BETHEL — Hometown musher Pete Kaiser smoked the ice trail in the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race to command his fourth win in as many years. He crossed the Bethel finish line Sunday in the dark cold of 9:17 a.m. to a cheering crowd.
Kaiser's team was down to eight dogs from the 12 that mushers typically start with. That was enough to bring Kaiser, 30, to the finish chute on a tiny lake at the edge of town and the tundra. Behind him was the ribbon of ice trail that he helped maintain. Other dog teams had to adjust to what he trained on and knew so well.
"Is that his headlamp?" someone asked. Kaiser was in the distance on the novel race course that required mushers to make two round trips between Bethel and Bogus Creek.
"There he is!" another person shouted. Fans started hooting.
It was 7 below in town. His beard had an inch of ice on it. Kaiser, 30, hugged his wife, Bethany, and son, Ari, and stopped and rubbed every one of his dogs before he talked to news reporters and fans circling around.
"It was probably one of the toughest if not the toughest races I've ever done," Kaiser said. "It probably feels like the toughest because I just got done with it."
Sleds slid into grassy bumps. Dogs struggled for traction and just to keep their balance. Mushers couldn't relax their minds but had to focus for long, cold hours. Six mushers scratched at the halfway point, including two who have won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest.
Nearly 200 miles of glare ice on a course that measured out to 273 miles was too hard on the dogs, some of the mushers said.
Kaiser passed the second-place finisher, Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom, when the latter was taking his mandatory last hour of rest in Tuluksak during the race's second half.
Kaiser, already finished with the required six hours of midpoint rest when he left the Bethel checkpoint, blew through Tuluksak and never gave up his edge. He had Palmer and Morrow in lead, a brother and sister. Palmer, a 6-year-old, was in the lead last year too. Kaiser calls Palmer "the driving force" on a team of 3-to-6-year-olds that other mushers call remarkable.
"I'm glad we're here," Kaiser said.
At 10:51 a.m., Ulsom, a 30-year-old who now is based in Willow, blasted into the finish chute with seven dogs, Emmelou and Olive in lead. He was ecstatic with second, his best finish in four Kusko 300s.
"I am extremely happy with my team," Ulsom said.
Could he have caught Kaiser?
Not likely, he said.
"He knows this trail very well and he has an awesome dog team," Ulsom said.
Kaiser's local knowledge and strong dogs make him almost unbeatable, Ulsom said. "I would have to pull something out of my hat that I don't think anybody can do."
This year's course was an overland double loop from Bethel to Bogus Creek back to Bethel, avoiding the Kuskokwim River and the risk of open holes in a warmer-than-average winter. At the Bethel halfway checkpoint, mushers had to turn around and do the whole thing again.
But by the race start, winter was back. Temperatures were in the negative single digits. Toward the end, the wind picked up.
"Even living out here for my whole life, and we get these conditions a lot, it is not something you get used to and really comfortable with," Kaiser said.
He said his dogs are particularly good at the Kusko 300, through training and breeding.
"Sometimes all I have to do is stand on the runners. They make up for a lot of the mistakes I make," Kaiser said.
Jeff King, 61 of Denali Park, blew into the finish in third place, with the wind at his back. He said he didn't try to catch Kaiser or Ulsom and might have slowed a little at the end to make it easier on his dogs.
"I had my hands full just getting here," King said.
He is known for specially rigged gear. For this race he was wearing unique bifocal goggles. He had drilled a small hole in each lens.
"When they fog, I can always see out my peephole," King said.
The long ice trail was something King, a nine-time winner of the Kusko 300 and four-time Iditarod champ, had not experienced. Nor had his dogs.
"It's like you walking across something slippery. You think you are going to fall and you just tense up," King said.
Then halfway in, his dogs found their balance.
"My dogs have figured out to run on the ice since they left here two days ago," King said. "There was a very strong home-field advantage this year."
He started the race with 11 dogs, leaving behind a big 80-pound male because he knew the ice would be a struggle. He ended the race with six and remembered a line in the sled dog racing book by George Attla, the late sprint musher.
"You win races with the dog you left behind," King recalled.
A team of eight fast dogs could have started and won the race with the trail offering so little resistance, he said.
Some mushers put booties on their dogs, which is fairly standard for long-distance racing. But King said they couldn't get traction.
One of those who scratched was Jessie Holmes, who was first at the halfway mark. Holmes, 35 of Nenana, won the 2016 Yukon Quest 300 in record time. But Kusko-skate, as King called it, was a different deal.
He figured some racers would scratch in Bethel.
"I didn't think at that point it was going to be me," Holmes said.
In the lead on the second loop, he noticed one dog limping eight miles out of Bethel and put it in the sled. Then he noticed that other dogs had dark urine, a sign of dehydration. He turned around.
His dogs are used to gobbling up bites of snow as they run. But this year, "there was no snow for dogs to dip."
His team of 3-year-olds was just too young for such a hard course, he said.
"They never had a bad race, and it looked like this could have been one if we kept going," Holmes said.
He is still learning too. This year, he said, he started the race too fast and didn't feed the dogs enough, even though it's a relatively short distance.
Like a father whose kid's team just lost the soccer tournament, he wanted his dogs to feel like champions anyway.
"I made it a big celebration," Holmes said. "You guys won the race!" The dogs got rubdowns and foot massages.
His racing goal, he said, is to win the Kuskokwim 300 one day.
Will he come back in 2019? Not if the course is two round trips to Bogus Creek, Holmes said.
The others who scratched are: Aaron Burmeister, Brent Sass, Hugh Neff, his wife Olivia Neff, and Cim Smyth.
The race pays out $150,000 in prizes including $25,000 to Kaiser for first, $16,000 to Ulsom for second and $10,000 to King for third. All the finishers will get prizes plus share in bonus prize money that had been designated for up to 25 finishers.
If all those still in the race as of Sunday afternoon complete the race, there will be 12 finishers dividing up the extra prize money.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Jessie Holmes won the 2016 Yukon Quest in record time. It was the Yukon Quest 300.