“We have a musher on Front Street.” It was in the wee hours of the morning when the call went out on radio station KNOM. Pete Kaiser’s friends and family, who had flown to Nome to see him and his team mush up Front Street, were ready. When they finally saw him they went wild, chanting “Way to Go, Pete!” as the Bethel musher drove his dogs through the falling snow to the Iditarod’s finish line in Nome.
In the crowd of Bethel friends and neighbors was Kaiser’s wife, Bethany.
“I’m really proud of my husband. Super proud of him,” she said. Looking at the crowd around her she observed, "It’s awesome. I mean, this is where we come from: Bethel. It’s a community that will just bend over backwards for people they love.”
Kaiser arrived under the burled arch in Nome at 3:39 a.m. on Wednesday, March 13. The 31-year-old wins $50,000 and a new truck. It’s the career highlight for Kaiser, who has raced the Iditarod each year since 2010. On three separate occasions he has placed as high as fifth, but this is his first outright win. His run took 9 days, 12 hours, and 39 minutes.
Kaiser is the first competitor from Western Alaska to win the race since Kotzebue musher John Baker’s 2011 victory. Kaiser is also the first Iditarod champion with Yup’ik roots. He hopes his win will help spark an interest in mushing throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and beyond.
“Not just Yupik people but all of the rural, Native people from Western Alaska or anywhere in the state, for that matter,” Kaiser told reporters after the race. “It really doesn’t matter. Anybody who can get a kick out of this, ya know, that’s awesome.”
Kaiser was raised around sled dogs in Bethel. His father raced dogs in local races before he was born.
Kaiser’s racing style has tended to be conservative during the early parts of the race, in which he banks extra rest and ensuring that he has speed when the opportunities arise. It was a variation of that style that positioned Kaiser for the victory this year.
“I generally have kind of an idea of what I’m going do, but it’s never set in stone,” Kaiser explained after his win. “A run can take five hours on a good trail and eight hours on a bad trail, just like this race played out. I mean, all these runs turned out to be two or three hours longer than they could have been on a good trail, so you’ve got to be able to adjust your race accordingly, I feel. If you just have something put pen to paper what you’re going do, no matter what, I don’t think it’s going work out that great.”
Just after officials presented Kaiser his winnings, the Norwegian flags came out as Joar Leifseth Ulsom arrived on Front Street to finish his race at 3:51 a.m. Twelve minutes separated the two teams at the end of the nine-day run in the 1,000-mile sled dog race.
Kaiser says that the race was so tight that he never thought he had it won until he got onto Nome’s Front Street.
“I didn’t really feel confident until we hit road over here. I mean, I was looking back quite often,” Kaiser recalled. “Knowing the type of driver he is and the type of team he has, I didn’t count him out. I knew we were going slow enough that he could make up time quickly if he got his team rolling, so I didn’t feel like I had it won at any point till coming down the road here.”
Musher Jessica Klejka was out on the trail to Shaktoolik when Kaiser crossed the finish line. The Bethel rookie was ecstatic when she realized her friend was winning the race. She pointed to dogs in her rookie team that came from Kaiser’s kennel.
“Pete has been working really hard for years for this,” observed Klejka. “He deserves to win, and we would be so excited. We have many dogs on this team who are Pete dogs. His dad is one of Pete’s leaders,” she said, pointing to one of her dogs. “Her dad is Pete’s leader. Stella is from Pete. She’s the only one who’s been to Nome before with Pete.”
Klejka checked into Skatoolik at about 5 a.m. to rest her team before heading up the coast to Nome.
Fairbanks musher Jessica Royer made it to the Safety checkpoint at around 5:20 a.m. She was expected on Front Street before noon. Allie Zirkle was out of White Mountain at 3:47 a.m. on her way to another top-10 finish. Behind her, coming off their mandatory eight-hour rests are: Matt Hall, Travis Beals, Paige Drobny, Ramey Smith, and Aaron Burmeister. It could be a record year for the race. If Drobny makes it across the finish line in time, she would make this the first Iditarod with three women in the top 10.
Aniak musher Richie Diehl arrived in White Mountain this morning to begin his eight-hour rest. Diehl and his team will be back on the trail at 1:46 p.m., headed for Nome. He could get into town before 10 p.m. tonight.
Bethel Rookie Victoria Hardwick left Kaltag at 4:46 a.m., still running with all her 14 dogs on her way to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast.