Yup’ik musher wins Iditarod! Pete Kaiser is first Yup’ik, fifth Alaska Native to win 998-mile race
Kaiser and his dog team crossed the finish line in Nome, Alaska at 3:39:06 a.m. local time, completing the race in 9 days, 12 hours, 39 minutes, 6 seconds. His good friend, 2018 Iditarod champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, finished 12 minutes 16 seconds later.
Kaiser’s win is the pinnacle of a remarkable 10-year mushing career that includes six top-10 Iditarod finishes, four consecutive Kuskokwim 300 championships, two first-place finishes in the Paul Johnson Memorial Norton Sound 450, and first-place finishes in the Kobuk 400 and the 226-mile Denali Doubles.
People from Kaiser’s hometown of Bethel drummed and danced and the crowd cheered wildly as Kaiser and team arrived under police escort and crossed the finish line under the burled arch. Kaiser embraced his family—wife Bethany and children Ari and Aylee—and then went up the line congratulating his dog team as the applause and cheers continued.
“It seems like half of Bethel is here,” an Iditarod Insider announcer said.
The anticipation of Kaiser’s win grew in Native Alaska as he got checkpoint by checkpoint closer to the finish line. Children cheered him in Elim (Pete! Kaiser! Pete! Kaiser!). Villagers in White Mountain sang a song for him; an elder put her hand on his shoulder and wished him good luck.
“This gives a lot of other younger people the confidence that with time, money and effort, they can do it too,” Iditarod veteran Chuck Schaeffer, Inupiaq, said of Kaiser’s win. Schaeffer’s daughter, Bailey, a college student who has mushed in local races, said of Kaiser’s win: “It’s pretty cool. It will definitely inspire younger Alaska Native mushers.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska even chimed in to congratulate Kaiser. "A big congratulations to Pete Kaiser of Bethel and team on his first #Iditarod win. Your determination and motivation is one to be admired. What an incredible race! #Iditarod2019"
This year’s 998-mile race gave mushers and teams plenty of challenges: teeth-jarring tussocks in the town of Iditarod, blowing snow along the coastline of Norton Sound, drifting snow that made trails disappear.
A snow and wind storm between Shaktoolik and Koyuk shook up race leader Nic Petit’s team early March 11; it was the same place where his team stalled in 2018, yielding the lead to Ulsom and team.
“We took off out of Shaktoolik like a rocket,” Petit told Iditarod Insider early March 11 as his team rested off the trail en route to Koyuk. “I was really surprised … All of a sudden they had the speed they didn’t have before Shaktoolik.” Then, a couple of dogs on the team got into a tussle and the team “wouldn’t go anymore, anywhere, so we camped here. We’ll see what happens.”
By 7 p.m. that day, Petit withdrew “in the best interest of his team’s mental well-being.”
After Petit’s departure, the race was between Kaiser and Ulsom, who had been trading the lead with Petit for most of the race. Kaiser arrived in Koyuk – 171 miles from the finish line in Nome – one hour before Ulsom. In Koyuk, Kaiser described the challenging conditions.
“It’s crazy how the weather over there was so calm, and here it’s so calm, and then in the middle of that it was pretty wild,” he told Iditarod Insider. “It was probably blowing 30 right down the pipe, 35 maybe in some spots. Snowing, drifting—the whole trail was drifting. Some spots, it was just marker to marker.”
Then, Koyuk to Elim, then Elim to White Mountain. Kaiser arrived at White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome, with ice caked on his beard. “Leaving Koyuk, it was windy—crosswind and no trail,” he told Iditarod Insider. “Two or three inches of loose snow on the trail. It felt like it took forever to get to Elim.”
For musher and dogs, the Iditarod is about training, endurance, and strategy. Kaiser and team took shorter, more frequent rests; Ulsom and team took longer, less frequent rests. Kaiser and Ulsom took their mandatory 24-hour rests in Takotna, 329 miles into the race. But Ulsom took his mandatory eight-hour rest in Shageluk (mile 487), while Kaiser and his team took their mandatory eight-hour in Kaltag (mile 652). All mushers are required to rest in White Mountain (mile 921) before pushing on to Safety and Nome. Ulsom had to wait for 431 miles for that rest, Kaiser 269.
Kaiser found his advantage in Elim. He arrived there almost one hour before Ulsom and rested his team for 2 hours 44 minutes before moving on to White Mountain. That compelled Ulsom to cut his rest short and leave Elim five minutes later, after a 1-hour 59-minute rest. Kaiser and team maintained a pace of 6.22 mph to Ulsom’s 5.75 to White Mountain, enough to build some distance between them. Ulsom tried to make up the difference en route to Safety and Nome, averaging 6.95 and 7.10 mph to Kaiser’s 6.90 and 6.17 mph.
Other Alaska Natives in the race. Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, was in a solid 11th; Martin Apayauq Reitan, Inupiaq, was in 33rd place. Robert Redington, Inupiaq, scratched in Kaltag (mile 652); his brother Ryan scratched in Shaktoolik. Each made the decision to do so out of concern for the well-being of his team, the Iditarod reported.
Reitan, the son of Iditarod veteran Martin Reitan, proved to be a newcomer to watch. He finished the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest a month ago—winning Rookie of the Year honors—and finished his debut Iditarod faring better than four other rookies and five veterans, and 10 more mushers who wouldn’t finish the race.
Kaiser’s win boosts his career Iditarod earnings to just over $300,000. As the 2019 champion, he receives about $50,000 and a new Dodge Ram 4X4. For being the first musher to reach Kaltag, he received from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation a check for $2,000, a certificate for 25 pounds of Bristol Bay salmon filets, and artwork by Alaska Native artist Apayo Moore. For being the first musher to reach White Mountain, he received from Northrim Bank a check for $2,500 and an art print by Anchorage artist Marianne Wieland.
And, of course, he wins a place in the history books.
“[It’s been] a lot of hard work over the last 12 years of really seriously working at this specifically,” Kaiser told Iditarod Insider in White Mountain. “It’s gratifying to know the hard work has paid off. I have such a huge support system, just for them to get some validation of their support and see this all come full circle and work out.”
He added, “I’m very lucky. Especially in Bethel and all up and down the Kuskokwim River I’ve always had tons of support. I’ve said it before, that’s been a large motivating factor to me to go out and put our best foot forward with all our training and racing, and try to represent this area the best we can.”
Alaska Native winners of the Iditarod
2019: Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, 9 days, 12 hours, 39 minutes, 6 seconds.
2011: John Baker, Inupiaq, 8 days 18 hours 46 minutes 39 seconds.
1976: Gerald Riley, Athabascan, 18 days 22 hours 58 minutes 17 seconds.
1975: Emmitt Peters, Athabascan, 14 days 14 hours 43 minutes 45 seconds.
1974: Carl Huntington, Athabascan, 20 days 15 hours 2 minutes 7 seconds.
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org