ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A young Pete Kaiser had the drive to learn about racing sled dogs and the 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 (105-kilometer) race. From there, the competitions and prizes kept getting bigger.
On Wednesday, the 31-year-old captured the crowning glory in the sport, 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 beating back a challenge from the 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 (1,600-kilometer) journey over two mountain ranges, along the frozen Yukon River and across the treacherous, wind-swept Bering Sea coast.
It’s Kaiser’s first Iditarod victory in 10 tries. He said he wasn’t sure what made everything come together for him this year.
“Just years of knowledge gained and trying to put it all together to have a better race, better dog team this year — every little detail coming into play,” he said in a post-victory interview televised from the finish line.
Kaiser became the fifth Alaska Native and first Yupik musher to win the world’s most famous sled dog race.
Veteran Iditarod musher Mike Williams Sr. has been friends with the Kaiser family and watched Pete’s career progress. His victory lifts up not only the Yupik people but all southwest Alaska, Williams said.
A large group of residents from Bethel, Kaiser’s hometown, flew in to see his victory. Alaska Native dancers and drummers performed near the finish line as they waited for Kaiser to arrive, even though it was past 3 a.m.
Kaiser called the support “extremely humbling, and it motivates me every day to perform to my best, and I just want to thank them for coming out here tonight.”
When he was young, Kaiser went to races like the Kuskokwim 300, an annual mid-distance race in Bethel, to learn everything he could from the mushers.
That includes Ed Iten, a veteran musher whose best Iditarod finish was second place in 2005.
“He was a young boy then and came over and helped me feed the dogs,” Iten said. “Then he went from helping out to eventually whipping my butt in the Kusko 300, so he’s a quick study.”
Kaiser, who counts Iten as his mentor, went on to win four Kuskokwim 300 races.