In March 2019, Pete Kaiser became the first Yup’ik musher to win the Iditarod, a nearly 1,000-mile sled dog race known and watched all over the world. On March 13, Kaiser and his sled dog team crossed the finish line in Nome, Alaska at 3:39:06 a.m. local time, exhausted after 9 days, 12 hours, 39 minutes, 6 seconds on the trail.
Kaiser told Indian Country Today in a recent interview that his life hasn’t changed much since he and his team won America’s most prestigious sled dog race. People who know him would say that’s characteristic humility.
“There’s no bragging in him,” said Myron Angstman, an Iditarod veteran and founder of the Kuskokwim 300.
However, regardless of his humility, Kaiser’s life has changed.
Perhaps most importantly to Kaiser, the Iditarod title has given weight to his voice on issues related to improving the lives of young rural Alaskans.
Kaiser, a resident of Bethel, participated in a suicide-prevention Public Service Announcement four years before he won the Iditarod, but his title has brought renewed attention to that effort.
Suicide prevention PSA
He was named this year to the board of directors of the Kuskokwim 300, the highly-regarded mid-distance race that he has won four times. He’s the second Alaska Native to win the Kusko 300, the only musher to win it four consecutive times and is the second-winningest musher in that race’s 40-year history.
And he gave a stirring keynote address at the Oct. 14 at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, drawing a parallel between what it takes to succeed on the trail and in life.
Kaiser’s speech at AFN
Preparations begin for the next big race
As the pride of Native and rural Alaska, Kaiser and his team are now preparing to defend their Iditarod title. The 2020 Iditarod begins March 7 in Anchorage. Forty-eight mushers were registered as of Nov. 16, and Kaiser is one of five Iditarod champions in the lineup.
One of those past champions, four-time winner Martin Buser said he was “elated” for Kaiser when the younger musher won the 2019 race (Buser finished 22nd). Buser said he foresaw Kaiser as an Iditarod champion when Team Kaiser won the Norton Sound 450 in 2012.
“Pete has youth and experience,” Buser said. “He started really young and he won quite a few races in his neck of the woods. Knowing how to read his dogs and make the best decisions on the trail is ingrained in him.”
Buser said this of Kaiser’s relationship with his dogs: “Like parenting, everybody has a different approach to their kids. Pete is quiet and measured. He’s a superbly balanced individual. He loves his dogs all the way to the finish line. That’s definitely the way of today’s champion.”
Whether on the trail or in life’s journey, no one goes it alone — every individual is important, Kaiser told attendees of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Oct. 14. “All positions are equally important as the rest,” he said. “My most talented dog gets nowhere alone. But as a team, great feats can be accomplished.”
I didn’t think I had it until the end
For musher and dog, racing requires training, nutrition, endurance, strategy, timing, and teamwork. Being able to read the dogs, recognizing when one dog on the 14-dog team is not feeling up to par, knowing how long to rest the team and when, knowing what to do when the weather turns … those must be second nature for the musher.
The 2019 Iditarod put that second nature to the test with teeth-jarring grassy tufts in the town of Iditarod, blowing snow along the coastline of Norton Sound, and drifting snow that made trails disappear.
Iditarod mushers and teams are required to take one 24-hour and one eight-hour rest, as well as an eight-hour rest in White Mountain, the second-to-the-last checkpoint before the finish line in Nome. Kaiser and his team took their mandatory 24-hour rest in Takotna, 329 miles into the 998-mile race. They averaged between 6.17 to 6.97 mph for most of the race, with bursts of 8.63 between Takotna and Ophir (mile 352) and 9.69 between Grayling and Eagle Island (mile 592).
“He had a goal to make it to Kaltag and take his eight [-hour rest],” said fellow musher Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan. “His dogs were chugging right along. He had a good run from Iditarod to Shageluk.”
