NOME — In a first for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, the top three finishers are each Alaska Native, with deep family ties to rural parts of the state.
This year’s champion, Ryan Redington, is the sixth Alaska Native to win the Iditarod. Since the race’s beginning in 1973, competitive long-distance mushing has gradually morphed from a kind of wilderness husbandry to a professionalized sport, with most top-tier mushers clustered on Alaska’s road system.
Redington’s mother, Barb, grew up in Unalakleet, an Iñupiaq community that hosts one of Iditarod’s checkpoints, where her grandfather was a musher who delivered mail by dog sled.
“Hardier people back then,” she said not long after her son crossed the finish line in Nome.
[Alaskan Ryan Redington earns first Iditarod win, fulfilling a family dream]
Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl crossed the finish line about an hour apart Tuesday afternoon in second and third place, respectively, after a tight final push along the sea ice to Nome. Kaiser, who is Yup’ik, hails from Bethel, and Diehl, who is Dena’ina Athabascan, is from Aniak — two communities on the Kuskokwim River in rural Southwest Alaska.
“There’s not a lot of Alaska Native teams in the race to begin with,” Kaiser said after his second-place finish. “I think there’s maybe four of us this year with Mike Williams Jr., if I’m correct. So, to have three out of four in the top three is — I mean, it’s almost unheard of.”
As Kaiser was speaking, Williams — who is Yup’ik from Akiak, also in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region — was on his way across the sea ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk.
“I think it’s great … hopefully inspiring to another generation of kids in the villages in rural Alaska or anywhere, you know, to take on a crazy sport like this,” Kaiser said.
The crowd lining Front Street in Nome was aware of the historic feat.
Friends Cheryl Johnson and Nicole Borromeo stopped for a picture near the burled arch, resplendent in parkas trimmed with beaver, wolverine and Arctic fox.
The two had flown up from Anchorage on Tuesday morning, with the sense that history was unfolding.
”We woke up this morning and saw that Alaska Native mushers were in spots one, two and three and we had to be here for the historic finish,” said Borromeo, the executive vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives.
”We’re both Alaska Native, and we wanted to see the top three Alaska Native finishers,” said Johnson, who grew up in Nome and works for Ryan Air — a sponsor of Redington, Kaiser and Diehl.
“It’s a good showing for rural Alaska,” Diehl said after his arrival just an hour behind Kaiser, notching his best finish yet in the Iditarod. “We’re living in a day and age where, in Aniak, the price of gasoline is almost nine bucks a gallon. And here we are. We got great support around us.”
Diehl credited that support — from family, fans, the community — with making it feasible to train and compete at such an elite level. He mentioned the Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee, which not only puts on a number of short- and middle-distance races each winter, but manages to pull together a race purse that makes it financially viable for mushers to participate for decent payouts if they can place.
“It shows that in some parts of rural Alaska, mushing’s not dying,” Diehl said, not long after snacking the seven dogs that pulled him across the finish line with fat hunks of frozen bacon.
As Kaiser and Diehl fielded questions in the race chute after finishing, musher John Baker stood nearby, chatting with some friends.
On another sunny March day 12 years ago, Baker, of Kotzebue, became the first Alaska Native musher to win the Iditarod since 1975, while setting a record finish time for the southern route.
To see three Alaska Native mushers finish at the top of the field was a moment for reflection, he said.
“It’s actually pretty special,” Baker said. “These guys were racing when I was racing also. I hope that I was able to help them form ideas on how to do things.”
“I’m extremely proud of all of them,” he said.
The Iditarod’s future relies on new mushers who might be inspired by Redington, Kaiser and Diehl, Baker said.
“I think this year, especially the enthusiasm that these guys have brought to it — we’ll see that carry forward and the race will start enjoying that popularity again.”