That One Time We Volunteered for the Kobuk 440

Last year, I had the chance to witness a dog sled race in the middle of the course in the even more remote arctic. It was something beautiful to watch as the mushers and dogs were in positive spirits when they saw us (and I’m sure were running low on energy).

This year, due to an extra ticket I had to Kotzebue, I planned a weekend trip to visit my friend, Brittni. While it was getting closer, I looked into traveling the weekend of the Kobuk 440 race. The race starts and ends in Kotzebue.

Although I couldn’t make the beginning of the race because it is in the middle of the week, I did get a chance to experience the weekend festivities.

First, the snowmobile races. A huge crowd lined up on the bay ice as long lines of snowmobiles took off in an attempt to be the fastest. As there was no makes course, I’m still not sure where they go or how they were timed, but their start was staggered. The energy in the air was that of excitement as people gathered to cheer them on, drones tracked them, and a small plane took off and landed occasionally.

Next, the sprint dog sled races started. These were just short races (I believe junior races). They also had staggered starts which made for plenty of time to practice taking pictures in action (and to take in all the fun).

Then, we walked to the Kobuk440 Headquarters where we were to volunteer for a couple hours that afternoon. On the way, we passed an Easter egg hunt on the ice, part of spring festivities.

At HQ, Brittni manned the phone and kept track of when mushers checked in and out of checkpoints and how many dogs they had. She also relayed information to people keeping time sheets, or the general public that showed up or called with questions. (She even had to update the radio, going live once!) My job was to take Brittni’s updates and share them on Facebook and Twitter. I also tracked the mushers using the race’s tracking system so that people could be updated on the mushers exact-ish whereabouts. The first shift flew by.

A nap and some downtime later, we made our way back to HQ for the midnight to 3 shift. During this time, we did the same tasks, except mushers started coming in. With a hoard of fans and officials, we met the first musher to finish at 00:34. The second at 00:47, and then the third, fourth, and fifth ending our time at the races a little before 4:00.

As the first racer came in, there was a dim glow on the horizon and a touch of the Aurora overhead. The aurora shifted through the sky, growing and fading in intensity, as all five early morning mushers came in with their teams. It was magical and everything I imagine when I think of my home in Alaska: mountains in the distance, frozen bodies of water, mushing, and a clear sky with the aurora overhead. Perfection.

We spent the time between finishers, updating other mushers and their positions, as well as hanging out with other volunteers, race officials, hosts, and mushing teams. It wasn’t necessarily a restful, catch up on sleep and relax weekend, but it was just what the doctor ordered—a long overdue new experience.