Tundra Drums Pre-Race Interview

At the 2009 Kobuk 440

Iditarod rookies from Y-K ready for adventure

Published in the Tundra Drums
Mar 4th, 2010 11:25 am

The Iditarod rookie nerves should be taking over about now, two days to race time, for Mike Williams Jr. and Peter Kaiser as they fiddle with their sleds, pack their sled bags and tick off items on to-do lists.

Countdown time for first-timers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race between Anchorage and Nome is one long night of preparation and mental just-get-me-on-the-trail time. They have planned and trained and prepared and now the race is upon them and 1,100 miles of daunting trail and unpredictable weather lay ahead.

“A lot of that pre-race stuff is pretty overwhelming,” said Kaiser, 22, of Bethel. “I am excited about it, though.”

Who wouldn’t be? Competing in the Iditarod is one of the world’s greatest adventures, and for young Alaskans who grew up following the stories of the race for years, this grand opportunity playing out in their backyard is irresistible.

Williams, 24, of Akiak, is the son of longtime respected racer Mike Williams, a 14-time competitor who has relied on Mike Jr.’s help with dog-yard chores after school for years and is now letting him loose to run the team.

“He’s grown up mushing, all along helping me get ready,” said the senior Williams. “And the bug bit him. I give him pointers, but he knows what he’s doing. A new generation.”

Williams, 57, whose family was victimized by several tragic stories of alcohol abuse, has become a prominent figure for his strong campaigning against drinking and for each year carrying in his sled papers signed by thousands of Alaskans pledging sobriety. Mike Jr. works as a member of a youth for sobriety organization.

“He is wanting to be a good role model for young people,” Mike Sr. said.

Mike Jr. developed his passion for the family dogs by feeding them and caring for them as household chores. He works construction in the summer, building bathrooms and kitchens for the local school district and water and sewer department.

In other years, Mike Jr. has made the trip to Anchorage to help his father with last-minute preparations and he got a taste of the hoopla on kick-off Saturday during the annual ceremonial start in front of the large crowds lining temporary fencing along Fourth Avenue. More than once he has ridden in his dad’s second sled, employed in order to help keep the anxious dogs under control as they leave the starting line.

This time Mike Jr. won’t have to jump off the sled shortly after the race starts. He is in for the long ride.

“I can hardly wait to go,” Mike Jr. said. “I’m going to go to places I’ve never been before.”

New journey for family friends

By coincidence, he will experience seeing new parts of the Last Frontier for the first time at the same time his life-long friend Kaiser does. The Williams and Kaisers have known one another for years.

After racing shorter events like the Kobuk 440 and the Kuskokwim 300, Kaiser said it was natural to think longer and enter the Iditarod, though his timing has nothing to do with Mike Jr.’s.

“It’s just the biggest one there is,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser and Williams are preoccupied with starting their first Iditarods, not necessarily in boasting about who will beat whom.

“We’re friends,” said Mike Jr. “There’s kind of a quiet tension there, but no, no real rivalry. He’s a tough competitor.”

Kaiser graduated from Bethel High in 2005 and during summers he works on a tug boat on the Kuskokwim River.

Unlike perennial Iditarod champions and contenders with kennels of up to 100 dogs, the Kaiser kennel consists of about 35 dogs, many of them puppies. While some mushers can train 30 or more dogs, then choose 16 for the trail, Kaiser did not have that luxury. He started the year with 16 adult dogs he tried to keep healthy.

“There really isn’t any choosing,” he said. “You have to be careful in training. Some guys have a really big pool of dogs. I can’t really think that way.”

Small kennels predominate in Bethel and other communities located off the road system. The sport becomes vastly more expensive when shipping in dog food and flying dogs to races, and Kaiser is well aware of those challenges.

“There are 30-to-35 local teams around here,” he said. “But nobody’s making a career of it.”

Kaiser laughed when asked about the importance of beating fellow rookie Williams.

“We’ve been running against each other for a long time,” Kaiser said. “I don’t like to lose to him and he doesn’t like to lose to me.”

But Kaiser said his first Iditarod is not about beating anyone.

“After I leave the starting line what I’m looking for is to just experience all of it,” he said. “Having a good time, that’s kind of my goal.”