The first musher to reach Nikolai in the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is last year's champion, Joar Leifseth Ulsom.

He took the opportunity to rest and get a free breakfast, put on by the fourth graders at Top of the Kuskokwin School. While sitting down to eat, Ulsom was surprised with the gift of beaver mitts made by Nikolai resident Oline Petruska and a wool blanket from Alaska Air Transit.

"Wow," Ulsom said about the mitts. "I don't have anything like this. I can certainly use these on the trail."

Joar Leifseth Ulsom accepts a prize of beaver and moose hide mitts for being the first to arrive to Nikolai during the 2019 Iditarod. (Scott Gross/KTVA)

In 2018, Ryan Redington was the first into Nikolai. Upon his arrival, Redington was presented with a pair of handmade beaver mitts, also made by Petruska. She has been making the beaver mitts for the first musher into Nikolai for the past three years. 

"I don't even have anything like this," former musher Karin Hendrickson said of the mitts presented to Ulsom. "Those are really nice."

Oline's grandson, Daryl Petruska, gave the prize to Ulsom on Tuesday morning on behalf of his grandmother who is currently in Anchorage.

"Those are beaver hide mitts with moose hide palms," Daryl said. "He's lucky, I don't even have a pair."

Daryl is the first chief of the Nikolai Edzeno’ Tribal Council. He said the community of Nikolai enjoys helping people and the Iditarod allows them to showcase their hospitality.

"When there is an event like this everyone comes together," Daryl said. "It's just how we were raised. You get out and help whenever you can. We're a tight-knit community I guess."

Jealousy spread throughout the room at the prize awarded to Ulsom. The small crowd pondered at the amount of time and dedication put into making the mitts by Oline. Her grandson said it took a lot of sewing, which takes longer now that she's getting older.

(Scott Gross/KTVA)

Daryl said that in 2018 the area schools received a grant that allowed all of the kids in Nikolai, McGrath and Takotna the opportunity to make beaver mitts, carrying on the traditional art.

"We try to hold small events like that for the kids so they know how to do some of this," he said.

The last place person to Nikolai always gets a prize, too. This year that is also a handmade pair of beaver mitts from Oline — first place gets lighter-colored brown mitts and the last musher gets a black pair.

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