kobuk only reached about half the strength of the Iditarod storm.
"This was a really perfect race; good trail, great people and a great dog team."
King ran 12 dogs from his Iditarod team, finishing with eight dogs strong.
Nenana's Tony Browning pulled in second with six dogs. This was his fifth Kobuk finish.
"There was a lot of glare ice about 15 miles above Selawik," Browning recalled at the finish. "Smooth ice with a patch of snow here and there with about a 25-mph cross wind ... I did a lot of flipping over.
"But, it's fun."
Browning, who shares a kennel with perennial Iditarod contender Aaron Burmeister, ran a team of trail-hardened Iditarod dogs, four of which ran with Browning in last year's third-place Kobuk team.
"They've been here before, they don't forget," Browning said at the Ambler checkpoint.
Until Saturday evening's storm, the weather on the trail from Kotzebue up to Kobuk via Noorvik, Selawik, Ambler and Shungnak was just about perfect. The long, sun-soaked days got a little warm and the snow was sparse in sections, but as far as Kobuk 440s go, this year was as good as it gets.
Around 60 dogs were dropped at the various checkpoints, mostly for minor issues like sore wrists from the hard, fast trail. Most were just tired, said race vet Phil Meyer.
"It's truly amazing how much better the dog care has gotten over the last few years," Meyer said. "We saw the things that are common with a hard trail; shoulders, wrists. And most of the dogs were just tired, but all were eating within an hour (of getting dropped), and after a day's rest, they were ready to go again. That's what you want to see.
"This was a fantastic race," Meyer added. "If you only go to one, this would have been the one to go to."
Tok's Hugh Neff arrived in Kotzebue in third place with a full team of 12 dogs.
"This is one of my favorite races," Neff said in Ambler. "The time of year, the support of the local people and you know, being a kid from Chicago, this is what I dreamed about: hanging out with a bunch of Native Alaskans."
Like King, Neff's Iditarod was stymied by the late-race storm, but since having to be rescued from the ice on Golovin Bay, he's recovered.
"I know I kind of scared people and bummed people out by not being able to finish Iditarod, so I'm looking to put on a good show here. But I'm not doing this to impress other people, I'm doing it because I love running dogs."
This was Neff's eighth Kobuk.
"The other races have a lot of politics, this race doesn't. You've got a lot of the top Iditarod brass here and these are the guys that taught me how to mush dogs."
Kotzebue's John Baker crossed the line in fourth spot and despite the early morning hour of 4:53 a.m. on Sunday, a small crowd gathered to welcome him home.
The run to the finish was nice and warm, he said.
"It was beautiful," Baker said.
At the finish banquet Monday evening, Tagish, Yukon, musher 'Fast Eddy' Hopkins was awarded the humanitarian award for exceptional dog care. He finished with a full team of 12 dogs. Hopkins, who has completed the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest several times, also won rookie of the year honors.
He finished in fifth spot with a team that ran this year's Iditarod with his wife Michelle Phillips.
"It's been a magic carpet ride," Hopkins said at the finish. "I let them down by not paying attention to the trail, but it's a dog race. That happens.
"They're a good, solid bunch of dogs."
Hopkins took an unplanned detour mid-way through the race that cost him some time. On the way to the finish, Hopkins, Sonny Lindner and Neff played leap-frog for a while, taking turns leading the way.
Neff eventually pulled away, but Hopkins maintained his spot ahead of Lindner who came in sixth.
"That was fun, going back and forth. We were all playing our own little games drafting off each other. But we all got Hughed," Hopkins laughed referring to Neff.
Kotzebue's Katherine Keith won the sportsmanship award. She finished with five dogs in ninth spot.
The smooth trail was a big switch from Keith's rookie Iditarod run this year, she said in Ambler. The trail was so nice, it was getting hard for her to stay awake on the overnight run into the checkpoint.
"I came into Kotzebue with five dogs and it was a great lesson to learn about what the dogs are capable of," Keith said at the finish banquet. "They were more than ready."
The Kobuk 440 offers a true test for mushers and their dogs while showing off the beauty of the Arctic and the generosity of its people, said veteran race judge Mark Moderow.
"The mushers that take the time and expense to come here are pretty dedicated," said Moderow. "Even the rookies are pretty experienced.
"It was a fun race."
Here are the final results of the 2014 Kobuk 440. For official times go to kobuk440.com
1. Jeff King
2. Tony Browning
3. Hugh Neff
4. John Baker
5. Ed Hopkins
6. Sonny Lindner
7. Alan Stevens
8. Crispin Studer
9. Katherine Keith
10. Heidi Sutter
11. Jim Bourquin
12. Nina Schwinghammer
13. Ruth Iten
14. Rolland Trowbridge
15. Harry Douglas
Scratched: Paul Hansen and Dempsey Woods.
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