BETHEL – A Bush musher who found his calling as a teenager is coming up on his sixth Iditarod, fresh off a win in the world's best mid-distance sled dog race, the Kuskokwim 300.
Pete Kaiser, 27, stands out as the first Bethel musher to win his hometown's big event in 29 years and the first Bethel-born racer ever to do so.
Now his fast team of mainly 3-year-olds is returning to the Iditarod.
Kaiser is not one for big boasts and he says there's no way to predict a sled dog race, but he adds that he wouldn't be trying if he thought he had no chance.
"There's no reason we can't attempt to win the race," Kaiser said in an interview from his home on the edge of the tundra in this Western Alaska hub.
His dramatic come-from-behind win in January's Kuskokwim 300 came as a huge relief for a musher who enjoys wide support in Bethel, with sponsors, family and friends helping out.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself to accomplish that and probably a lot of pressure on everybody who knows me," Kaiser said. "I could live with myself without winning the Iditarod but I couldn't live with myself if I never won the Kusko."
"But I do want to win the Iditarod."
His best finish so far was fifth in 2012.
Four big names with same-year double titles
Just four times since the Kuskokwim 300 started in 1980 has a musher won both that race and the Iditarod in the same year.
Jeff King, the winningest K300 musher with nine victories and a four-time Iditarod champ as well, did it twice, in 1993 and 2006, the most recent year for that double title. He's the only musher to win his first Iditarod right after a K300 victory, though he had a string of K300 wins at that point. He last won the Kusko 300 two years ago, and followed up by placing third in the Iditarod.
Susan Butcher won both in 1988, Martin Buser in 1994 and Doug Swingley in 1999. All were in the midst of becoming four-peat winners of the Iditarod. And others have won both, just not in the same year. John Baker of Kotzebue won the Kusko 300 in 2010 and claimed the Iditarod title the next year.
As a young racer, Kaiser dreamed of beating King. This year, he pushed past Rohn Buser – a two-time Kusko 300 winner and son of Martin – on the home stretch, with King just behind Buser.
"Any year he hasn't won a race, he's right there near the front," Kaiser said of King. "His career has been defined by success."
A big crowd gathered at the finish this year, knowing it might be Kaiser's moment. Rohn Buser had taken a short cut, a move he later described as an accident but one he was penalized for. Kaiser pushed hard and still came in ahead. Shortly after 5:30 a.m., his team glided into the chute. People swarmed him.
"Kusko 300 champion! Hometown hero! Pete Kaiser!" race manager Zach Fansler announced. The race website proclaimed him "King of the Kuskokwim."
Other racers said Kaiser's success would help boost the sport in Western Alaska. He also won the Best in the West award -- including two Alaska Airlines tickets -- for the top finish by a Western Alaska musher.
"It's a real community event," Kaiser said at the finish. "It's taken a long time for that to come around. It's cool it's finally happened."
A giant photo of Kaiser and his lead dogs Rosie and Palmer took over the front page of the next print issue of The Delta Discovery, one of Bethel's weekly newspapers. The headline shouted in red, "Kaiser Wins K300!"
A team that wins the Kusko 300 likely will be "ultra competitive" in the Iditarod, said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee.
Kaiser has had a couple of great years racing and should be a front runner for years to come, Hooley said.
'Greatest thing you could do'
Kaiser is part Yup'ik. His father, Ron, is from Kansas and his mother, Janet, is from Bethel. His great-grandmother was from the coastal village of Quinhagak. He grew up in the Bethel hub, a boyhood spent fishing, hunting -- and mushing.
No Yup'ik musher has ever won the Iditarod, though members of other tribal groups have done so, including Baker, who is an Inupiaq.
Kaiser lives on Bethel's outskirts with his girlfriend, Bethany Hoffman, a paralegal for the district attorney, and their 2-year-old son, Ari. He bought the house as a fixer-upper and moved it to land next to his parents' home in Bethel's Blueberry subdivision?. It's now renovated, with laminate wood flooring and a fresh, modern look.
In a sense, his father started it all. Ron Kaiser came to Bethel in 1979 as a young man to help a friend build a house, and this rough, rural world grabbed him. The next January, local mushers organized the first Kusko 300. Ron helped his friend, Bill Eisenbart, train.
"I got hooked on dog mushing right away," Ron Kaiser said. "I thought it was the greatest thing you could do." He began building his own kennel alongside Eisenbart's. The two usually had enough dogs between them for one solid Kusko 300 racing team, so they switched off racing.
About the time Pete was born, his father gave up mushing to concentrate on the family. He works as maintenance supervisor on the Kuskokwim campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
But the family still had a pet sled dog that would pull Pete and little sister Tillie around.
"Then we got a couple more, then we got a few more. Pretty soon it took off again," Ron Kaiser said.
Pete embraced the wilderness experience, camping by dog team and competing in kid races held out of Bethel, his father said. But it wasn't yet his life. He had other interests, including wrestling for Bethel Regional High School. Then, in 2005, his senior year of high school, he won the Akiak Dash. The race has a madcap mass start that requires tough nerves and skilled dog driving.
