BETHEL -- An ecstatic crush of fans greeted Kuskokwim 300 hometown favorite Pete Kaiser as he glided first into the finish chute on a brisk Sunday morning, one of only four back-to-back winners in the 37 years of this prestigious mid-distance sled dog race, the richest in the world.
At age 28, Kaiser -- who last year became the first Bethel-born musher to win the Kusko 300 -- bested a field that included four Iditarod champions.
Four of the top five mushers in the race that locals simply call the K300 are under age 30, and the fifth, Kusko 300 second-place finisher and 2015 Yukon Quest champ Brent Sass, is just 36.
The fastest racers on a tough course are "a bunch of 20-somethings that are starting to establish themselves as the new force in mushing," said Kusko 300 race manager Zach Fansler.
Kaiser's finish, with almost the same team as last year and a dog named Palmer in lead, came at 11:06 a.m. after 40 hours and 36 minutes on the trail and almost no sleep. He wins the $25,000 top prize, plus the Best in the West award of two Alaska Airlines tickets.
It wasn't easy. High winds knocked sleds sideways on glare ice. The Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Southwest Alaska has little snow, so mushers drove their teams over bare tundra and an icy river trail. Mid-race near Aniak, shell ice caved in and a hole developed on the Kuskokwim River. Some of the back of the packers waded their teams through overflow.
"The wind and the ice -- it's really challenging," said Kuskokwim 300 race founder Myron Angstman, who before Kaiser's win last year was the race's sole winner from the Y-K Delta, with victories in 1983 and 1986. "You have to be physically capable of dealing with that."
Sass, who did the race in part to heal over the sudden death of his lead dog Basin after a training run a week ago, finished less than eight minutes behind Kaiser.
"I got the real experience this year with the bare ground and glare ice and wind," Sass said. "I really like those conditions. I really enjoy running dogs in those conditions." He finished with nine dogs in harness -- the most of any of the top mushers -- and they looked strong. Sass walked up the line, petting each one at the finish.
A lost leader
The loss of Basin, a 5-year-old who led the team to victory in the Yukon Quest, had ripped Sass apart.
It happened when Sass, who lives in Eureka, was traveling to Anchorage last weekend for the flight to Bethel. He let the dogs run during a stop at Alpine Creek Lodge on the Denali Highway.
"He passed away just resting on the line. We don't really know what happened," Sass said. "His core temperature went down and that's what we couldn't get back."
Sass called himself "worthless" for a few days and thought about abandoning the Kusko 300 before deciding that wouldn't be good for him or his dogs.
"It was the best move ever -- now even more than ever -- to get off my butt and come out here to Bethel," Sass said.
On the 50-mile home stretch to the finish in Bethel, Kaiser left with a 34-minute head start over Joar Leifseth Ulsom, a Norwegian who trains in Willow, and 45 minutes over Sass, who was then in third. Kaiser was out of reach unless he ran into trouble, which didn't happen.
Sass caught Ulsom but waited until both teams were a few miles out of Bethel to push past. The females he had in lead didn't have the speed so he changed them out for his "two biggest boys," Merc and Krypton, who turned it on.
"I rode behind him a little while, and then I actually made the move and put Merc up front. And he made the difference," Sass said.
All the while, Sass was thinking about Basin and how he missed that lead dog. He carried Basin's collar on his sled. But his team didn't let him down.
"This race was for Basin, for sure," Sass said.
Ulsom said he knew Sass was tracking him.
"I kind of figured he was going to catch up to me," said Ulsom, who was pleased with his third place finish.
Strategy for rest
Kaiser rested his team for four hours in Kalskag on the way upriver, then had one-hour rests in Aniak and again in Kalskag headed back to Bethel. Mushers must take six hours of layover on that stretch of course but can divide it up however they want. Sass rested his team in Kalskag for three hours on the way up to Aniak and again for three hours on the return, which gave his dogs more rest time on the last 100 miles.
Martin and Rohn Buser blew past Kalskag on the way up and took a longer layover in Aniak.
"Their gamble is as big as mine," Kaiser said.
He didn't lead for the first half of the race but that's his conservative style. Last year, Rohn Buser, a two-time Kusko 300 winner, had an hour jump on Kaiser at one point and ended up finishing second.
"That's kinda uncomfortable, to make up that big of a gap," Kaiser said.
This year, Kaiser was the first musher out of Kalskag on the trip home and had the fastest time to the village of Tuluksak.
Another of this year's top finishers is a friend of Kaiser's, 29-year-old Richie Diehl, who finished fourth, just as he did in 2012. Another young rural Alaskan, 28-year-old Josh Cadzow of Fort Yukon, finished fifth, and Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak, a former Kusko runner-up, was 10th.
"There for while there was some question on if there was going to be younger mushers coming in (to the sport). Now it seems like there's a whole bunch of them, which is cool," Diehl said.
Still, in this weekend's Kusko 300, four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King, 59, placed sixth in a race that put him a respectable hour and 38 minutes behind Kaiser. King has won the Kusko 300 nine times, more than anyone, including two stretches with three victories in a row. Former champs Sonny Russell and Mitch Seavey both had back-to-back wins.
"We've all pretty much learned everything we know from watching them," Kaiser said of the elites like King, Lance Mackey and Martin Buser. Racing with the big names -- "the best of the best" -- is exciting for young mushers, he said. "The next time we race, the target will still be on their backs."