BETHEL -- For the first time in 29 years, a hometown Bethel musher captured the world's premier middle distance race when Peter Kaiser's team of nine dogs crossed the finish line before dawn Sunday to the whoops and cheers of dozens of emotional fans who turned out to cheer him home.
Kaiser crossed the finish line on the frozen Kuskokwim River at 5:31 a.m., capping off 35 hours, 1 minute and 25 seconds on a trail shortened by a lack of snow. A miles-long stretch of jumble ice near Kalskag required a bulldozer and logging equipment hauling a 5,000-pound steel plate to make passable. In the end, mushers said the trail was surprisingly good. The course was about 267 miles long, according to mileage reported through GPS tracking.
"Go Pete! Go Pete!" fans chanted at the finish line banner as Kaiser's team drew near. It was 7 degrees. Some residents chartered cabs to take them onto the river. Kaiser stepped off his runners and was mobbed by friends, family and fans then doused with champagne.
Not since 1986, when race founder Myron Angstman was victorious, has a Bethel musher won. Kaiser did it in a year when race organizers offered a record $123,000 purse, waived entry fees and made other changes to boost participation by Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta mushers. Today, Angstman, a Bethel lawyer, is president of the K300 Race Committee.
And Kaiser, the first winner born in Bethel for a race that the Southwestern Alaska hub claims as its own, won the $25,000 first prize.
"It's taken a long time for that to come around," Kaiser said moments after finishing. He said it was humbling.
Defending champion and 2012 winner Rohn Buser, 25, led most of the race until Kaiser passed him around Akiak before the last checkpoint, about 18 miles away in the village of Kwethluk.
In the home stretch, Buser -- who was running his sixth Kusko 300 -- made a wrong turn down a slough that could have been a shortcut across the delta. Race organizers watching GPS trackers saw Buser veer off. They wanted a clean finish. They took off on snowmachines and met up with Buser on Church Slough, telling him he was off course and could either backtrack or face a possible penalty. Buser kept on.
Kaiser glided in first anyway.
"This team is just incredible," Kaiser said at the finish line of his primarily 3-year-old dogs, including Palmer and Rosie, his leaders at the end. "They just want to go fast all the time. It's amazing. You'd think they'd get tired running that far on that little rest."
Buser ended up second, 13 minutes behind Kaiser, with nine-time champion Jeff King third, some 14 minutes behind Buser. The Kusko 300 Race Committee will evaluate Sunday whether Buser will be docked time for the wrong turn. But he had been in second place before the detour, so it may not matter.
In the early morning blackness, Buser followed a truck trail that took him the wrong way in an area where he thought he couldn't go wrong, he said after he finished. He said he didn't think he gained any time.
Kaiser said he got a text on the trail that alerted him to the situation. He said he wasn't sure he had it won until the very end.
"Just in the last couple of miles, because it's a dog race and anything could happen," Kaiser said.
Both Buser and King congratulated Kaiser on his great run.
He grew up mushing in Bethel. His father, Ron, is a musher who came in fourth of six racers in the shorter Bogus Creek 150 over the weekend. The Kaiser Racing Kennel now is a big operation, with major sponsors including Ryan Air and a photographer on staff full time during the racing season.
The significance of the win still was sinking in early Sunday.
"It's something I've been dreaming about since I was a little kid and pretty much played it over in my head every possible way it could go," Kaiser said. "A lot of times it involved beating Jeff King at the finish line, so that's pretty cool."
He said the support of his family, and especially his parents, was crucial.
As reporters and students working on a video project huddled around Kaiser, local musher and community leader Bev Hoffman began asking questions with the race microphone in hand, so all could hear.
Mushers had a mandatory four-hour rest period at the Tuluksak checkpoint upriver from Bethel -- did the leaders talk there? Hoffman asked.
"Yeah, we talked," Kaiser said.
"Oh, what did ya talk about?" Hoffman asked, cracking up the crowd.
"I told them they'd be the YK Delta's most wanted if they beat me here," Kaiser said.
A few minutes later, King pulled in behind Buser and was also asked about the Tuluksak stop.
"I was teasing Pete that wouldn't it be something if he caught Rohn but I caught him and beat him anyway," King said. "He told me that I would be the most unwelcome man on the Delta."
Kaiser said he knew his dogs were fast but took nothing for granted.
"It's always scary having a guy like him behind you -- it makes it nerve racking -- and a guy like Rohn in front of you," Kaiser said of King and Buser.
Big Lake's Rohn and his father, four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, 56, led the pack at the halfway point.
The younger Buser said he knew Kaiser would win long before the close finish.
"When he passed me, I knew he was going to stay ahead of me. I knew he was going faster than me. So it was exciting," Buser said.
King, 58, of Denali Park and another four-time Iditarod winner, said he kept a slower pace heading up to Aniak so he wouldn't wear his dogs out. On the return trip downriver, he posted some of the fastest times.
"I think I clearly had a shot at the guys ahead of me if I hadn't given them quite this much of a head start," King said. He said he was "reeling them in slowly" but then ran out of trail.
The course from Kalskag to Aniak on the way upriver was the trickiest but conditions changed throughout the race, Buser said."It was a little bit of everything. It was rain, snow, slush, wind -- a little bit of wind -- and a little bit of cold."
Crews did a great job crushing ice boulders into mushable trail, the top finishers all said.
"It was pretty weird to see miles of broken ice on both sides of you like that," King said.
The lack of snow on the Delta this winter prompted Kaiser to take a team to the Interior to train out of Nenana.
A number of the Kusko 300 mushers were testing out dogs for this year's Iditarod and some for the Yukon Quest as well. Kaiser dropped three slower dogs in Kalskag and said he will run with most if not all his K300 team in the Iditarod.
Dozens of cars, trucks and snowmachines drove on the river for the finish despite warnings to stay off it because of thinner-than-normal ice. Organizers were worried about a mass of vehicles in one spot. Some Bethel residents drove down toward Kwethluk. Many people parked nearby and walked down to the chute.
"We couldn't sleep. We were so excited," Rita Kalistook of Bethel said while waiting for Kaiser's finish with her son and his friend. "He's come real close but to win -- sweet. He's moving up to the elite musher group."
Besides his $25,000 for first place, Kaiser will win the Best in the West award of two Alaska Airlines tickets, which recognizes the top finish for a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta musher, according to race organizers. The payout for second place is $17,000 with $11,500 for third and $8,000 for fourth. Even 20th place takes home real money -- $2,600.
Kaiser was third in the 2011 and 2013 Kuskos. He has finished as high as fifth in the Iditarod.
Kaiser is also the first-ever Kusko 300 triple crown, winner of the Akiak Dash, the Bogus Creek 150 and now the world's top mid-distance race, said race manager Zach Fansler.
Of the 25 racers who started the race on Friday evening, three had scratched by early Sunday: Isaac and Nathan Underwood of Aniak as well as Chuck Schaeffer of Kotzebue, whose kennel is in Willow.
In this year's shorter Bogus Creek 150 race, Jackie Larson of Napaskiak prevailed, finishing at 11:12 a.m. Saturday. Johnnie Evan of Napaskiak won Saturday's Akiak Dash.
When the K300 teams left Tuluksak early Sunday morning headed for Bethel, Kaiser's dogs looked great and the young musher was "busting with pride," King said. "It was really fabulous."
"He's been working at this a long time," King said, "and it's pretty cool to see it come to fruition."