Pete Kaiser wins fourth K300
Bethel musher Pete Kaiser on Sunday morning wrote history when he drove his dog team first to the finish line of the 39th Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race in Bethel. He finished with eight dogs on Sunday morning at 9:17 a.m. The race began on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. taking a field of 18 mushers on an unprecedented trail course from Bethel to Bogus Creek, back to Bethel and then – repeat.
The traditional trail runs up the Kuskokwim – with a few overland trail sections - from Bethel via Tuluksak to Kalskag and Aniak, the halfway point. However, unsafe river conditions made it too dangerous to send dog teams over the river. Myron Angstman, one of the co-founders of the K300 and race committee chair, said that the decision was made on Monday before the race to reroute the trail off the river. “We had too many reports of open water,” he said. “In the past, we rerouted the trail when it was necessary, but we never had to leave out Aniak.”
Nome-grown musher Aaron Burmeister was one of the 18 dog drivers at the start line. He said the week before the race, it had rained and the temperature was 40°F. “Then it got cold and turned the trail into a sleek ice rink,” Burmeister said. The tough trail conditions of slick, glare ice polished by a bit of wind made it rough on teams that traveled to Bethel. Burmeister scratched 20 miles out of Bethel as he was heading out to do the slick loop on the second run up. “A portion of trail between the Gweek and Tuluksak was like a luge,” he said. Two dogs in his team were injured on the first run up to Bogus Creek. Doing the same stretch of trail two more times didn’t sound inviting to Burmeister. “I still had eight healthy dogs, and when I got to the Gweek I decided it was in the best interest of my dogs to turn around and go back to Bethel and scratch.” Burmeister said he made the decision to preserve his team for the upcoming Iditarod, which he will participate in again after a two-year hiatus, when his brother Noah ran the Wildstyle Racing’s team. Burmeister trains out of Nenana in the winter, but has done fall training with his dogs in Nome and in late fall at a camp at the Kuzitrin before returning to Nenana in November to train there. Burmeister said although it was disappointing to scratch, he always loves to come to Bethel and experience the hospitality. “They always put on a world class event,” Burmeister said. “The people and the community is wonderful!”
Burmeister was not alone in the decision to scratch. Brent Sass, Jessie Holmes, Cim Smyth, Hugh Neff and his wife Olivia Neff scratched as well at the halfway point in Bethel. Olivia Neff suffered an injury when her snowhook hooked her in buttocks and left a flesh wound.
Norwegian musher Joar Ulsom came in second place, Jeff King claimed third place, Ray Redington Jr. came in fourth place and Willow musher Matt Failor rounded out the top 5, followed by local mushers Richie Diehl of Aniak, Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak, Niklas Wikstrand, Joshua Cadzow of Fort Yukon, Thomas Carl, Victoria Hardwick of Bethel and Isaac Underwood of Aniak.
It may well be that a warming Alaska will force races such as the K300 and others in the southern parts of Alaska to reroute traditional trails. Angstman said it if the warming trends continue and the safety of travel on the Kuskokwim is in jeopardy, future races will have to be rerouted to overland trails to Aniak that partially exist, or need to be made. “Climate change, that is a big concern,” Angstman said. “Dog mushing in general is going to be in a bind.”
The passing of mushing great Rudy Demoski last week was acknowledged by Angstman. Angstman said he saw Demoski just a couple of weeks ago when he went to visit him at hospice care in Wasilla. In a way, Rudy Demoski played a role in the existence of the K300 race. Angstman said he met Demoski in the late 1970’s at a sprint race in Bethel. Angstman remembered Demoski as a real jokster, real fun to be around. The two became hunting and mushing buddies and Demoski piqued Angstman’s interest in distance mushing. Angstman received a few dogs from Demoski and eventually ran the Iditarod in 1979. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but despite my lack of skill they dragged me to Nome,” said Angstman. He then knew he had exceptional distance dogs and freshly inspired from running the Iditarod, he wondered “Hey, if they can have a race, Bethel should have a race.” Thus was the idea of the K300 born. Angstman said he assembled like-minded people and the planning for the inaugural 1980 K300 began. In January 1980 the first Kuskokwim 300 was underway and showing up at the startline was no other than Rudy Demoski.