Wind-driven snow blowing through Front Street and the late hour did not keep throngs of Iditarod fans from coming to the finish line in Nome as Bethel’s Pete Kaiser, 31, became the 2019 Iditarod champion at 3:39 a.m. on March 13.
To the drums of the Nome St. Lawrence Island drummers and dancers, an emotional scene unfolded when Kaiser’s eight dogs trotted up the finish chute and stopped, tails wagging, under the burled arch. Kaiser pumped his arms, and before setting the hook, fell into a long embrace with his wife Bethany and their two children Ari and Aylee. Wiping away tears, Kaiser made his way to the dog team and kneeled down with his lead dogs Morrow and Lucy for a hug and a silent ‘Thank You’, while the crowd was roaring “Pete, Pete, Pete.”
A large contingent of Bethel residents had hopped on regular and chartered flights to be here when it looked like Kaiser becoming the first Bethel musher to claim an Iditarod victory. The large group lined the finish chute and Kaiser dove into the crowd for hugs as tears of joy flowed freely.
His win was a close one.
Kaiser finished the race in nine days, 12 hours, 39 minutes and six seconds. A mere 12 minutes and 18 seconds later, last year’s champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom arrived under the burled arch, also with eight dogs in harness.
With their dog teams parked next to each other, Kaiser and Ulsom shook hands and exchanged warm smiles. These two were the first of the field of 39 finishers this year. Thirteen mushers scratched. And according to each finisher’s testimony at the finish banquet in Nome, it was a hard race, with tough trail conditions, no snow, too much snow and miles and miles of overflow. Ulsom said his dog team was a bit sick with a stomach bug at the start of the race but that by the time they took their 24-hour layover in Takotna, the dogs were over it. “We had a challenging trip with rough trail, rain and water and overflow and all that,” he said. In addition, he had to return some key lead dogs. “I was nervous for a while that I had to back down and if I should focus on just finishing the race or if I had good enough lead dogs to be in the race. Dodge was a super dog that stepped up and finished the race in single lead. Overall it was a challenging race but I had a lot of fun traveling with the people around me,” he said.
The race started out with near ideal snow conditions that led teams through the Alaska Range. Then snow became scarce. A ribbon of brown trail wound through tussock-studded tundra on the way to the halfway point in Iditarod. Mushers busted up sleds. For those who tightened up loose bolts, mended sleds or swapped out to a fresh one they then faced a mushy wet, run up the Yukon River and heading into Unalakleet.
Swedish musher Mats Petersson described the overflow between Eagle Island and Kaltag as a “war zone.” He described it was near impossible find a passable way as “there were 20 different tracks and all have water in them,” he said.
First into Unalakleet winning the inaugural Ryan Air Gold Coast Award, was Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit.
At this point in the race Petit had a sizable lead on the next closest competitors of reigning champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Pete Kaiser, Jessie Royer and former three-time champion Mitch Seavey. Petit ran 11 hours straight without resting from Kaltag to Unalakleet, then rested for five hours in the checkpoint. Ulsom, Kaiser, Royer and Seavey chose a different strategy and broke the 85-mile portage run in two and were resting 20 miles outside of Unalakleet at the detour at Cheroski Creek. All four chasers did not stop in Unalakleet to rest, but left relatively quickly after required gear and veterinary checks.
Petit’s team, however, hit the wall. Running through Shaktoolik, his plan was to stop to rest at a shelter cabin en route to Koyuk. The dogs stopped a few miles before the shelter cabin. Tracker movement suggested that he sat there on the ice for a while and then walked the dogs to the cabin. According to a interview with the Iditarod Insider team, Petit said he slowed his team to let one dog pee and another dog jumped it, prompting him to yell breaking up the fight. According to Petit that doesn’t happen, that “dad” yells at the dogs. Petit spent the night at the cabin. The next day, Iditarod issued a press release saying that Petit scratched at Shaktoolik. “Petit scratched in the best interest of his race team’s mental well-being. Petit and his race team were brought back to Shaktoolik by snowmachine and trail sled for transport through Unalakleet and then on to Anchorage,” the release said. Petit had 10 dogs with him at the time he decided to scratch.
