Pete Kaiser of Bethel told KYUK Public Radio that his strategy in the 2016 Kuskokwim 300 would be similar to last year’s: maintain a conservative pace for his dogs to Kalskag, “try to manage their gas tank throughout the whole way,” then push at the end.
But after last year’s title finish, he noticed his dogs had some excess energy so he pushed a little harder early on “in case there was a bigger gap to close” and benefitted from lead dog Palmer’s ability to find the trail amid glare ice and side winds.
It worked. Kaiser and team won their second consecutive K300 championship January 17, completing the 300-mile course from Bethel to Aniak and back in 40 hours 36 minutes and 21 seconds – 8 minutes ahead of Brent Sass of Eureka. Finishing third was Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway.
Kaiser, Yup’ik, took home $25,000; he also won the Best in the West award. He and his team are the fifth to win back-to-back K300 titles in the race’s 37-year history. Contenders in this year’s K300 included past Iditarod champions John Baker, Martin Buser, Jeff King, and Lance Mackey.
At the finish line, Kaiser described the course as one of the hardest he’s seen. Out of concern for each dog’s well-being, he left one dog at Kalskag on the outbound journey, two dogs at Kalskag on the inbound journey, and two more in Tuluksak, and finished the race with seven dogs.
In Tuluksak, he told KYUK Public Radio his remaining team was “holding up,” adding, “It’s been kind of a tough race trail-wise. And the weather, a little bit. But we made it here. Most of (the dogs) are in one piece so I think we’re going to make it home just fine. There are a couple with little injuries here or there, the ones that I’ll leave (in Tuluksak), but the rest of them are fine and those are the ones that will get us home.” And so they did.
Among the Alaska Native contingent, Richie Diehl, Dena'ina Athabascan, finished fourth with a time of 41:14:13; Josh Cadzow, Athabascan, fifth, 41:28:30; Mike Williams Jr., Yup’ik, 10th, 43:50:38; past Iditarod champ Baker, Inupiaq, 11th, 44:34:15; Isaac Underwood, Athabascan, 20th, 61:32:42.
All but Cadzow and Underwood are registered to compete in the Iditarod, aka The Last Great Race on Earth, which begins on March 5. Kaiser has two top 10 finishes in six Iditarods: eighth in 2011 and fifth in 2012. Diehl’s career-best finish in three Iditarods is 14th in 2014; Williams’ career-best finish in six Iditarods is eighth in 2012; Baker, the first Inupiaq to win the Iditarod (2011), has 13 top 10 finishes in 20 Iditarods.
The Copper Basin 300
Earlier, five 2016 Iditarod mushers finished in the top 10 of the Copper Basin 300 in Paxson, Alaska, nicknamed “The Toughest 300 Miles in Alaska,” and the first real test prior to the Iditarod in March.
The race started at 11 a.m. January 9. Fifth-year competitive musher Matt Hall of Eagle, Alaska and his team finished first of 42, crossing the finish line with a time of 1 day 22 hours 42 minutes.
It was Hall’s third consecutive win; he won the 65-mile Alpine Creek on December 5 and the Solstice 50 on December 19.
Hall, who will race in the Yukon Quest but not the Iditarod, was followed in the Copper Basin 300 by Iditarod competitors Ryne Olson, 1 day 22 hours 59 minutes; Allen Moore, 1 day 23 hours 24 minutes; Aliy Zirkle, 1 day 23 hours 29 minutes; and Nicolas Petit, 2 days, 0 hours 28 minutes.
Iditarod competitor Ray Redington Jr. finished seventh, with a time of 2 days 1 hour 33 minutes.
Next, 40 mushers, including defending Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey, will compete in the Northern Lights 300, between Big Lake and Finger Lake. That race starts on January 22.
Past Iditarod champ Lance Mackey, three-time Iditarod runner-up Zirkle, Alaska Native mushers Jay Cadzow and Robert Redington, and Copper Basin winner Hall will compete in the Two Rivers 200. That race starts on January 22, as does the Gin Gin 200 in Paxson.
Robert Redington, past Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who posted the fastest rookie time in the Iditarod in 2013, will be among the field of Iditarod competitors in the Tustumena 200, which starts on January 30.
The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, begins February 6. The field of 27 mushers includes past Yukon Quest champs (and 2016 Iditarod competitors) Allen Moore, Hugh Neff and Brent Sass.
The 1,049-mile Iditarod begins on March 5; competitors include Baker, who in 2011 became the first Inupiaq to win the race; four-time champions Martin Buser, King and Mackey; and the Seaveys.