His was the team to beat and no-one could. Sunday morning for the third year in a row, Pete Kaiser won the 2017 Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race, crossing the finish line in Bethel at 10:37 a.m. to loud cheers from his hometown crowd. His leader Palmer brought home the nine-dog team, 28 minutes faster than last year.
Brent Sass, last year’s runner up, followed 46 minutes later at 11:23 a.m.
Kaiser left the final upriver checkpoint of Tuluksak with a 20-minute edge over Sass, pulling the snowhook from the river ice at 5:22 a.m. Sunday morning for the final run to Bethel. At the finish line Sunday morning, Kaiser said the dog team signaled early in the run that they could make it home for the prize.
“When we left Tuluksak, they looked really good. We were on step within a few miles, and I could feel the power in the handlebar,” Kasier said. “I knew at that point that if we could keep that going, he’d [Sass] have a hard time time catching us. As far as knowing that you’re going to win, not until you get here. But he’s a heck of a competitor, I knew he’d be coming after us.”
A 29-year-old member of the next generation of mushers, Kaiser had eight K300 finishes to his name coming into the race and an experienced core team who has raced the past three years. He also brought several “up and coming” two-year-olds into his race team. Kaiser won the $25,000 top prize from the $150,000 purse.
In a frigid race with temperatures reaching minus 40, Kaiser had to contend with a set of challenges from the cold.
“You put a couple extra layers on, the dogs gets coats, a little extra care makes every task a little more difficult,” Kaiser said. “It was nice to have a cold race with snow. It actually feels like winter here.”
36-year-old Sass, a seasoned Yukon Quest musher based in the interior community of Eureka, was never far behind from Kalskag onward. With his six discretionary hours of rest over the 300-mile trail, Kaiser banked his rest earlier than his closest competitor, taking four hours in Kalskag on the outbound trail and an hour each in Aniak and on the way back through Kalskag. Sass took his first three hours in outbound Kalskag and completed the Aniak and Whitefish Lake loop in one big march before taking the next three again in Kalskag. While Sass pushed through Aniak during the day Saturday, Kaiser’s team was able to tack on the advantage he needed to secure the victory.
Kaiser’s team built a small lead by running 24-minutes faster than Sass into Aniak and 16 minutes faster into Kalskag. But with the fresh inbound Kalskag rest in his team, Sass began to slash into Kaiser’s buffer, gaining 14 minutes on the trail into Tuluksak for the final rest. That set up a classic final sprint on the 50 miles from Tuluksak to Bethel. The mushers’ rest schedules match last year, when Sass chased Kaiser but was unable to overtake him in the final stretch. Richie Diehl placed third in the K300, his best career finish.
In 2015, Kaiser became the first local musher in nearly three decades to win the Kuskokwim 300. Now he matches Mitch Seavey for the second-most titles with three. Only Jeff King has more victories with nine.