That’s where Kaiser and team took the lead. A snow and wind storm between Shaktoolik and Koyuk shook up race leader Nic Petit’s team; the dogs refused to continue on, forcing Petit to withdraw from the race. Kaiser and team were unfazed by the weather. “I try not to put a lot of thought into the weather,” Kaiser said. “I’m from the interior. If the forecast is for wind at 10 mph, I plan on wind at 40.”
But Kaiser also knew not to take anything for granted. Shorter, frequent rests throughout the race -- in addition to the required 24- and eight-hour rests -- helped Kaiser and team maintain a slightly quicker pace than 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who was in a close second. Ulsom had to cut his own rest short in Elim, 123 miles to the finish line, to try to keep up. As they raced to White Mountain, “Joar had a hell of a lot less rest,” Diehl said.
Kaiser and his team crossed the finish line in Nome 12 minutes 16 seconds before Ulsom. “I didn’t think I had it until the end,” Kaiser said.
‘He’s meticulous about everything he does’
Veteran musher Angstman, who practices law in Bethel and who founded the Kuskokwim 300 in 1980 — seven years before Kaiser was born — has watched Kaiser’s evolution as a competitive musher over the years.
Angstman said Kaiser “showed an aptitude” for mushing at an early age. He participated in children’s sled-dog races and fun runs, and in high school took part in organized races. Kaiser had other interests as well: he was a high school athlete and liked to hunt and fish. At that time, “he was not someone I thought was destined to be a musher,” Angstman said.
After a stint in college, though, Kaiser decided he wanted to mush full time. “He took advice, he sought counsel, he asked questions,” Angstman said. “He’s a focused kind of person. He’s good at gathering information from other people.”
What followed were years of patience, perseverance, and progression. Team Kaiser’s first championship was in 2005 in the 65-mile Akiak Dash. They progressed to the Bogus Creek 150 title in 2008, finished 28th in their Iditarod debut in 2010, then finished eighth in the 2011 Iditarod and won that year’s Kobuk 440.
Team Kaiser finished fifth in the 2012 Iditarod and won that year’s Norton Sound 450. In the ensuing years, Kaiser and his team would win the Kuskokwim 300 four consecutive times, win another Norton Sound 450 and the Denali Doubles, and post three more top 10 finishes in the Iditarod. All told, Kaiser and his teams have finished fifth or better in 18 sled dog races since 2005.
“One thing I notice is he’s meticulous about everything he does,” Diehl said. “He went out and picked the dogs to breed for his team. He’s one of the best mushers about dog care. Now, he’s got the experience and some of the best dogs. They’re champions not only of the Iditarod but of four Kuskokwim 300s.”
Kaiser’s team began training in August for the 2020 Iditarod, mushing on the tundra, waiting for snow that seems to be arriving later each year in this region. (He also bought a place on the road system, between Nenana and Fairbanks, where he and his team can train when there’s no snow in Bethel.)
Kaiser and team will compete Jan. 17 in the Kusko 300 in Bethel. Then, two months later, the Iditarod.
Bethel’s attention will be on Kaiser, the first musher from the interior town of 6,000 to win the Iditarod. Kaiser said of his 2019 Iditarod win: “I’ve always had a lot of support, not just from my parents and sponsors, but from the community. It’s been fun to share this with them.”
Angstman is as proud of Kaiser for his performances in the Kusko 300 as he is the Iditarod title.
“He made it to the top through the K-300 and other races,” Angstman said. “For years, the Kuskokwim 300 was won by mushers from outside of the area. He solved that problem for us. We have a local champion. And we have the added satisfaction of having a local boy win the Iditarod.”
Kaiser and his team also represent an important part of Indigenous Alaska culture. Since before memory or record, dogs have been a valued part of Alaska Native life. They hauled and packed supplies, helped hunt and track, watched over children, and warned of potential danger. They were part of the family.
“It’s something we want to tell the whole world: we’ve always had dogs in our villages,” Yup’ik culture bearer and Iditarod veteran Mike Williams Sr. told Indian Country Today in 2015. “We’ve hunted and camped with our dogs for thousands of years and they’ve helped us. We want to continue to keep that culture alive, to share our culture and why we run these dogs and why we have kept our dogs. We do it for more than competing.”
