Browning, King Race for Second as Petit Pushes On

Ellen King in Ambler on the 2018 Kobuk 440 trail (Photo: Zoe Grueskin, KNOM)

Nicolas Petit holds onto his lead, arriving into Kiana this morning around 9:30 this morning. But behind him, long-time veteran Tony Browning and relative newbie Ellen King are racing for second.

KNOM’s Gabe Colombo reports:

At 3:30 am, Jeff King is calling his daughter’s dogs by name, and whistling them into line. Ellen is filling up plastic bottles with cold water. She’s about to head out from Ambler.

“I’m gonna take it with me. My dogs are clear-water-drinkin’ sons of guns. They like to have access to clear water.”

In her second Kobuk 440, the younger King has been running neck and neck with the man with the most 440s under his belt: Tony Browning.

Browning is a lanky man with long gray hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. He says his run so far has been slow.

“I only had, like, five dogs working. It was just too hot. They didn’t want to work in the heat. As soon as it started cooling off, they started powering up.”

Heat has been a big factor this year. Temperatures in the 20s are nice for humans, but warm for dogs. And Browning also had to deal with a canine shoulder injury coming into his second Ambler pass. He dropped two dogs before heading out, just four minutes after King.

The temperature dropped to 13 overnight in Ambler, with clear, starry skies. Jeff King was loving it.

“What a beautiful night. I’m totally jealous, because it’s gorgeous.”

He also had some advice for his daughter as she headed into the darkness.

“As an experienced musher, I recommend to less experienced mushers to really be hyper-alert on finding the markers. Around villages, a lot of times there’s more than the race trail, whether wood-cutting trails, trap line.”

2017 Kobuk 440 champion Jessie Holmes was also around to coach a younger musher about the next stretch, since he scratched Friday night. He told his handler, Clara Kneringer, to take it slow and not use up all the dogs’ energy on the hilly trail.

Kneringer left her second Ambler pass in fourth position. She was happy to be doing well, but says she had a sort of premonition about her mentor’s race.

“I had a dream before we started that he’s giving me good dogs, and he’s really mad at me at the end, because he didn’t finish as good as he wanted to, and he gave me good dogs.”

As of Saturday afternoon, Clara had fallen behind Browning and King. But for her, that’s maybe a good thing.

“I’m not the biggest fan of looking at someone all the time while I’m driving dogs. But it’s fun to see each other out there.”

Petit hasn’t seen much of the other mushers since he forged a two-hour lead between Selawik and Ambler. He mostly kept to himself in that checkpoint during both passes.

All mushers have to rest for a total of 20 hours. If Petit finishes his six remaining rest hours in Kiana, he’ll be back on the trail around 3:30 this afternoon.

Seven mushers are currently on the 96-mile stretch from Ambler to Kiana, under sunny skies.

Quince Mountain contributed reporting.

Image at top: Ellen King in Ambler on the 2018 Kobuk 440 trail (Photo: Zoe Grueskin, KNOM).