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At race’s start, Western Alaskan mushers take stock of challenges behind them – and yet to come

Pete Kaiser

Accomplished Bethel musher Pete Kaiser greets friends and media next to his team on Saturday morning, before the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage.

It’s been a season of non-ideal trail conditions for Iditarod mushers, and that’s certainly true for the competitors from Alaska’s western regions.

For Pete Kaiser, a young but highly accomplished musher and Iditarod veteran, poor conditions prompted him to move his training activities this year to Nenana, Alaska from his hometown of Bethel (on the Kuskokwim Delta).

Kaiser talked about the Nenana move – and lots more of his thoughts and recent experiences going into Iditarod 2014 – with KNOM’s Laureli Kinneen earlier this week.

Despite the challenges of the move and a race season marred with cancelled or curtailed sled dog races, what’s Kaiser’s word of choice for his dogs in this year’s race? Fun.

“The old team,” he says, “was kinda like a machine… but this team (in 2014) is just a little more excitable.” And, perhaps, they’re even a little more satisfying in some ways, since Kaiser says he raised them from “pups.” The Norton Sound 450 champion says his 2014 dogs are still competitive, albeit somewhat young – although he’ll know with more certainty 500 or 600 miles down the trail.


Richie Diehl, 2014 Iditarod Ceremonial Start

Aniak musher Richie Diehl at Saturday’s Ceremonial Start.

Aniak, Alaska musher Richie Diehl races his second Iditarod in 2014 – and he’s feeling pretty good about it.

In Anchorage earlier this week, Diehl told KNOM, in an interview with Laureli Kinneen, that his dog team has come together well this year, especially in the past few months.

This is despite a less-than-ideal running of the 2014 Kuskokwim 300, a popular mid-distance sled dog race made more difficult for Diehl by mediocre trail conditions. Many of the same trail conditions – warmer-than-usual weather, ice, and a paucity of snow cover – threaten to repeat themselves on the Iditarod trail this year.

Diehl doesn’t seem too worried and says multiple dogs in his team show promise. But, one relatively short-term goal for the race, long before Nome, is simply to make it through the Alaska Range with his team intact:


Aaron Burmeister

Nome-raised Aaron Burmeister, mushing down 4th Avenue during Saturday’s Ceremonial Start.

With Richie Diehl and Pete Kaiser, Nome-grown Aaron Burmeister has displaced himself and his team, this season, to train in Nenana, where snow conditions have been preferable.

In Anchorage prior to the race start, the longtime mushing veteran said that, despite the Nenana move and the other challenges that have surrounded it, he and his team have found decent trails this year. And of course, after a string of top-20 finishes in the Iditarod – including 4th place in 2012 – he’s “hungry” to undertake the race to his hometown once again.

Burmeister echoed what seems to be the buzz among many mushers regarding the incredible competitiveness of this year’s Iditarod. There are “so many capable dog teams,” he says, although the challenge even for the veterans will be not just racing the dogs but maintaining the team as a whole: pacing them well so that they’re ready for the final stretch of the race along the Norton Sound coast.


Katherine Keith

Katherine Keith, currently of Kotzebue, mushes down Anchorage’s 4th Avenue on Saturday.

Katherine Keith is a rookie to the Iditarod, but don’t be fooled: she’s hardly a newcomer to sled dog mushing – or, for that matter, to extreme athletics in general.

Keith is a native of Minnesota and a sled dog handler turned musher; she’s an assistant in the kennel of Kotzebue’s 2012 Iditarod champ John Baker.

She’s also an Ironman triathlete, and with Laureli in Anchorage, before the Iditarod start, Keith speculated as to which endurance event – the Iditarod or the Ironman – was ultimately more difficult.

The Iditarod rookie says she’s expecting great challenges for the Last Great Race but looks forward to tackling even its most trying moments. She’s also grateful to have dogs of a high caliber in harness – including some from the same team that carried John Baker to a record-breaking championship two years ago.

Meet Katherine Keith: