Bethel’s Pete Kaiser is the 2015 Kuskokwim 300 champion. Kaiser and his team crossed the finish line in Bethel at 5:31 Sunday morning with a team of nine dogs in the 36th running of the race.
Kaiser is the first local musher in 29 years to win the race.
Rohn Buser had a seven-minute edge on Kaiser as they left the final four-hour layover at Tuluksak Sunday morning after midnight. Kaiser passed Buser on the way to Bethel.
A crowd chanted for Kaiser at the finish line, where he met many friends and fans. “It’s kind of crazy, it’s like a dream come true. I don’t really know what to say” said Kaiser.
Fan’s led a chant for Kaiser as he came into the finish, saying, “It’s all about that Pete!” as he raced into Bethel. When he arrived a fan handed him a bottle of champagne which the normally reserved musher shook and showered himself and the crowd.
Kaiser began mushing as a kid in Bethel. He grew up watching the Kuskokwim 300. Among those cheering Kaiser at the finish were his parents, who also live in Bethel. He hugged his girlfriend Bethany, who met him with their two-year-old boy Ari.
The race was shorter this year by about 30 miles and the trail limited to the Kuskokwim River from Bethel to Aniak and back. Racers made required stops at checkpoints to rest and care for dogs. The shorter distance plus ice made the race the fastest ever and made for a pre-dawn finish.
Defending champion Rohn Buser led nearly the entire race until Kaiser passed him after the Tuluksak checkpoint with about 45 miles left. Kaiser had been steadily gaining on Buser for the later two thirds of the race.
Any hope Buser might have held to regain the lead was lost when he took a wrong turn into Church Slough about 12 miles from the finish as the race neared Bethel. It’s unclear exactly what the consequences will be for diverting from the main race trail. Race manager Zach Fansler told KYUK that the race committee will be meeting later Sunday to sift through facts and make a ruling.
At the finish Kaiser told reporters he knew about the navigational error because someone texted him. He said the wrong turn was easy to make. Buser ended up taking a local truck trail that veered off to the left of the main channel of the river. Buser’s final time into the checkpoint was 5:44 a.m.
“I missed the one you can’t miss,” said Buser.
The younger Buser led the race up until the Kwethluk checkpoint. His father Martin Buser, according to GPS, made the same wrong turn.
The last local musher to win the K300 title was Bethel’s Myron Angstman in 1986.
“It’s pretty cool, it’s a community event,” said Kaiser. “It’s taken a long time for that to come around and it’s cool it finally happened.”
Buser shot out to an early lead with a fast team through the first half day of racing, while Kaiser and his team sat back and raced in the middle of the pack. His leaders, Palmer and Rosie, picked up the pace as the course continued upriver. He had the fastest run times going into Aniak and back to Kalskag. He and Jeff King systematically chipped away at Buser’s lead until Kaiser passed Buser in the early morning hours of Sunday outside of Tuluksak.
“This team is so locked into a speed right now. Whether they’re fresh or tired, they get locked into that consistent speed,” said Kaiser.
Jeff King arrived at 5:58 a.m. in third place. Tony Browning was fourth into Bethel at 6:31 a.m., and Ken Anderson fifth at 6:35 a.m.
Kaiser called the K300 trail “totally doable”. The Yukon Kuskokwim Delta had received little snow and been plagued with temperatures that bounced up above freezing then back down again all season. The hometown favorite trained in Nenana due to lack of snow and warm temperatures in the YK Delta. Village crews used a bulldozer and other heavy equipment to clear the race trail through a giant ice jumble that formed during a November breakup just below Kalskag. Racers battled rain and icy conditions on the way up to Aniak. Snow fell just as the race got going, with about an inch and a half blanketing the icy trail, improving conditions on the way back to Bethel.
Kaiser’s time was the fastest ever, but before the race, organizer Myron Angstman said this year’s time will be an asterisked time due to a shorter trail. This year’s trail did not include the Whitefish Lake loop.
Kaiser was victorious in his seventh Kuskokwim 300. He’s a three-time Best in the West winner, including 2014. He is the first musher to win all three Kuskokwim 300 weekend races; the Kuskokwim 300, the Bogus Creek 150, and the Akiak Dash. His team this year includes several three-year-olds with a year of racing under their belts.
This year’s Kuskowim 300 race was the richest ever, totaling $123,300. Kaiser earns $25,000 for his first place performance.
Daysha Eaton contributed to this story.