A thriving community keeps mushing traditions alive in southwest Alaska

Sled-dog race organizations and volunteers support mushers on the Kuskokwim River.

On a January morning at 7 a.m., it was still dark in Bethel, Alaska. Far down the trail of the Bogus Creek 150 sled-dog race, the light of a single headlamp shone like a beacon. Fans, family members and race volunteers stood near the finish line on the frozen Kuskokwim River, meandering, visiting and waiting in the 16-degree air. Some wore beaver hats, others parkas with ruffs made of wolf and wolverine fur that framed their faces. Inside trucks parked on the ice, drivers and passengers sat warm in their seats and listened to live radio updates. As the musher in first place drew close, his headlamp revealed the dogs running in front of him. The crowd started cheering.

“Here they come!” an announcer called. The crowd cheered louder.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s Raymond Alexie, the 2023 Bogus Creek 150 Champion,” the announcer said as Alexie’s lead dogs, Apollo and Levi, crossed the finish line. “Congratulations, Raymond.”  


Alexie’s name was spoken up and down the Kuskokwim that weekend and throughout the sled dog racing community across Alaska. The young musher — only 19 years old — from Kwethluk, a town of just under 900 people upriver from Bethel, was the pride of the Kusko.

His win was a symbol of the region’s thriving dog-mushing culture. It’s a lifestyle maintained by men and women who prefer canine companionship over gas-guzzling snowmachines, and who hitch up their teams for the races along the river. Who catch salmon for the dogs, cook it outdoors and still need to think about the next $2,500 order for a month’s supply of dog food. Who scoop poop every day because their fathers did. Who listen for the rhythm of paws hitting snow and the slicing of sled runners beneath them, traveling the river that links their communities and provides connection and sustenance, the way rivers do.

(Clockwise from top left) Race volunteers Greg Morgan and Valerie Bue hold Twyla Elhardt’s team in the chute at the start of the Kuskokwim 300. Supporters cheer for Raymond Alexie as he mushes to a first-place finish in the Akiak Dash, an approximately 60-mile race. Fans wait for Pete Kaiser to cross the Kuskokwim 300 finish line in first place. Young spectators pet one of Mike Williams Jr.’s dogs after his second-place finish in the Akiak Dash.

For centuries, Yup’ik people called the Kuskokwim River Kusquqvak. Here and throughout Alaska, including my home at the mouth of the Unalakleet River, people mushed across the winter landscape to hunt, trap, travel, trade and deliver mail. Today, running sled dogs is also a sport, complete with professional mushers like Iditarod champions Brent Sass, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Bethel’s homegrown Pete Kaiser, all of whom have also competed in the prestigious Kuskokwim 300. It’s the longest race in the region, a 300-mile trek that starts and ends in Bethel. 


Steven Alexie of Napaskiak mushes with his team in the Holiday Classic on Jan. 7. The 50-mile race took place two weeks later than planned due to poor trail conditions and a lack of snow.


The Kusquqvak is also the venue for shorter contests organized in Bethel and the surrounding communities, races with crowd- and musher-favored mass starts, simple rules with no age requirements and no entry fees, which attract competitors from the roughly 30 dog teams in the area. For the Kusquqvagmiu, the people from the Kuskokwim, the river is home — the place where the mushing tradition of our ancestors remains stronger than anywhere else in Alaska. 

Lewis Pavila, a veteran musher from the village of Kwethluk, races to a seventh-place finish in the Holiday Classic.

A musher on the Kuskokwim has more chances to compete in sprint or mid-distance races than a musher anywhere else in the state. That means a real shot at bringing home a racing check in an expensive sport. “You not only can pay for your dog food, but you can pay for a light bill or something,” Beverly Hoffman, a longtime musher, told me. Prizes were as high as $25,000 and totaled $350,000 this season, thanks to fundraising efforts by area racing associations.

Hoffman ran dogs for 40 years in Bethel, testing herself against Kuskokwim River trail conditions and immersing herself in the mushing community she helped build. She co-founded the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race organization and the Kuskokwim 300 in 1980. For more than 25 years, she and her husband operated a mushing cooperative that negotiated prices for quality dog food, a service now supplied by the Kuskokwim Racing Committee. Hoffman also made ganglines for pulling sleds, sold harnesses, and provided local mushers with other equipment necessary to keep a dog kennel operating smoothly.

“If there’s no wind and I’m going to do a short run, I have to bring her, because if I don’t, she’ll remember it.”
  • Coraline Williams plays with puppies in her family’s dog yard in Akiak. Her dad, Mike Williams Jr., comes from a long line of dog mushers. “If there’s no wind and I’m going to do a short run, I have to bring her, because if I don’t, she’ll remember it,” he said. “(She’ll say) ‘Today is warm and you didn’t go far, so how come you didn’t bring me?’ She’s been that way ever since she could talk.”

