As Bethel's Pete Kaiser nears K300 record with sixth win, local up-and-comers impress former champs
Three former champions overcame an icy, windy trail to finish at the front of the 2022 Kuskokwim 300. The race also teased at the future of Kuskokwim mushing, with other local mushers also finishing in the top 10.
Underneath bright stars on Jan. 30, to the cheers of his family and friends, Bethel’s hometown hero crossed the K300 finish line at 7:59 a.m., the sixth fastest finish in K300 history.
It was a return to normal in a lot of ways for the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race. It was a return to the race’s traditional course from Bethel to Aniak and back. And it was a return to Pete Kaiser’s dominance in the K300.
Six-time K300 Champion Kaiser is now just three wins shy of Jeff King’s record nine wins.
“You know, it seemed totally insurmountable at some point prior to these last few wins,” Kaiser said at the finish line, reflecting on reaching King’s record one day. “But I guess now it definitely seems possible if I keep doing this for a while.”
On his way to his sixth K300 win, Kaiser passed every single musher in the field. He had started the race in last position, and on his way up the icy trail from Bethel to Aniak he picked off mushers one by one, something he’s used to doing.
“Typically, most of the races I've won are kind of a come-from-behind type thing,” Kaiser said.
By the time his team reached Kalskag on the way to the finish line, Kaiser had the lead and never gave it up.
Second place finisher and former K300 Champion Matt Failor of Willow crossed the finish line in Bethel 16 minutes after Kaiser at 8:15 a.m. It was actually Failor who came from behind in this race. Heading into Aniak, his team got turned around by northerly winds and started going backwards.
“We made a big mistake in a windstorm, and went down the ice road and had to double back, and it was really slippery,” Failor said. “We got tangled up for maybe 25 minutes and I kind of thought that this would push me behind Pete and Richie. But we were able to catch Richie.”
Aniak’s Richie Diehl had been ahead of Failor going into the final 100 miles of the race, but Failor overtook him in that final stretch. He finished in third place just four minutes after Failor at 8:19 a.m. Diehl described the race as a roller coaster.
“Team goes from having a great run, then the next run they're not not firing on all cylinders,” Diehl said. “We managed and still put together a hell of a race.”
Diehl, coming off his first K300 victory last year, was able to take his reigning champion team through his hometown of Aniak, something he wasn’t able to do last year because the COVID-19 pandemic caused the race to be rerouted away from entering any villages.
“It's a little bit of normalcy in a weird two-year stretch. So I think I think the community really appreciated it, and I know me as a musher. I really enjoyed it," said Diehl.
The next Kuskokwim musher to finish was Jason Pavila, 18, from Kwethluk. Pavila finished in eighth place at 10:26 a.m., just after sunrise. He crossed the finish line kicking ferociously, holding off ninth place finisher Gabe Dunham from Willow who was chasing him and finished two minutes after. Pavila crossed the finish line panting and let out a big sigh. His dad, veteran musher Lewis Pavila, was right there to help him feed treats to his dogs. He and Jason’s mom had followed him in a truck up and down the Kusko, meeting him at every checkpoint.
“I'm glad he followed,” Jason said. “And I'm glad he helped train the dogs while I was in school. I probably wouldn't be able to have have run this race without him. I wouldn't have gotten all these miles and enough training to do this race.”
Fr. Alexander Larson of Napaskiak finished in 10th place. He was the first musher into Aniak, but then he skipped the Kalskag checkpoint on his way downriver. He said that he thought he didn’t need to check in there since he had already completed his mandatory rest. Race officials issued him a 20 minute penalty.
“Maybe I could have done better,” Larson said. “Make me want to come back.”
Bethel’s Kaiser and Aniak’s Diehl brought local dominance to the Kuskokwim 300. This year, nearly half the field of K300 mushers were local. Diehl says to keep that going, it’s up to the next generation of Kuskokwim mushers.
“Heck, you look at Jason Pavila and the race he put together. Just really impressive,” Diehl said. “If this mushing thing wants to stay happening in rural Alaska, younger kids like him have to keep moving up like Pete and I did. I think it's very important.”
"I guarantee you, if Jason wants to keep doing this, he can win a race like this no problem. And, Father could do it too," Kaiser said.