SPONSORED: People from Yup’ik and other Alaska Native communities were using dog teams as transportation long before Europeans arrived in Alaska. Today’s competitive mushing looks very different from the small dog teams Alaska Native people used to get around their regions long ago, but it is deeply rooted in Alaska Native culture and tradition.

Pete Kaiser was born to mush.

At the age of 31, Kaiser won this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, becoming the first Yup’ik musher and the fifth Alaska Native entrant to win the Last Great Race. His win put a spotlight on the robust dog mushing community in Western Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskowim Delta.

With five top-10 Iditarod finishes under his belt in addition to his 2019 victory, Kaiser says that good health is a necessity on the trail.

“If you’re going to do it at this level, you have to be focused and committed,” Kaiser said.

Training for mental and physical exertion

Raised in a dog mushing family, Kaiser started racing seriously in high school. When he was a child, world-class mushers came to his hometown of Bethel to race in the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race. Inspired by mushers like Jeff King and Martin Buser, and mentored by veteran racer Ed Iten, soon Kaiser was competing in the Akiak Dash, the Bogus Creek 150, and then distance races like the Kusko 300 and the Kobuk 440. Those distance races qualified him to advance to the 1,000-mile Iditarod, which he started racing in 2010.

Long-distance mushing is physically grueling for mushers and their dogs. There can be extreme weather, lack of sleep, exhaustion -- even the trail can become monotonous at times. Mushers have to be at top mental and physical capacity to endure the race and make smart, strategic decisions in the moment.

“Many years of training and practice leads to better judgment and decision making,” Kaiser said. Those thousands of training hours built up his physical strength and mental focus.

Kaiser’s advice to potential mushers? Have a good summer job to support your team during the winter. Be highly self-motivated, willing to work hard and OK with not being able to take a day off.

He also recommends working for a musher for a while to see what it will take to raise a successful team. Kaiser is quick to point out that spectators see him crossing under the finish line, but they don’t see him feeding dogs 365 days a year or scooping poop daily -- or the 12 years of work it took him to get to the pinnacle of the sport. He gets a strenuous daily workout by carrying five-gallon buckets of food and water for his dogs.

Like any elite athlete, Kaiser didn’t succeed overnight.

“Sometimes things don’t work out how you planned, and you’ve got to keep at it,” says Kaiser.

Caring for his team taught him a lot about the importance of following through with responsibilities, he added. That, in turn, has helped him to become a better parent to his two children, Ari and Aylee.

A personal mission for mental health

Born and raised in Bethel, Kaiser is familiar with both the blessings and the challenges of life in rural Alaska. There’s one cause in particular that’s close to his heart for very personal reasons.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Alaskans ages 10 to 64, according to a state bulletin issued earlier this year. The Yukon-Kuskokwim region has the state’s highest rate of suicide -- four times the national average. Substance abuse and other behavioral health challenges are common among Alaskans who die by suicide.

In 2011, Kaiser’s friend Drew O’Brien died by suicide. Now Kaiser is passionate about raising awareness about suicide prevention. His Kaiser Racing Kennels partners with Drew’s Foundation, a Bethel nonprofit named for his friend and dedicated to ending the cycle of loss caused by suicide among the youth of Southwest Alaska.

As part of his community outreach, Kaiser talks to young people about how to get through difficult times, the importance of having a positive outlook, and the value of resilience.

“Sometimes you’re having a bad day,” Kaiser said. “The next day brings a new day.”

A community victory

Alaskans aren’t the only ones who love the Last Great Race. Watching the Iditarod start in Anchorage and Willow is a tradition so beloved it’s earned its own nickname -- “trailgating” -- but armchair mushers from every corner of the globe follow along the trail with their favorite teams. After his win, Kaiser was recognized by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Kaiser’s strongest support, however, comes from his hometown. He credits his supporters in Bethel and across the region for motivating him and driving him to put in the hard work to succeed. And they, in turn, celebrate him along with other Alaska Native mushers like Richie Diehl of Aniak and Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak who are running competitive racing kennels in their home communities.

“His drive to help bring back the old ways of mushing is respected by young and old,” said John Wallace, a Kaiser supporter and Bethel resident.

Fans in the YK Delta were especially fervent this year and kept a sharp eye on Kaiser and other mushers from the region. When they saw Kaiser could be closing in on a win, they chartered a flight to Nome to watch the finish. Mushing onto Front Street in Nome was surreal to Kaiser after nearly 1,000 miles of mostly solitude with his dog team. It was snowing hard and Christmas lights were shining.

“It was a pretty magical scene – emotional and very rewarding,” says Kaiser.Kaiser knew people would be excited at the finish -- but he was still surprised by the enthusiastic reception he received from his region and the well-wishes from all over rural Alaska. Upon his return to Bethel, Kaiser received a hero’s welcome, with people cheering him on at the airport and along the roadside, all the way into town.

“It was overwhelming and neat to bring that positive energy to this area,” says Kaiser.

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.