Bethel welcomed home its own Iditarod champion in grand fashion Monday night. Musher Pete Kaiser returned to Bethel on the evening jet after winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. KYUK was at the airport as the town celebrated.
Bev Hoffman walks into the terminal banging a drum.
“I’m the pep band!” she yells out, laughing.
Hoffman, a former musher and close friend of Kaiser's family, has organized a hero’s welcome.
“He’s a champion!” she exclaimed. “He’s a champion of the Iditarod! And it’s like, we need a Super Bowl parade.”
It’s a half hour before Kaiser lands, and cars already line the highway. Fire trucks wait outside. Inside, people are filling the small Alaska Airlines terminal.
“[It’s the] first time anybody won, and it’s Pete! Our Pete!” says his honorary grandmother, Lucy Crow, with tears in her eyes.
“He used to be just bashful when he was a little boy,” remembers Anita Geerdts, who watched Pete grow up. “We’re all proud of him.”
People carry colorful signs that read variations of: “Congratulations!"; "Champ!"; "Quyana!”
Sherri Neth is covering the entire back wall with her sign. The neon letters spell: “Pete and Paws! Way to Go! Congrats!”
Hoffman rallies the crowd, leading them in a chant: “Pete! Kaiser! I-dit-a-rod Champ!”
Hoffman keeps time by banging a drum with the image of a wolf’s face on it. She says that the drum has been banned from basketball games for being too loud.
There’s a lot of love in the room for Pete. The town has supported him from when he was racing in local fun runs as a kid, to winning the Kuskokwim 300 four times, to now taking first in mushing’s most illustrious race.
One woman says that she had a “Pete Kaiser hangover” from staying up watching the tracker the night he won.
Then the terminal door swings open, and the expectant crowd lets out a giant groan. The first person out isn't the person everyone is waiting for. One by one, other passengers emerge. A man annouces that Pete is in row 22 near the back. But the crowd is ready to celebrate; everyone who walks out gets a cheer.
Then the crowd explodes.
Kaiser enters, holding his daughter. He looks stunned. He seems slightly overwhelmed, but happy, smiling. He begins shaking hands and sharing high-fives. Kaiser tries to avoid the spotlight, but Hoffman orders him to step onto the luggage conveyor belt and talk before it starts moving.
“This has been just an amazing experience, and to bring such positive energy back to the community is... It’s been one of the greatest weeks of my life,” Kaiser tells the crowd. “And to share it with so many awesome people and to see so many happy faces is amazing. So thank you all for coming out. I really appreciate it.”
After hugging and greeting people, Kaiser grabs his bags and is out the door with his family. Fans follow, ready for a caravan, but they have to wait. First the champion has to jump-start his truck.
Then he’s ready.
The Iditarod champion rolls out, escorted by two fire trucks, lights flashing and sirens wailing. Behind him streams a parade of cars. Fans line the highway, cheering and waving signs, welcoming their own Pete Kaiser home.
Bethel Mayor Fred Watson is sponsoring a proposal to declare March 13, the date of Kaiser’s win, a city holiday.
The community is invited to the Bethel Cultural Center on Friday, March 22 from 5 to 7 p.m. for potluck appetizers and stories from the trail with Pete Kaiser.