  • The Rev. Alexander Larson, a Russian Orthodox priest and dog musher, prepares his dogs for a training run near his home in Napaskiak. “When you think about stuff (when you are) alone, not where the noise is, you think better. You do stuff the right way or the better way,” he said. “It gives you to yourself. … And running dogs alone is something that — the church tells you the secret to living the spiritual life is being quiet all to yourself.”

  • Pete Kaiser feeds his dogs at his kennel in Bethel. “The traditional food source for sled dogs out here in any rural part of Alaska has always been salmon,” he said. But now, fish aren’t always available. “This year was a little difficult, not being able to fish for silver salmon and stuff, so people had to get creative. But some other places like the Yukon have been shut down completely for salmon, and I know mushers personally over there that are like, ‘We can’t afford to have a dog team if we can’t feed salmon.’”

  • Musher Twyla Elhardt and her sled dog Bolt in their dog yard in Bethel. “One of my favorite things about mushing in the Kuskokwim region are the connections I’ve gotten through it. Getting to know other mushers, especially those who’ve grown up in this community and in this lifestyle, I feel like I’m learning so much from them. The community out here is really special, and not just among mushers, but also the community at large. Everyone’s so supportive, and I just love getting to run on trails.”

“My dad was a dog musher,” she said. “He had a team of half-wolves when he was a teenager and had a trap line … so, of course, I grew up hearing some of those stories.” Today, Hoffman is one of many volunteers who support mushing on the Kuskokwim, some of whom take on behind-the-scenes tasks like prepping boxes of food, coffee and other supplies for remote race checkpoints. Hoffman also visits classrooms to talk with kids about the region’s history, working to ensure the stories from the trail continue. 

Thanks to that mushing community, the beacon on the Kusquqvak continues to shine. At a 50-mile race in Bethel in the beginning of January, Coraline Williams, a musher’s 4-year-old daughter, waited at the finish line wearing a purple snowsuit and round cherry-red glasses. Hoffman and other folks gathered there, too, anticipating the arrival of the next musher. Coraline’s family pointed to her with proud smiles. “She just can’t wait to race,” one of them said. —Laureli Ivanoff


Left, Raymond Alexie of Kwethluk, the winner of this year’s Bogus Creek 150. “I don’t pay attention to the weather. I just go out even if the weather is ugly or too cold. I just go,” Alexie said. “(I like) just being out. It clears the mind, it’s soothing. It’s the sound of the wind and the dogs.” Middle, John Snyder of Akiachak, covered in frost after finishing in 13th place in the Holiday Classic. Right, Beverly Hoffman, the longtime race organizer and volunteer, near her home in Bethel. “(Dog mushing) was a key part of life here, you know, trapping and mail, before airplanes,” she said. “We’re carrying that history forward, so that it won’t be lost.”
Left, Father Alexander Larson remembers colder winters and more consistent snow when he was growing up. “Snow would build up a lot, a lot of snow. And then I think, from 2000 or so, it kind of rapidly changed,” he said. “Elders, they used to say the weather will change. You know, the world will change. … The weather will change, and our winter will be a different winter.” Middle, Richie Diehl (also pictured on the cover) on a training run near his home in Aniak. “You’re constantly dealing with adversity,” he said. “The lack of snow, the glare ice ... trying to get dog food, shipping stuff out. If dog food doesn’t show up, you just kind of shrug your shoulders. You’re always prepared for that next step because you’ve dealt with this before.” Right, Twyla Elhardt is originally from California and moved to Alaska to work as a nurse in 2015. She started mushing a few years later, and this winter, she competed in the Kuskokwim 300 for the first time. “I’m really excited; I’m also nervous, which I think is healthy when you’re going to be dragged a hundred miles through the frozen tundra by a team of dogs,” she said, before the race. “Most of the dogs that I’ll be running have done the K300 before. So I’m the newbie; I’m really excited to get to stand on the runners behind them.”
“(Dog mushing) was a key part of life here, you know, trapping and mail, before airplanes. We’re carrying that history forward, so that it won’t be lost.”

Richie Diehl, a musher and racer, on a training run near his home in Aniak, Alaska. “In my opinion, I think it’s a pretty supportive region,” Diehl said. “We compete with each other and when we compete with each other, we make each other better.”

Katie Basile is a documentary photographer and filmmaker with a focus on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska. She grew up in Bethel, Alaska, and continues to live there today with her partner and two young sons.

Laureli Ivanoff is an Inupiaq writer and journalist based in Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet), on the west coast of what’s now called Alaska. 

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Help us create more stories like this.This coverage was supported by contributors to High Country News.


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