Meet the Kuskokwim 300 rookie from Kwethluk who’s gone undefeated for the past 2 years
There’s a four-wheeler parked inside Raymond Alexie’s Kwethluk kennel. The 20-year-old Alexie attaches a dog sled line to the front of the four-wheeler. A separate line anchors the back with a snowhook. Alexie uses his boot and drives the snowhook violently into the tundra on a cold November afternoon. He checks the quality of his work, rocking and pushing the four-wheeler, making sure to pull the slack out of the line so that the machine doesn’t move. Once he is sufficiently satisfied, a stir goes through the 19 canines in the dogyard. They erupt. It’s a symphony of howls.
“Sometimes I'm [here] for like one to two hours. It depends what I'm doing. Sometimes I clean them, sometimes I pet them and get to know them, but mainly I’m cleaning,” Alexie said.
At the moment, however, Alexie is there to get ready for a conditioning run.
The dogs are chained to stakes driven through the cold earth next to their straw-filled houses. There’s no snow on the ground this early in November. Although it is the racing season, the snow will come later than usual so the trails that fall day were muddy and slow in this part of Southwestern Alaska.
Alexie is strategizing, determining which of the 19 will get their miles in first. Ten of his dogs will go out for about a 35-mile training run. A few hours later, in the dark, he will take the nine remaining dogs and log the same miles.
The mileage will slowly increase every day. Depending on how the athletic dogs are performing, he will change the training intensity, speed, tempo, and diet. Mushing runs in his blood. His strategy has been passed down to him from his father Harry Alexie, an Iditarod veteran.
It’s all to prepare for one specific race: the Kuskokwim 300, his longest race so far.
“Nothing intimidates me,” Alexie said. He pushes his glasses up before they slip down his nose. One by one, he carefully selects the placement and position of the dogs.
The soft-spoken, small-framed Alexie is confident about his abilities and his dogs.
“I believe in the dogs and I know they can do it,” said Alexie. “I know they can do anything. Maybe all the dogs, maybe half of them are leaders and all of them can lead. I don't really mind what dog goes out front,” said Alexie.
For this particular training run, however, Alexie puts four-year-old Apollo in front. When Apollo gets snapped into the sledline, the others can’t contain themselves. They know who the lead is, and the snowhook driven into the ground is barely hanging on. The four-wheeler rocks forward and back. They need to run. Alexie turns on the four-wheeler, puts the gear in neutral, unhooks the anchor, and they take off.
“Alright. I’m going!” Alexie said.
Born into the sled
Alexie has been competing in sled dog races since he was 14 years old. But he was born into the sled.
“I was a young boy. I have a picture [of me] when I was younger, running with two dogs,” Alexie said.
Alexie is a man of few words. Mushing is a solitary sport, just the musher and their dogs. Not all mushers are quiet, but Alexie is, and seems to find solace in the near-silent hours with his dogs. He is an observer. Learning how his dogs behave, knowing when to push them and when to take it slow is what has made him so successful.
“Anybody who's paying attention knows that Raymond Alexie has not lost in a long time,” said Kuskokwim 300 Race Manager Paul Basile. “He won all of our races last season, so his streak continues.”
Alexie has won every race he’s entered in the past two years, earning 10 wins in the Kuskokwim 300’s Delta Championship Series.
Alexie won his longest race, the Bogus Creek 150, on Jan. 15, 2023. The Kuskokwim 300 is twice as long. And he’s up against a lot of competition, particularly 2023 Kuskokwim 300 champion Pete Kaiser. In fact, it’s a race Kaiser has won seven times.
“I think he's probably the most exciting local talent we've had in a long time,” Kaiser said. “And so I certainly want to see him do well. I hope he doesn't beat me, but I certainly want to see him do well. And honestly, I've always said this, if it's not me that's winning, I hope it's somebody local from around here because that excites me and it's rewarding to see kids that have grown up in the mushing scene around here like I did.”
Just a boy from Kwethluk
Alexie lives with his grandmother Annie Alexie in Kwethluk. He had a seasonal job that lasted until the end of last summer, which is good, according to Alexie, because it allows him to stay focused on racing. When he’s not racing, he’s playing on his phone or Call of Duty Modern Warfare.
“I’m a musher; I’m just a boy from Kwethluk,” Alexie said.
His father, Harry Alexie, lives in Bethel but travels to Kwethluk to help his son train.
“Raymond's been training hard, I [travel] and grab the second team. He mainly drives the first team and I drive the second team,” Harry said.
With a field of 23 sled dog teams scheduled to compete on Jan. 26, including mushing titans 2023 Iditarod champion Ryan Redington, 2021 Kuskokwim 300 champion Richie Diehl, and others, Alexie has his work cut out for him. But none of that matters. Alexie says that it’s about racing itself.
“It's just quiet and peaceful. It’s therapy, being out there with my dogs,” said Alexie.