When Bethel’s Pete Kaiser crossed the Nome finish line to win the Iditarod, it was only him and eight dogs on his team. But the community of Kaiser fans across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta felt like they were a part of the victory. KYUK talked with Kuskokwim mushing leaders about why that is.
“He’s a product of Bethel, and now the Iditarod championship this year is a product of Bethel," Andy Angstman told KYUK from Nome, a few hours after cheering on Kaiser’s Iditarod win.
Angstman is an Iditarod Trail Committee board member and a friend of Kaiser's. Angstman and Kaiser grew up together in Bethel, running dogs on the Kuskokwim River, and Angstman is amazed that someone from his hometown won mushing’s greatest race.
“When you look at the logistical challenges and the training challenges and all the things that people deal with living in Bethel, having a dog team out there and the competition he’s going up against, it’s remarkable,” he said.
Bethel’s flat tundra sits far from where most Alaska’s competitive mushers live. In Bethel you don’t have the road system for getting supplies, or long stretches of trail to get miles on dogs. Recent years have lacked snow. Despite these challenges, over the past decade Kaiser has steadily moved up the Iditarod rankings, finally taking first this year.
As he crossed the finish, hopes and hearts around the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta swelled.
“It’s a testament not to only him and his dog program and his family and all his sponsors," Angstman said. "But it’s like the community out there was able to cultivate something like that."
That cultivation has been nurtured by Bethel’s mid-distance sled dog race, the Kuskokwim 300, and all the local races tied to the program. The Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee offers a premier race with Alaska’s top mushers competing and an entire winter of races for local dog drivers. Kaiser honed his skills in these races, eventually winning the K300 four times in a row.
Andy Angstman's father, Myron Angstman, founded the K300 and lives in Bethel. He has encouraged Kaiser throughout the musher's career and was one of the few people in the Iditarod chute when Kaiser finished first. Talking to KYUK from Nome, Myron Angstman takes great pride in Kaiser’s Iditarod win.
“Pride and little bit of satisfaction for me and hundreds of other people who take part in the dog events down there in Bethel,” he said.
The K300 celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. Throughout those decades, the race has been made possible by hundreds of volunteers. While the mushers accept prize money and acclaim, the volunteers often go unnamed. Myron Angstman says that Kaiser’s Iditarod victory is the recognition they’ve been waiting for. They all played a small role in this big moment.
“So when they can look at a product of our program, like Pete is, succeed on a statewide and nationwide stage like that," he said, "then those volunteers can say to themselves, ‘I contributed.’”
Kaiser arrived in Nome to a crowd of ecstatic fans who had flown to the finish line from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Across the region, even more fans stayed up late, watching from afar, to cheer him on as he claimed his championship win.