The Iditarod winner’s journey began as he raced sled dogs

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A young Pete Kaiser had the drive to learn more about sled dog racing and about family and community to support his passion. Years later he won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Growing up, Kaiser had plenty of sled dogs to choose from at his parents’ kennel in Bethel, a rural community in southwest Alaska. He got his first taste of success as a senior in high school when he won a 65-mile race. From there, the competitions and prizes only got bigger.

On Wednesday, the 31-year-old won the sport’s crowning glory, the Iditarod, a grueling test against the wildest terrain Alaska has to offer. Kaiser crossed the finish line in the gold rush town of Nome after fending off a challenge from defending champion Joar Ulsom of Norway.

Ulsom finished the race just 12 minutes after Kaiser, who took 9 days, 12 hours, 39 minutes and 6 seconds to complete the 1,000-mile journey over two mountain ranges, along the frozen Yukon River and across the treacherous, windswept Bering Sea. coast.

It’s Kaiser’s first Iditarod win on his 10th try. He said he wasn’t sure what made it all come together for him this year.

“Just years of learning and trying to put everything together to have a better race, a better dog team this year – every little detail that comes into play,” he said in a post-victory interview. televised from the finish line.

Kaiser became the fifth Alaskan and first Yupik musher to win the world’s most famous sled dog race.

Veteran Iditarod musher Mike Williams Sr. is friends with the Kaiser family and has followed Pete’s career development. Her victory uplifts not only the Yupik people, but all of Southwest Alaska, Williams said.

“It’s going to make 35,000 people proud,” Williams said. “I think he’s going to be a great representative for us.”

A large group of residents of Bethel, Kaiser’s hometown, flew in to see his victory. Alaska Native dancers and drummers performed near the finish line as they awaited Kaiser’s arrival, even though it was past 3 a.m.

Kaiser called the support “extremely humbling, and it motivates me every day to give my best, and I just want to thank them for being here tonight.”

When he was young, Kaiser went to races like the Kuskokwim 300, an annual mid-distance race in Bethel, to learn all he could from the mushers.

This includes Ed Iten, a veteran musher whose best Iditarod result was second place in 2005.

“He was a young boy then and he came to help me feed the dogs,” Iten said. “Then he went from helping out when I was in Bethel feeding my dogs to finally whipping my ass in the Kusko 300, so he’s a quick study.”

Kaiser, who counts Iten as his mentor, has won four Kuskokwim 300 races.

“It couldn’t have been better,” Iten said of Kaiser’s win at Iditarod. “We were expecting this. There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to get it sooner or later.

Dogs are in the blood of the Kaiser family. Pete’s dad, Ron, ran dogs for a few years and then ran an active kennel. His mother, Janet, ran the Kuskokwim 300.

Kaiser, who is married with two children, works in the winter and gets seasonal summer jobs in addition to running the kennel.

Sled dog racing doesn’t have lucrative jackpots – Kaiser picked up around $50,000 and a new truck for winning the world’s biggest competition. The prize money is down about $20,000 from what the 2017 winner received.

This year’s race was marked by the stunner of Frenchman Nicolas Petit, who appeared to be on his way to victory as recently as Monday. He was five hours early until his team of dogs stopped running.

Petit said that a dog was attacking another during a break and he yelled at the dog to put him down. At that time, the whole team refused to run. He had to withdraw.

Fifty-two mushers started this year’s race. Petit was among the 10 who withdrew.

The 2019 race took place during a deadly two-year period for the Iditarod that included a canine doping scandal and the loss of national sponsors amid protests from animal rights activists.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is the biggest critic.

“Hundreds of dogs (including six from Pete Kaiser’s team) were so sick, exhausted or injured that they were taken out of the race, forcing those left to work even harder, struggling in what is a test grueling – not human endurance but a dog’s ability to survive extreme cruelty,” PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said in a statement after Kaiser’s victory.

Bette C. Alvarado