Bethel’s Pete Kaiser sprinted to a strong finish at 5:31 a.m. Sunday to win the 2015 Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race.
In its 36th year, Kaiser’s win is the first time in 29 years that a local western Alaska musher has won the mid-distance race. Bethel’s Myron Angstman was the last such winner back in 1986.
Last year’s winner, Rohn Buser, held a commanding lead throughout the first half of the race. But in retracing the trail from Aniak and back to Bethel, Buser’s runs grew longer as his team slowed slightly. Kaiser’s dog team remained consistent, posting runs between checkpoints that differed little from the first half of the race. That allowed Kaiser to whittle down Buser’s seven-minute lead out of the the final four-hour layover at the Tuluksak checkpoint, with Kaiser overtaking Buser about six or seven miles out of the checkpoint.
“This team is so locked into a speed right now,” Kaiser told KYUK radio in Bethel. “Whether they’re fresh or tired, they get locked into that consistent speed.”
Buser also took a wrong turn off the trail just 12 miles outside of Bethel (a mistake his father Martin Buser also made on his way in to the finish line), heading instead southwest into the Church Slough truck road. It remains unclear what, if any, adjustments will be made against the mushers’ times for leaving the trail.
In the end Buser crossed the finish line 13 minutes behind Kaiser. Third place went to Jeff King, who arrived at 5:58 a.m, followed by Tony Browning in fourth and Ken Anderson in fifth.
Mushers from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta included Mike Williams Jr., who finished in 11th place; Richie Diehl, who finished 13th, and Mike Williams Sr., who was 17th. Isaac and Nathan Underwood scratched in Aniak, as did Kotzebue musher Chuck Schaeffer.
Though Kaiser’s total trail time of just over 35 hours was the fastest in the race’s history, it was also along a shorter trail, with poor conditions on the river resulting in the removal of the Whitefish Lake loop leading into the Aniak halfway point. Race organizer Myron Angstman said this year’s time will be noted with an asterisk in the K300 record books due to the shortened trail.
Kaiser takes home $25,000 for winning the race, from a record-high purse of $123,300.
Two Nome mushers also finished the Kuskokwim 300 this weekend, Rolland Trowbridge and Tara Cicatello.
Finishing in 19th place was Rolland Trowbridge, who was the Red Lantern during his rookie K300 race last year. He was vying for 18th with Scott Janssen, and led him into Tuluksak early Sunday morning. But Janssen gained ground and passed Trowbridge just past Kwethluk.
Trowbridge—who is also KNOM’s Chief Engineer—finished the race with seven dogs on his team. He said he’s proud of his team’s performance but the icy trail meant he and many other mushers were returning home with injured teams.
“I am very happy with how the race went. That being said, the dogs really took a pounding,” Trowbridge said in a phone interview Sunday. “I think everybody’s teams suffered a lot. A lot of dropped dogs. All of my dogs that were dropped were not dropped from exhaustion, they were dropped from injuries. It’s hard to see dogs get hurt, for me. You know I don’t like dropping dogs.”
Trowbridge says those dropped dogs are a result of the fast icy trail, which was so slick he says he stood on his sled’s brake for the first 40 miles of the race to keep his team from going too fast. That’s not likely to be a problem during his next race, the Yukon Quest, which starts in just under three weeks. He said after the icy, sprint-race conditions of the K300 trail, he’ll be happy to have the 1,000-mile trail and longer rest time of the Quest.
The other Nome musher in the race this year was Tara Cicatello, a former KNOM volunteer and handler for Trowbridge. Cicatello finished with seven dogs as the 21st musher in to the finish around 12:40 a.m. Monday.
“It was a long haul but it was a lot of fun,” she told KYUK’s Ben Matheson. “I don’t know, the dogs did great and I’m very happy with them. This is my first ever sled dog race … you learn about the dedication it takes to be a musher. I give a lot of credit to the people who put this together, to mushers in general, to the dogs running 300 miles. Lots of things you learn.”
Cicatello finished one position ahead of the race’s red lantern, which went to Dee Dee Jonrowe and her puppy team, the last to cross the finish line just after 1:30 a.m. Monday.
KYUK’s Ben Matheson contributed to this story.