Diehl, a veteran of seven Iditarods and a sixth-place finisher in 2018, is as of Nov. 16, one of four Alaska Natives in the 2020 Iditarod. He told Indian Country Today in 2015 that the Alaska Native presence in competitive mushing sets an example to young rural Alaskans: Work toward a goal “and good things come from it,” he said.
Racing is life
To Pete Kaiser, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a lot like life. Drawing a parallel between what it takes to succeed on the trail and in rural Alaska life, he said, “We must all do our part in our community to raise healthy confident children; ambitious, determined and respectful teens and young adults; adults who are held to the highest standards to ensure our communities keep moving in the right direction; and elders who feel safe, respected and noble. Let’s bring our best team to the starting line and race toward a bright future for our great state.”
Alaska Federation of Natives Co-Chairman Will Mayo presented Kaiser with a chief’s necklace after the speech and said, “I see leadership. I heard a beautiful keynote address that I will hold in my heart.”
The chief’s necklace, given to Kaiser with the consent of Alaska Native leaders in the room, is as Mayo said, “the highest mark of a leader in our region, and with all of my heart, I believe you show those leadership qualities just in what you do with your wife and with your children and with your community.”
Pete Kaiser at a glance
Born May 6, 1987, in Bethel, Alaska. Graduated from Bethel High School in 2005. Works for Knik Construction/Lynden.
He and his wife, Bethany, have two young children: son, Ari Joseph; and daughter, Aylee.
Kaiser and his dog teams have finished fifth or better in 18 sled dog races since 2005. Here’s a list of his first-place finishes.
- 2019 Iditarod
- 2018 Kuskokwim 300
- 2017 Kuskokwim 300
- 2016 Kuskokwim 300
- 2016 Denali Doubles
- 2015 Kuskokwim 300
- 2013 Norton Sound 450
- 2012 Norton Sound 450
- 2011 Kobuk 440
- 2008 Bogus Creek 150
- 2005 Akiak Dash 65
Musher fun facts
Four mushers in the 2020 Iditarod, as of Oct. 27, are Alaska Native: Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan; Pete Kaiser, Yup’ik; and brothers Robert and Ryan Redington, Inupiat.
Five Iditarod champions are registered as of Nov. 1 for the 2020 event: four-time winners Martin Buser and Lance Mackey, three-time winner Mitch Seavey, defending champion Peter Kaiser, and 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom.
Five countries, as of Oct. 27, are represented in the 2020 Iditarod: Canada (Martin Massicotte, Quebec; Aaron Peck, Alberta; Michelle Phillips, Yukon Territory); Denmark (Mille Porsild); Italy (Fabio Berlosconi); Norway (Thomas Waerner); and the United States (all others).
Twenty-two individuals and teams have won the 47 Iditarods that have been staged since 1973. Kaiser is the first Yup’ik and the fifth Alaska Native to lead a team to an Iditarod title. Team Kaiser’s time of 9 days 12 hours 39 minutes 6 seconds was the 20th best time ever recorded on the Iditarod.
Dick Wilmarth and team won the first Iditarod, in 1973, with a time of 20 days 0 hours 49 minutes 41 seconds. Mitch Seavey and team finished the 2017 race in 8 days 3 hours 40 minutes 13 seconds, the current record.
Richie Diehl, a veteran of seven Iditarods (career-high sixth in 2018), ran for Position F on the Kuspuk School Board in Aniak, his hometown. He finished second in the Oct. 1 election.
The 2020 field of Iditarod competitors includes two dentists (Brett Bruggeman and Kelly Maixner), a doctor specializing in infectious diseases (Robert Bundtzen), a former professional hockey player (Jason Campeau, North Bay Centennials), a TV personality (Jessie Holmes, “Life Below Zero”), and a newspaper publisher (Nils Hahn).
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, writes for Indian Country Today from Anacortes, Washington.