The next several mushers coming to Unalakleet stayed long enough in the Norton Sound community to provide a bit of information on the trail conditions. Most reported encountering multiple areas of open water as they were hauling up their wet mukluks, socks and other gear to the dryers offered at the community center. Community members young and old come and go at all times bringing food, crafts and stories to share while mushers get their fill of food and rest.
Nome musher Aaron Burmeister was in good spirits as he fed his team, happy that the 11 dogs he had in harness were finally eating well and perking up after nursing them through a bug that he said usually runs through teams when the race temps are on the warmer side.
“It’s been 30 degrees just about the whole race,” said Burmeister. “It’s so warm they haven’t wanted to eat as much.”
Warm temperatures posed problems with food drops and mushers carefully smelled the meat before they fed it to their dogs. Drop bags with slimy and thawed fish were discarded.
The run up Norton Sound coast is feared by most mushers who are not used to coastal winds and wind-caused whiteout conditions that at times make it hard to see the hand before one’s eyes. Even though there was no blizzard occurring as teams made their way up the coast, ground storms made it hard enough. Prior to Iditarod several unusual weather phenomena occurred: instead of being covered with thick sea ice as “normal”, wide swaths of the northern Bering Sea and Norton Sound remained ice free this winter. This caused a succession of unprecedented weather patterns with 17 multi-day blizzards with tons of snow hitting the Southern Seward Peninsula in period of six weeks leading up to Iditarod. And a week prior to the Iditarod finish another unprecedented thing happened: the sea ice broke off from Nome’s shore, forcing the trail —usually on the sea ice —to be relocated to the beach. It was a shocking sight to see dog teams running parallel to the open water, dotted with remaining ice floes.
Traveling the trail still transforms those who traverse 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness by dog team. Not only does weather and trail conditions figure into the race and how well mushers mentally respond to these monumental challenges, the hardest challenge is to keep it together in managing a dog team composed of 14 sled dogs, needing care, proper feeding, watering and resting. Mitch Seavey, three-time champion and finisher of 25 Iditarod races offers some wisdom saying, one has to focus on the present and not get overwhelmed by the totality of the endeavor. “I've been in a lot of emergencies in my life and you don't get out of them by worrying about tomorrow. You get out of emergencies by doing the right thing right now,” he said after the race. And he would know. Seavey battled with foot problems on his dog’s feet during the race and early on, in Rohn, had to send his trusted super dog Pilot home due to a benign injury. Between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, drifting snow made it hard to find the trail to the point where it was hard to tell which direction he was going. Asked if he asks himself what he’s doing out there in those moments, Seavey responded: “I'm here so there's no sense in asking why I'm here. I stay very focused. The harder it gets, the more I focus on the Now because as humans we have a problem with the past and the future. The past is your memories and in your recollection, they may not be accurate. In the future, are usually your fears and worries, which are probably not accurate, either. So right now, right now I can deal with what I have. The harder things get, the better it is to focus on right now.”
Consensus amongst this year’s mushers — from first to last, champions to rookies — was how tough trail conditions were this year. Despite the lack of harrowing coastal storms or bitter cold temperatures, the opposite posed equally challenging conditions. Warm temperatures prevailed throughout the race, melting ice bridges and causing creeks to remain open; sections of trail of bare ground and unforgiving tussocks before the halfway point, miles and miles of overflow on the Yukon River, more open water and holes on the portage trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet. The unprecedented sight of open ocean instead of frozen sea ice, greeted the mushers at the coast. Wind, blowing snow and trail obliterated by snowdrifts characterized the last few hundred miles to the finish line. A few dog teams quit on their mushers and demanded rest and those who read it right, granted it. Frontrunner Nic Petit of Girdwood seemed to head toward his first victory when his dog team left Shaktoolik barking and screaming only to sit down 14 miles into the run, with the shelter cabin in sight.
