by Tommy Wells
With a blanket of stars overhead and his team of nine dogs pulling him briskly along the Kuskokwim River toward Bethel, Pete Kaiser took a brief look over his shoulder and found himself staring at one of the best things he had ever seen. There was no one within sight.
With that, Kaiser relaxed a bit behind his sled. For him, a childhood dream was coming true.
A resident of Bethel, Kaiser became the first local musher to win the Kuskokwim 300 in almost three decades on Sunday morning when he guided his team across the finish line and completed a stunning come-from-behind victory in front of a large crowd. His team slid across the finish line at 5:41 a.m., ending a 35-hour, 1-minute and 26 second run as history. In addition to becoming the first Y-K resident to win the Kuskokwim 300 in 29 years, he also became the first to claim the Kusko triple crown honors, having won the event’s two sister races – the Bogus Creek 150 and the Akiak Dash – in the past.
“I didn’t really know I had it until the last couple of miles,” said Kaiser, the son of Bethel’s Ron and Janet Kaiser. “It is kind of like a dream coming true. I had a feeling that they (his dogs) could pull something off, but it is a dog race and anything can happen. It is still hard to believe.”
Kaiser’s win was especially hard to believe for many in the region. The last time a local musher won the Kuskokwim 300 was in 1986 when Myron Angstman, now a local attorney and chairman of the K-300 race, finished atop the race’s standings.
Finishing first was anything but easy for Kaiser. The Bethel musher was forced to chase defending K-300 champion Rohn Buser for much of the previous day as they made their way from the halfway point of the weather-shortened race in Aniak.
The dream became a reality just outside on Akiak. About six miles outside of the Akiak checkpoint, Kaiser said he finally caught Buser.
Just 38 miles from the finish line, Buser said he knew the race belonged to Kaiser.
“When he passed me, I knew he was going to stay ahead of me. I knew he was going faster than me,” he said.
Kaiser, who had dropped three dogs at an earlier checkpoint in Kalskag, didn’t let the opportunity slip away. He breezed through the Akiak and Kwethluk checkpoints and slid into the finish line 13 minutes ahead of Buser, who had taken a wrong turn down Church Slough shortly after being passed. Jeff King, the winningest musher in Kuskokwim 300 history, finished third, checking in just 14 minutes behind Buser.
The victory is all the more impressive for Kaiser in that he was the last musher to begin the race, which started on Friday. He said he chose to be the last team leaving, hoping that his team could benefit from a trail that was being cut by the first 24 squads out of the chute.
“I was kind of hoping a lot of the trail would be scratched up so the leaders wouldn’t have to search for the trail,” Kaiser said. “It worked out for us.”
The son of former Iditarod winner Martin Buser, Rohn Buser dominated the race early. He covered the first 130 miles of the partly-rainy course with relative ease. He and his father beat everyone else to the halfway point in Aniak.
During their race up the river at a mandatory 4-hour rest period, Rohn Buser, King and Kaiser met briefly. It was there, the stage was set for the finish, they said.
“Yeah, we talked,” Kaiser laughed. “I told them they’d be the YK Delta’s most wanted if they beat me here.”
King, who said his decision to maintain a slower pace over the first half of the race likely cost him a chance at a 10th K-300 win, pushed his team of 11 dogs across the finish line at 5:58 p.m.
Over the last 130 miles of the race, King’s team posted some of the faster times between checkpoints. In the end, however, the slow pace gave the leaders proved to be too big to overcome.
In the end, Kaiser didn’t have to worry about anyone catching him. As he neared town, he began seeing fans turning out to cheer him on with chants of “Go Pete! Go Pete!” Some local residents even hired taxi cabs to take them onto the river to see Kaiser mush his way toward town.
“This is something I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid,” he said as the finish line. “I’m sure it will sink in a little more later, but this is pretty awesome.”
Buser and King both congratulated Kaiser on the win, as did fellow Western Alaskan mushers Aaron Burmeister and John Baker.
“It is a pretty amazing this,” said Baker, who completed his 14th K-300 race with a ninth-place finish. “The club has worked all these years to get locals involved in the race and to get them to where they can be successful. They have succeeded and it is great.”
Burmeister, who was raised in Nome but now resides in Nenana, said Kaiser’s win was important for the community, and sled dog racing, in general. His win would only shed more light on the sport in western Alaska.
“I couldn’t be happier for Pete,” said Burmeister, who has competed in the race six times over the years. “We have a local champion. The goal of the club was to promote the sport in this region, and now they have a champion.”
Burmeister finished 10th in the final standings. His team of eight dogs checked in at 8:25 a.m., almost 3 hours behind Kaiser.
With the victory, Kaiser pocketed a $25,000 first-place prize as well as claiming the Best in the West honors.
Tony Browning finished fourth in the race’s final standings, while Ken Anderson took fifth, checking in at 6:35 a.m. Martin Buser was sixth, finishing just ahead of Brent Sass and Cim Smyth, who were seventh and eighth, respectively.
Akiak standout Mike Williams Jr. also turned in a solid effort in the K-300. He finished the race in 11th overall after driving his team across the finish line at 9:39 a.m.
Richie Diehl and Mike Williams Sr. also did well Diehl was 13th overall, while Williams Sr. checked in at No. 17, one spot ahead of Nome’s Roland Trowbridge.
Former Bethel resident Dee Dee Jonrowe finished 21st overall.