When Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser from Bethel accepted his race winnings Sunday, the crowd rose in a standing ovation, filling the Nome Recreational Center with applause. After three hours of ceremony and speeches, Kaiser was the final musher to take the stage.
“This has been an amazing experience, an amazing week," Kaiser told the crowd. "It hasn’t really all sunk in yet, but one thing I’ve really noticed is the love and support, the enthusiasm everyone has shown me. I had a huge, amazing crowd at the finish line. It really feels like all of Western Alaska and the rural part of the state has rallied behind me and our team, and it’s just so gratifying to see that."
Kaiser went on to thank his sponsors and his family for their support. Then he turned his gratitude to his hometown.
“I’m really excited to get back to Bethel and share that positive energy with everybody. Like I said, this is amazing. It’s a dream come true," said Kaiser. "The whole community of Bethel, surrounding villages, that whole region up and down the Kuskokwim River. I’m so proud to represent the rural part of the state and rural mushers.”
Kaiser hopes that young people from the area will soon be representing rural regions as well.
“I hope this can motivate more kids from rural Alaska to follow their dreams and do big things," he said, concluing his speech.
Kaiser takes home a hefty check and a new Dodge Ram truck for his championship. He also takes home a $2,500 check and a one of a kind print from an Anchorage artist for being the first musher to reach the White Mountain checkpoint. Additionally, for being the first musher to reach the Kaltag checkpoint, Kaiser takes home a $2,000 check, a piece of wood-burned art from a local artist, and 25 pounds of fresh caught Bristol Bay salmon. Kaiser’s lead dog Morrow took home the golden harness award for Most Outstanding Lead Dog. The seven-year-old female has led Kaiser’s team into Nome three years in a row.
Two other mushers from the region accepted awards.
Aniak musher Richie Diehl accepted his award for finishing in 11th position. In 31st position, Bethel rookie musher Jessica Klejka said in her finisher's speech that she got to race with legends.
“I’ve dreamed about coming here my entire life, and I picked a very good year to do it with Pete Kaiser winning from Bethel,” she said, laughing.
The final musher from the region, Victoria Hardwick of Bethel, finished her rookie Iditarod run on Monday afternoon and takes home the Red Lantern award. This is the first year that Bethel mushers have finished first and last in the race.
KNOM News Director Davis Hovey contributed to this report.