BETHEL — Bethel's Pete Kaiser has done it again.
Kaiser, 29, claimed his third consecutive Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race title Sunday morning, crossing his hometown finish line just after 10:30 a.m. for an elapsed time of 40 hours and eight minutes — 28 minutes faster than last year.
"I felt a lot of pressure this season to try to keep this going and my nerves were kind of shot before the race, so I'm glad we pulled it off," said a frost-covered Kaiser, who earned at least $25,000 for his victory and retains the title of "King of the Kuskokwim."
Kaiser and his team of nine sled dogs arrived to a cheering crowd Sunday and were greeted by hugs and kisses from his 4-year-old son, Ari, and wife, Bethany. Dozens of trucks and cars were parked near the finish line on the snowy, frozen Kuskokwim River, where temperatures had plummeted to 30 degrees below zero, with the windchill reaching minus 50. It was cold weather that had followed the mushers since the race started in Bethel Friday evening.
At Sunday's finish, people stayed warm in their running vehicles and hurried outside to watch as Kaiser pulled in. A few people in the crowd held signs that read "3 Pete," marking Kaiser's Kusko 300 successes.
"It's a hometown race for me," Kaiser said, "so it has a lot of history in our family and all of that. It's a really special deal to come home to this kind of crowd."
Jordan Klejka, 10, braved the weather and stood outside with a handmade sign for Kaiser, a family friend. She wore several jackets and a blue Kuskokwim 300 hat fastened tight underneath her chin.
"I wanted lots of mushers to win but I put my money on him," said Klejka, of Bethel. "I think he is an awesome musher and deserves it."
Brent Sass, of Eureka, and his team of eight dogs pulled over the finish line about 45 minutes after Kaiser, and Sass claimed his second consecutive second place in the Kusko 300. Sass had led the pack of mushers out of Aniak, the halfway point, on Saturday but Kaiser quickly caught up and left the next checkpoint in Kalskag 34 minutes ahead. Sass was able to hold onto second place in the end, and with it, he earned at least $16,000.
"It's music to my ears. I'm not totally broke anymore. That's wonderful," said Sass, 37, punctuating his sentences with laughter. A spectator greeted Sass with a breakfast burrito wrapped in tinfoil and another yelled, "Welcome to Bethel."
"I love it here. I'll be back every year," Sass called back.
As Sass pulled up to the finish line Sunday around 11:20 a.m., he looked behind him at the trail and said he was watching for Richie Diehl, of Aniak, who he thought "was right on my tail."
About 20 minutes later, Diehl, 31, arrived at the finish line with eight dogs pulling his sled and one in his sled bag. Diehl walked down the line, petting each of his dogs. Someone in the crowd handed him a mug of hot chocolate and a burrito. Diehl placed third, beating his fourth-place finish of last year and pleased to have reached the end of the race after 41 hours and 16 minutes on the frigid trail. His bones ached, he said.
"It's been pretty brutal," said Diehl, a close friend of Kaiser and another crowd favorite. "With the cold weather, it just seemed like it was never going to end, but it ended."
The 300-mile, fast-paced race is known for big swings in weather and for its lucrative purse, this year reaching $150,000, split between finishing mushers. The race drew big names from across the state in 2017, including Iditarod and Yukon Quest champions.
The mushers and their teams departed from Bethel Friday evening and followed the snaking, frozen Kuskokwim River to Aniak, turning around in the village and heading back. Temperatures throughout the race remained far into the negatives, though in the past they have reached as high as 40 degrees above zero, with overflow on the river.
"It was nice to have snow. It's been awhile since we've had a really wintry race with the cold and the snow," Kaiser said. "It probably could have been 20 degrees warmer, would have been a little more comfortable, but I think everyone fared OK."
Mushers continued to race into Bethel throughout the day Sunday. Twenty teams started the race and by late afternoon Sunday, two had scratched: Rob Cooke and Victoria Hardwick.
Taking fourth place was Ray Redington Jr., of Wasilla, followed by Jessie Holmes, of Nenana, and Tony Browning, also of Nenana.
Mike Williams Jr., of Akiak, placed seventh, putting three Yukon-Kuskokwim mushers in the elite top 10 group. Those locals were ahead of a pack of mushers that included four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King, former Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff and Ramey Smyth and Paul Gebhardt, both former Kusko winners.
Kaiser's wife, Bethany, said the Kusko 300 was special for her family. Both she and Pete Kaiser grew up in Bethel, watching the race.
"Year after year this has always been a big event, coming down to the river, watching the finishers," she said. "It's really awesome that Pete and I were fortunate enough to meet up in life and we both really enjoy the sport."
Mushers said at the finish line Sunday that they planned to spend the rest of their day taking care of their dogs, relaxing, drinking coffee and maybe napping after many sleepless hours on the trail that only requires 10 hours rest. They also planned to warm up.
When asked if he learned any lessons out on this year's Kusko 300 trail, Kaiser said, "I'll probably figure something out here in the next few days once my brain thaws out and I can think a little bit."
Kaiser walked over and shook Sass' hand near the finish line Sunday as Sass loaded his dogs into a truck bed.
"One of these days," Sass told Kaiser, "I'm gonna get you."
Sass, Kaiser, Diehl and many of the other mushers in this year's Kusko 300 will meet again soon for March's Iditarod, facing off in a 1,000-mile race to Nome.