After weeks of preparation and anticipation by mushers, handlers, volunteers, race officials and fans, the race got underway at Happy Trails Kennel on Friday morning, January 22. Dog trucks were directed onto the lake below Happy Trails Kennel, where plenty of space gave everyone lots of elbow room, and by 8 am the mushers were gathering at Race Central for the drivers’ meeting. Midway through the meeting our host and primary sponsor, Martin Buser, was called outside, where he learned that his son Nicolai had been in a terrible accident in Seattle that morning. Martin and his wife Kathy were on a plane to Seattle before the first musher left the start chute, while their son Rohn stayed to keep the kennel functioning smoothly. As word of the accident spread through the assembled crowd there was shock and disbelief, and tears.
Under Race Marshall Sue Allen’s experienced guidance the start went off smoothly, with many handlers later commenting that it was a well-planned and executed beginning to the race for the 33 teams, a large percentage of them seeking to qualify for the 1,000-mile Iditarod and Yukon Quest races. The race checkpoints from the start at Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake included Yentna Station at 56.1 miles out, the Finger Lake checkpoint at 129.9 miles, the Talvista checkpoint at 166.6 miles, and Yentna Station again at 213.9 miles. The trail was reported to be in good condition, which was later confirmed by many of the mushers.
The first evening each musher’s start differential was added to a mandatory six-hour layover at the Yentna Station checkpoint, and just before midnight the first musher was back on the trail again: Ryan Redington driving 13 dogs at a fast 9.5 miles per hour after dropping one of the 14 he’d started with. Rick Casillo and Sebastien Vergnaud were close behind Redington. By 1 am over half the teams were out of Yentna and on their way to the Skwentna Hospitality Stop, and by 4 am all of the teams were back on the trail again.
At 7:31 Saturday morning front-runner Ryan Redington pulled into the halfway point at Finger Lake. Rick Casillo followed at 7:41, Charley Bejna at 7:44, and Sebastian Vergnaud at 7:45. At 8:30 I posted a good morning on Facebook and asked where everyone was watching the race from. Responses ranged across the globe, with fans commenting from many different states and as far away as Norway, Germany, The Netherlands, England, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Offshore West Africa, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and Scotland, proving once again that sled dog racing really has an international audience!
Ryan Redington led the pack out of Finger Lake at 10:51 am Saturday morning, nearly an hour ahead of the second-place musher, Rick Casillo. Limited communications with the remote Finger Lake checkpoint were made worse by a snowstorm moving in, making it tricky at best to get updates on the mushers’ times and team counts, but mushers continued to arrive and depart from the checkpoint throughout the day. During the second day of the race the news media carried many reports of Nicolai’s accident, including a CaringBridge link for updates on his situation, and Race Manager Sue Allen posted: “The NL 300 staff continues to maintain race logistics while our thoughts and prayers continue for healing for Nikolai and peace for Kathy, Martin, Rohn.”Ryan Redington checked into Talvista at 14:28 with 12 dogs, followed by Rick Casillo at 15:18 with 14 dogs, and Sebastien Vergnaud at 15:34 with 13 dogs. The race was shaping up for a run to the finish line! Race photographer Albert Marquez, working at Winterlake Lodge on Finger Lake, posted some beautiful photos of the teams, commenting, “Sorry folks . . . as much as I want to share my photos with you, it will have to wait until I have better internet. Most teams have left Finger Lake checkpoint. Its been snowing here for the last few hours and hopefully I can fly out of here tomorrow. I have lots of photos to share with you. In the meantime, enjoy these!
At 12:30 am race volunteer Josh Klauder posted on Facebook that the three front-running teams were eligible to leave Yentna, Ryan Redington and Rick Casillo both at 3:49 AM, and Sebastien Vergnaud at 4:09 AM. It was going to be a fast race down the home stretch!
An hour later a strong earthquake shook southcentral Alaska, jarring everyone awake and leaving the mushers and volunteers on the trail with stories which would be told and retold in the coming days and weeks. Trailbreaker James Fee took photos of the ice on the Yentna River skewed into broken blocks, and his compelling images would be featured in a television news video the following day.The race very nearly had a photo finish: At 9:30:15 the musher who had led the race for almost the entire way arrived at Happy Trails Kennel in first place: Knik musher Ryan Redington. Second-place finisher Rick Casillo was only 30 seconds behind Redington with a finishing time of 9:30:45. Seven minutes later Sebastien Vergnaud finished at 9:37:00. First place finisher Ryan Redington received a beautiful pair of embroidered Golden Collars for his lead dogs, donated by High’s Adventure Gear. Ryan’s brother, Ray Redington, Jr., had taken first place three years before, in the 2013 Northern Lights 300.
Mushers continued arriving at intervals throughout the next day and a half. Sunday evening, as some of the last mushers made their way into the Happy Trails Kennel, a reporter for KTVA television, John Thain, came out to interview and film them talking about what it was like to be on the trail during the 7.1 earthquake, and edited a great video featuring several mushers and trailbreaker James Fee’s photos of the Yentna River.
Dozens of great photographs taken on the trail by race photographer Albert Marquez can be accessed at this link.