Q&A: Defending champion Pete Kaiser is eyeing his second Iditarod win

Defending Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser at 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Defending Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser and his sled dog team hit the trail to Nome on Sunday afternoon, and he says they’re gunning for another victory.

The 32-year-old musher from Bethel is fresh off of a Kuskokwim 300 win, and his team for this year’s Iditarod includes a lot of the same dogs that led him to victory last year.

Alaska Public Media caught up with Kaiser on Saturday in Anchorage to talk about training, the trail, his team and the story behind who rode in his sled at the ceremonial start.

(The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Alaska Public Media: What has the past year been like for you since you won the Iditarod? How has it impacted your life?

Kaiser: It has changed for sure in some ways, but in a lot of ways it stayed the same, you know, we’ve tried to remain as grounded as possible. It was a big deal, but we still live out in Bethel, in our little house, in the same spot. There have definitely been more obligations and more things to do here and there, but then other times, it’s just normal.

Pete Kaiser and two of his dogs, Morrow and Lucy, after winning the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It was Kaiser’s first Iditarod victory. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Public Media: What has training been like for you this winter?

Kaiser: We’ve actually had better snow — our best snow year for like 10 years now. The early part of the winter was pretty skimpy on snow, but not terrible. And then we’ve been getting a lot of snow since New Year’s. So a lot of slow, drifted-in trails, a lot of wind. So similar to what everyone else has been dealing with from what it sounds like. Overall, it’s been a good training year. We ended up with about the same amount of miles as we always do, and it’s about the same team as it was last year. So, we’ll see.

Alaska Public Media: How many of the dogs on this year’s team finished with you last year? (Kaiser crossed the finish line in Nome with an eight-dog team in 2019. Mushers can start the race with up to 14 dogs.)

Kaiser: All the finishers from last year are in the team again, plus a couple more that were in the team last year. Then, we filled it out with four dogs from my handler’s team from last year — four of his best dogs on his team. So it’s a really solid, well-rounded team, lots of experience. We know each other very well, and that usually works out good.

[Related: Subscribe to the Iditapod podcast to catch our latest trail updates and race analysis.]

Alaska Public Media: It sounds like one of the themes of the trail this year might be deep snow. Does that change which dogs or what gear you’re bringing, or your strategy?

Kaiser: It’s not so much gear and dogs, but my strategy will definitely change. But it won’t change now, it’ll change as we get out there, and as we see what it actually is. Because a lot of times, you get pre-race forecasts, and it’s the opposite of what they say it is. You’ve really got to just get out there and be flexible and able to react to what the weather is doing, what the trail is like in front of you. And, yeah, just take it one mile at a time.

Alaska Public Media: What is your goal for this year’s race?

Kaiser: Definitely to win again. But if this team performs to their capability, and I perform to my capability, and we have a good run, I’ll be happy with the outcome either way. So not making any bold predictions, but it’s a great team, and I’m excited to drive them, and we’ll see what happens.

Pete Kaiser mushes to the starting line at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start Anchorage on Saturday. His mother, Janet, rides in his sled and his father, Ron, rides on the sled behind him. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Public Media: Can you talk about who your Iditarider is this year? (The Iditariders are the people riding in mushers’ sleds during the ceremonial start. They bid on the spot. It’s a fundraiser for the race.)

Kaiser: So my mom is my Iditarider this year. She’s been the backbone of our kennel for many years, way back to supporting my dad in his mushing endeavors before I was even born. So she’s been kind of in the back of the picture for a long time, and my dad surprised her with bidding on my seat for the Iditarider and surprised her a couple weeks ago with that as a birthday present. And so my mom will be riding in my sled and my dad will be on the tag sled, and it’s a big family affair.

Alaska Public Media: That seems like it must be pretty special.

Kaiser: It’s pretty special, yeah, especially coming off of a win last year and getting to do it this year, riding with me. It’s very special for me too to have her in our sled. So it’ll be a fun experience.

[Related: Follow all of our coverage of the 2020 Iditarod here.]