Other teams also had a tough time and stalled. “Life Below Zero” reality TV personality Jesse Holmes, who sat in fifth place, took 36 hours to get from Koyuk to Elim, a distance of 48 miles. He ended up giving his dogs a rest and finished in 27th place. Rookie Victoria Hardwick took more than 22 hours from Elim to White Mountain and then another 21 hours from White Mountain to Safety. At the Red Lantern banquet she said that she had leader issues and when it became apparent that none of her dogs wanted to lead, she picked up the gangline and walked her team. She theorized that she through leading by example, she gained her dogs’ respect and they posted a blazing fast time of 2 hours and 43 minutes for the last 22 miles from Safety to Nome. Howard Farley, whose first Iditarod took him 31 days to finish, remarked laughingly that she did it in half the time. Rookie and twitter celebrity Blair Braverman stalled between Kaltag and Unalakleet for nearly 40 hours. Iditarod veteran Sarah Stokey spent 38 hours between Elim and White Mountain; Matt Failor had a rough time between Shaktoolik and Koyuk and turned back to Shaktoolik to rest. At the finish line he told the crowd that he diagnosed a “mismanagement” mistake on his part to leave Shaktoolik with dogs that hadn’t eaten and were not optimally hydrated. He didn’t want to intrude on Nic Petit, who was at a shelter cabin between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, he returned to Shaktoolik. After the rest, Failor’s race continued smoothly.
The rough trail left its marks. Talkeetna musher Anja Radano crashed into an open whole at the technical difficult part of the Gorge early on in the race and sustained a broken rib and badly injured leg. She continued on from checkpoint to checkpoint and toughed out the handicap.
Each musher had to say something about the trail and Jeremy Keller summed it up, “We mush on trails in the Iditarod that we would never train on.” The Knik musher described the wind on his run between White Mountain and Nome, saying he’s never been in wind like that. Other mushers highlighted the camaraderie that develops amongst them as they help each other out fixing sleds, motivating each other and sharing dog or people food. Stokey, who ended up being in trouble at Little McKinley motivated Charley Benja who contemplated to scratch by saying, “It’s only two more runs to Nome!” She later had to remind herself of her own pep talk. Rookie Jessica Klejka of Bethel highlighted the honor of traveling with legends, as she found herself in the company of four-time Quest and Iditarod Champion Lance Mackey. Martin Apayauq Reitan, no rookie when it comes to wilderness travel, thanked Joar Ulsom for sending a sled out to White Mountain as Reitan broke his but managed to fix it. He thanked Lance Mackey for advice that he didn’t take to heart, “I wish I would’ve done it your way, Lance,” he said.
Lance Mackey earned the Most Inspirational Musher award after having come back despite nagging health issues with his hands. Surgery last fall resulted in the doctor telling him that he could run the Iditarod again and there he was. Before the race he told Mushing Magazine that he had unfinished business from having had to scratch from the Iditarod prior. Depression set in and he doubted himself. However, after the successful surgery that reset his fingers, he received the OK from the doctors and ran the trail for the joy of it. Mackey finished in 26th place and celebrated the feat with his young family at the finish line in Nome. Another four-time champion who tried to run for the joy of it was Martin Buser. He apologized for the past four years of “crankiness” due to not winning, and said he finally learned to heed the advice of his wife Kathy: “Just relax.” Rookie of the Year Ed Hopkins, who has run and finished the Yukon Quest multiple times, said he has never felt so mentally and physically depleted as after this race and stated, “This race is much tougher than the Quest.”