He tried college, both at UAF and the University of Alaska Anchorage.
But "I just wanted to be running dogs," Kaiser said.
He moved back to Bethel in 2008 and soon won his second significant race, the Bogus Creek 150.
He committed to being a serious musher and started building a kennel, buying fast dogs from Jeff King and breeding them. Taking care of the dogs is the best part, he said.
"It's a really weird addiction," Kaiser said. "You get so used to the routine, every morning and every night and every day. It's like having a farm."
The dogs he has now include Palmer and Rosie, his leaders into Bethel for the Kusko 300. The young team may be in its prime physically, though some animals might have some growing to do mentally, he said. But they are fun and full of personality. He lets them come inside a little cabin in the dog yard.
"You'd be surprised. Some of them are really well behaved. They come in and lay down and chill out. Some of them are wild and jump up on the table and won't get down."
Small but spendy operation
Kaiser works summers for Lynden companies. He spent five years with Bering Marine Corp., delivering goods by barge, and then moved to a sister company, Knik Construction, which lets him stay in Bethel with his family.
"We were all over the place, the Kuskokwim River, out on the coast," Kaiser said of his barge summers. "Spent one summer up in Kotzebue."
But mainly he works at mushing.
He has fewer than 50 dogs, a small yard for a competitive musher. But he said it still costs him more than $50,000 a year to operate, counting the costs of travel, dog food and dog care.
This year's Kusko 300 prize was the richest ever, $25,000.
"Everyone sees a $25,000 paycheck at the finish of the Kusko but it's straight to paying off credit card bills," Kaiser said.
His dogs eat a lot of salmon, either frozen raw steaks with bones and skin still attached or cooked into a soup. They eat dry kibble. And they eat beef flown up from the Lower 48.
"The added expense is living here and living off the road system and having to ship dog food here," Kaiser said.
His racing kennel has a slick website but Kaiser said he's not what locals call a factory team. A photographer friend, John Wallace, "helps me out out of the kindness of his heart." A couple of women with full-time jobs elsewhere help at the kennel. He says he couldn't compete without the support of friends and family.
"But training is me by myself," Kaiser said.
For three winters running, a lack of snow in Bethel led Kaiser to pack up his best dogs to find better grounds elsewhere. One year it was Aniak, where he trained alongside his racing friend Richie Diehl. The last two years, he's flown to the Interior and trained out of Iditarod musher Aaron Burmeister's kennel in Nenana. Burmeister had the space to accommodate Kaiser.
"It's set up for an Iditarod musher. It's really, really nice," Kaiser said. "He's been extremely generous with his place and everything he's helped me with."
During training, Kaiser's team runs 20 to 120 miles a day. Sometimes he strings together several days of long runs, then gives the dogs a rest.
He came back to Bethel in time for the Kusko 300, which started on glare ice before snow fell on the return trip to Bethel from Aniak. The fact that he trained on snow didn't matter.
"I don't think you have to train on ice to do well on ice," he said. Dogs can get worn out on ice.
His sponsors include Lynden and its subsidiaries, Ryan Air, Donlin Gold and Drew's Foundation. The last is a suicide prevention group started by the family of a high school friend of Kaiser's who later killed himself in Anchorage. The foundation provides some dog food. Kaiser and his dogs are featured in a just-released anti-suicide public service announcement.
"So many people know someone who has committed suicide around here," Kaiser said. "So it touches home for a lot of people."
Scariest trail ever
On the Iditarod race trail, a seemingly endless stream of decisions must be made and most can't be scripted ahead of time.
"When to stop. Where to stop. How fast to travel. When to feed. How much to feed. What to feed," Kaiser said. "There's 1,000 variables in the Iditarod."
He makes a plan in his head for the first few days. After that, it all depends on conditions and how the dogs are doing.
In last year's race, the plunge down Dalzell Gorge turned into "an experience that I don't ever want to do again," Kaiser said. "You are basically going down a canyon of boulders and rocks and stumps."
His sled twisted and turned, bouncing him off time and again. Nothing broke beyond repair.
"That's probably the only time I've ever been scared on the runners of a dog sled," Kaiser said. "It was kind of a huge adrenaline rush and terrifying at the same time."
Three years ago, he had a team hitting its peak. But in the Kusko 300 runup to the Iditarod, he missed the turnoff for a loop around Whitefish Lake near Aniak. He wasn't familiar with that stretch of trail.
"But the most important thing is that I was digging in my sled bag when there was this sharp 90-degree," Kaiser said. Head down, he didn't see the Kusko trail veer off. Instead, he followed a training trail dotted with dog poop and booties and marked with old Kusko 300 signs. He had a feeling in his gut he was heading the wrong way but the trail signs kept him going.
After maybe seven miles, he turned around. He wound up 11th in the Kusko 300 but went on to his best Iditarod finish.
This year, he's knows he'll be competing with the usual field of tough teams, racers with bigger kennels, racers with more experience. But his team is a fast one too.
"The cool thing about mushing is that it's a sport just like any sport," Kaiser said. "And anything can happen."