Under bright stars Sunday morning, to the cheers of his family and friends, Bethel’s hometown hero Pete Kaiser and his 11 sled dogs crossed the Kuskokwim 300 finish line at 7:59 a.m., the sixth fastest finish in K300 history.
Kaiser won $25,000 in a 300-mile race notable for its fast speed and icy trail. The race also teased at the future of Kuskokwim mushing, with other local mushers also finishing in the top 10.
Kaiser, now a six-time K300 champion, is just three wins shy of Jeff King’s record nine wins.
“It seemed totally insurmountable at some point prior to these last few wins,” Kaiser said at the finish line, reflecting on reaching King’s record one day. “But I guess now it definitely seems possible if I keep doing this for a while.”
On his way to his sixth K300 win, Kaiser passed every single musher in the field. He had started the race in last position, and on his way up the icy trail from Bethel to Aniak he picked off mushers one by one, something he’s used to doing.
“Typically, most of the races I’ve won are kind of a come-from-behind type thing,” Kaiser said.
By the time his team reached Kalskag, with just 100 miles to go to the finish line, Kaiser had the lead and never gave it up.
Sixteen minutes after Kaiser, Matthew Failor of Willow crossed the finish line in second place on Sunday. Failor is the 2019 Kusko 300 champion.
This year, Failor played a big game of catch up across remote Alaska. Heading into the halfway point in Aniak, his team got turned around by northerly winds and started going backward.
“We made a big mistake in a windstorm, and went down the ice road and had to double back, and it was really slippery,” Failor said. “We got tangled up for maybe 25 minutes and I kind of thought that this would push me behind Pete and Richie. But we were able to catch Richie.”
Aniak’s Richie Diehl had been ahead of Failor going into the final 100 miles of the race, but Failor overtook him in that last stretch.
Diehl finished in third place just four minutes after Failor at 8:19 a.m. Diehl described the race as a roller coaster.
“Team goes from having a great run, then the next run they’re not not firing on all cylinders,” Diehl said. “We managed and still put together a hell of a race.”
Diehl, coming off his first K300 victory last year, was able to take his team through his hometown of Aniak this year, something he wasn’t able to do last year because the COVID-19 pandemic caused the race to be rerouted away from entering any villages.
“It’s a little bit of normalcy in a weird two-year stretch. So I think the community really appreciated it, and I know me as a musher, I really enjoyed it,” said Diehl.
After Diehl, Seward’s Travis Beals placed fourth and Willow’s Joar Leifseth Ulsom placed fifth.
Cim Smyth of Big Lake placed 6th at 9:01 a.m. And Aaron Burmeister of Nenana and Nome crossed the finish line in 7th place at 10 a.m.
Less than 30 minutes later, Jason Pavila, 18, from Kwethluk placed 8th, just after sunrise.
He crossed the finish line panting and kicking ferociously, holding off 9th place finisher Gabe Dunham from Willow who was chasing him and finished two minutes after.
Pavila let out a big sigh at the finish. His dad, veteran musher Lewis Pavila, was right there to help him feed treats to his dogs. He and Jason’s mom had followed their son in a truck up and down the Kusko, meeting him at every checkpoint.
“I’m glad he followed,” Jason said. “And I’m glad he helped train the dogs while I was in school. I probably wouldn’t be able to have have run this race without him. I wouldn’t have gotten all these miles and enough training to do this race.”
Fr. Alexander Larson of Napaskiak finished in 10th place. He was the first musher into Aniak, but then he skipped the Kalskag checkpoint on his way downriver. He said that he thought he didn’t need to check in there since he had already completed his mandatory rest. Race officials issued him a 20-minute penalty.
“Maybe I could have done better,” Larson said. “Make me want to come back.”
Bethel’s Kaiser and Aniak’s Diehl brought local dominance to the Kusko 300 this year. Nearly half the teams were local. Diehl said to keep that going, it’s up to the next generation of Kuskokwim mushers.
“Heck, you look at Jason Pavila and the race he put together. Just really impressive,” Diehl said. “If this mushing thing wants to stay happening in rural Alaska, younger kids like him have to keep moving up like Pete and I did. I think it’s very important.”
“I guarantee you, if Jason wants to keep doing this, he can win a race like this no problem. And, Father could do it too,” Kaiser said.