On Monday, mushers in the Iditarod are headed across the Alaska Range. KYUK reports that during Saturday’s ceremonial start in Anchorage, a discerning eye could see the impact of Bethel’s K300 and the races it sponsors on the iconic race to Nome.
You can see it in the number of rookies. Of the nine rookies in the Iditarod this year, three of them are from Bethel. That’s not bad for a town of about 7,000 people.
Two of those rookies are in it for the adventure.
“I’m really excited to see the Alaska Range and everything by dog team,” said Bethel dentist Victoria Hardwick.
Another adventurer is Niklas Wikstrand, who is running well-known Bethel musher Pete Kaiser’s puppy team. The Norwegian says that driving the team to Nome is his last Alaskan adventure before heading home to Svalbard, Norway.
Bev Hoffman, a Bethel resident, directs a crowd into a group picture near a dog truck. “Everybody get over here. Everyone from Bethel; all you people,” she says.
In the middle of the group is possibly Bethel’s favorite rookie. She is listed on the rolls as being from Wasilla, but she is still a home-town girl. Jessica Klejka, a veterinarian who currently lives in the Mat-Su, grew up in Bethel, mushing in the K300 kids races. She was among those driving dogs out on area trails almost daily, she later competed in the longer K300 races, and she comes back to help her mother as a vet in the region’s big race. She’s out on the trail Monday with a load in her sled, including a heavy medical pack. She has a race plan similar to that of the more experienced Aniak musher, Richie Diehl.
“I think, see how the first couple of days of the race goes,” says Diehl, “and see how the dogs are doing. And if they’re doing well, then we try to kind of cut their rest here and there and move down the trail a little quicker, hopefully.”
Diehl had his best Iditarod finish last year, coming in 6th. For many of the later stages of that race, he was running with well-known, homegrown musher Pete Kaiser. During the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday, Kaiser, who has finished five times in the top 10, watched his dogs carefully, balancing media interviews with the need to be ready for his turn in the chute.
All the sled-dog teams are smaller this year because the Iditarod has instituted a new rule reducing the maximum number of dogs in a team to 14. Kaiser thinks it’s a good thing for mushers who live off the road system.
“Logistically I think it has helped, at least me, a lot. You know, coming from Bethel and having to ship a few less dogs in and deal with a few less dogs in here. So I think it’s worth a try, and we’ll see how it goes this year and see what people think after the race,” said Kaiser.
Kaiser also plans to go slow at the beginning, picking up the pace after his dogs make it over the Alaska range. But on 4th Avenue at the ceremonial start on Saturday, the team was enthusiastic and pulling hard to get out of town.