Breaking: Bethel’s Pete Kaiser wins 2019 Iditarod

Iditarod 2019 champion Pete Kaiser and his dogs Marrow and Lucy at the end of the 1,000-mile race in Nome. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media photo)

A new Iditarod champion has been crowned. Bethel musher Pete Kaiser’s team of eight dogs crossed under the Burled Arch in Nome at 3:39 a.m.

A boisterous crowd of friends and family from the Bethel area traveled to Nome to celebrate Kaiser’s victory. The 31-year-old wins $50,000 and a new truck. It’s a career highlight for Kaiser, who has raced the Iditarod each year since 2010. On three separate occasions he’s placed as high as 5th, but this is his first win. The team’s run took 9 days 12 hours and 39 minutes.

Kaiser had to hold off Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the defending champion, who surged on the final run in from White Mountain to trim 30 minutes of Kaiser’s 42-minute edge. The 1,000-mile race came down to 12 minutes. Leifseth Ulsom arrived in Nome at 3:51 a.m.

It was a chaotic scene in the chute as the two dog teams parked side by side. Pete Kaiser’s dad fed the team a snack of frozen meat and dragged the sled, quickly moving the team over to give Leifseth Ulsom space. After Leifseth Ulsom was checked in, the party continued with champagne bottles, songs, and cheers.

“Pete! Pete! Pete! Pete!” the fans cheered.

Kaiser is the first competitor from western Alaska to win the race since Kotzebue musher John Baker’s 2011 victory.  He’s the only winner hailing from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, with the one exception of Dick Wilmarth, who came in first during the inaugural Iditarod in 1973 when he lived in Red Devil. Kaiser is the first Iditarod champion with Yupik roots. He hopes his win will help spark an interest in the Delta and beyond.

“Not just Yupik people but all of the rural Native people from Western Alaska or anywhere in the state, for that matter, it really doesn’t matter,” Kaiser said. “Anybody who can get a kick out of this, that’s awesome.”

Kaiser was raised around sled dogs in Bethel. His father raced dogs in local races before he was born. As a child he got interested in dogs and began training with his family. By the time he was a senior in high school, he was winning local races like the Akiak Dash.

Kaiser’s racing style has tended to be conservative during the early parts of the race, in which he banks extra rest and ensures that his team will have speed when the opportunities arise. It was a variation of that style that positioned Kaiser for the victory in 2019.

“I generally have kind of an idea of what I’m gonna do, but it’s not set in stone,” Kaiser said. “A run can take five hours on a good trail and eight hours on a bad trail, just like this race played out. I mean, all these runs turned out to be two or three hours longer than they could have been on a long trail, so you gotta be able to adjust your race accordingly, I feel. If you just have something put pen to paper what you’re gonna do, no matter what, I don’t think it’s gonna work out so well.”

Kaiser raced a bit behind the leaders for the early and midsection of the race, preparing for the right time to show off his team’s speed. It was on the approach to the coast and the final few hundred miles of trail that he made his mark. Kaiser waited until Kaltag to take his mandatory 8-hour rest on the Yukon River. It was on that last push up the Yukon that his team hit a critical stride.

“We just got some trail that the team really likes and we didn’t see much of that this race,” Kaiser said. “My team really likes hard, fast trails where they can go fast, and that was probably the best type of trail for that kind of race, so when they got on that they really wanted to roar. And actually held ‘em back for most of that run.”

With fresh rest in his dogs, he was still three hours behind the race leader Petit, but running fast at the right time.

He matched Petit for the fastest run time to Shaktoolik, and after that checkpoint is when the race broke open. Petit’s dogs stalled on the ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, costing Petit his race, but clearing the way for Kaiser and Leifseth Ulsom to battle for the win. Kaiser says as he passed Petit going up the coast he knew things weren’t going well for his competitor.

“I had an idea when I got there that something was going on,” Kaiser said. “I said, ‘Hi,’ and he said, “Hi,’ and that was it.”

On the windy push up to Koyuk, Kaiser again led the field. He gained an hour on Leifseth Ulsom into Koyuk. From there, Kaiser needed to maintain an edge on the athletic Leifseth Ulsom, which over the next few runs resulted in the first title for the Bethel musher.

As Kaiser rested after his win, Jessie Royer mushed in and out of Safety, the last checkpoint before Nome, running in third place. In fourth, Aliy Zirkle was between White Mountain at the time.

And if Royer, Zirkle and Fairbanks musher Paige Drobny — sitting in 7th in White Mountain — maintain their positions, it’ll be the first time ever that three women have finished in the top 10. It’ll also be an enormous leap up the standings for Drobny, who, in four previous Iditarod finishes has never placed higher than 25th.