Pettersson received the coveted Sportsmanship Award for helping fellow musher Linwood Fiedler find and retrieve his dog team. After Rohn Fiedler’s carabiner broke and he saw his team take off and him being left behind with the sled. Pettersson was the next musher to come by, he hooked Fiedler’s sled to his rig and they went down the rough trail, looking for the lost dogs. It was night, they shone their headlamps around and eventually spotted what looked like a lot of reflective trail markers way off on the glare ice of the Post River. Fiedler realized it’s the reflections of his dogs’ eyes and he walked to his dogs, saw that no injuries were sustained, untangled the team and led them back to the sled. Recounting the event brought tears to Fiedler’s eyes. Petersson told Mushing Magazine that the moment of finding the dogs in good health was the highlight of his race.
On the lighter side, Jeff Deeter told a story of traveling with four-time champion Jeff King, heckling him about his age. In one checkpoint, King inadvertently took Deeter’s boots off the drying rack and continued on his race. Deeter noticed his boots gone and instead a brand-new, dry pair of Neo’s with the writing KING on the drying rack. “They were new, and had arch support!” Deeter exclaimed. A few hundred miles up the trail, he caught up with King but a boots exchange did not take place. Deeter said, “Jeff, it was an honor to mush in your boots to Nome.”
Two teams this year had the honorable task to give one last ride to a special person. Joar Leifseth Ulsom carried and scattered Iditarod musher Rudi Demoski’s ashes on the trail. Aaron Burmeister honored Jens Hildreth, a young Nome child who passed on, by bringing his ashes to Nome in his sled.
This year’s finish set no course record, since the trail did not allow for such a feat.
Pete Kaiser, 31, had been focused on winning the Iditarod for some time. “This year I felt this was the most talented team I’ve ever driven,” he said in an interview with Mushing Magazine. “Our training was …at times weather didn’t allow us to train as much as I would’ve liked to, I guess sometimes these things can be a blessing in disguise. My confidence was a little set back by the lack of training but I knew the dogs talent-wise were fully capable of winning.” Kaiser, who lives and trains out of Bethel, managed to create a life around his dogs and the pursuit to run long distance dog races. He said this training season shaped up poorly as the Bethel weather did not cooperate. The fall was too warm, he was doing laps around Bethel in a four-wheeler until November, December offered some good snow and training went well until the Kuskokwim 300 in mid-January and then conditions really deteriorated. He gave the dogs a big chunk of time off after Kuskokwim but then the weather didn’t allow him to resume training. “It wasn’t the weather or trail conditions that allowed for long miles and I didn’t feel it would benefit the dogs at all, so a there was lot of sitting,” he said. He said he got nervous as the race date approached but 10 days before his departure for Anchorage, some decent training could take place. “I didn’t know if it was enough to win. To win, it feels like you have to have everything go perfect throughout the season and throughout the race. But obviously it worked.”
He was also proven wrong on another assumption. “I thought I’d have to have Bethel style racing conditions to give me chance at winning, because this team really accelerates on hard fast trails, that’s what they like, that’s what they’re used to and good at, but obviously they were good at slow going trail, too.”
With Red Lantern musher Victoria Hardwick of Bethel arriving under the burled arch in Nome on Monday, March 18 at 1:51 p.m. Iditarod XLVII came to an official end. Hardwick finished the race in 14 days, 22 hours, 51 minutes and 49 seconds. Of 52 dog teams that started on Sunday, March 3 in Willow, 39 mushers finished and made it to Nome. With Kaiser’s win and Hardwick’s red lantern finish, the 2019 Iditarod was bookended with a Bethel musher up front and one bringing up the rear. Since Hardwick and Kristin Bacon finished after the Sunday finisher’s banquet, they were treated to their own Red Lantern banquet on Monday night. Iditarod pioneer Howard Farley led the ceremony and said that every musher who finishes the Iditarod trail deserves a decent meal, “more than a rubber chicken.” Farley told of the times when the finish line was nothing more than a Kool-Aid line sprinkled in the snow on Front Street and explained how Fox Olson built the first burled arch as a worthy monument to finish a monumental feat under. Farley recounted Olson’s words saying, “I didn’t spent $10,000 and came a thousand miles to finish across a Kool-Aid line.”