Sometimes it is hard to avoid wondering if the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is trying to kill the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Last year the event, which likes to bill itself as the “Toughest Race on Earth,” up and moved from Willow to Fairbanks because a historic Iditarod Trail short on snow was too demanding for modern day mushers. A move to Fairbanks again this year was barely diverted despite the fact the Yentna River and the south slope of the Alaska Range have plenty of snow.
Yes, it gets a little grim on the north side of the Range, but in the history of the Iditarod it has often been a little grim on the north side of the Range. Thirty years ago, the best Iditarod stories were those told by mushers who barely survived the Farewell Burn.
The Farewell Burn has been gone for some time now. It grew up with new trees to keep the snow from blowing away and the trail on the north side of the mountains got a lot easier. As a result, dare one say, a few mushers became spoiled pansies seemingly wanting a pothole free Iditarod Expressway running for 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome.
When a videographer for the Iditarod Insider — the Iditarod’s pay-to-watch version of a sterilized NFL.com — went out to shoot a preview of the trail through the fabled Dalzell Gorge earlier this week, he wanted locations that looked dramatic but not dangerous, apparently so as not to scare the Iditarod racers.
But here’s the thing, some of the trail through the Dalzell this year does look dangerous. It’s not actually, or at least it’s not for a competent sled handler. But it looks dangerous. Close to the trail there are open holes in the creek ice that drop straight down to a creek flowing along 5-or 6-feet below.
If you put a sled in one of these holes — and there are no guardrails (hard to believe, isn’t it?) — you’d have a tough time getting it out. Rookie musher Kathleen Frederick put her sled in such a hole in 2010. The help of Iditarod trail sweeps was required to free it. Because she received such “outside assistance,” as the rules call it, the 58-year-old woman off on a once-in-a-lifetime pursuit of an Iditarod dream was forced to scratch in Rohn.
After a nice long cry, she told a good story . It was the kind of story about the agony of defeat that makes the Iditarod special. Whether a rookie musher would feel free to tell such a story this year with Iditarod management threatening to crack down on any musher who says anything the race perceives to be derogatory is hard to say.
Why the Iditarod imposed this gag order has been a source of some debate. The Anchorage newspaper tried to tie it to Dan Seavey of Seward, a veteran of the first Iditarod, attacking a Donlin Gold proposal to slash a football-field wide, open corridor through the brush and timber from Skwentna to Rainy Pass in order to build a gas pipeline to supply fuel to power a mine it wants to build near Bethel.
Seavey is of the opinion a driveable pipeline corridor up, into and through the Alaska Range would destroy the character of the trail. Some modern mushers — covetous of the aforementioned Iditarod Expressway, and desirous of a NASCAR style event not some crazy adventure race with dogs — think a wide, smooth track would be great.
And Donlin, in a smart and significant marketing move, signed itself up as a major Iditarod sponsor.
The problem with the Seavey theory is that the new rule predates his op-ed in the Anchorage newspaper attacking the Donlin plan. The reality is more that a gag rule has been brewing at least since musher Hugh Neff’s girlfriend stirred up a shit storm in 2014 and maybe even before that.
Nicole Faille went public with claims Neff nearly died because Iditarod didn’t act fast enough to rescue him when his dog team quit on Golovin Bay, and he decided to camp out in his sled in a storm.
Neff, instead of being embarrassed at his team quitting and his own failings at being able to take care of himself let alone his dogs, then doubled-down on what Faille had to say.
He told television station KTUU-TV that because of Iditarod’s failure to respond when he pushed a rescue button on a race-supplied satellite tracking device he was left pondering whether he would live.
“I was distraught, you know, when you’re close to knocking on heaven’s door, uh, a lot of, um, a lot of sadness comes up and you don’t want to die,” he said to the camera. “When I pressed that (rescue button) down, all three lights on top of the SOS, above that on the beacon, were all blinking, three blight flashes at a time so I figured that meant that my signal went through.”
Iditarod officials didn’t much like being criticized by Neff, who escaped his self-made emergency with neither frostbite nor hypothermia.
Then came the 2015 race when musher Brent Sass was caught with an iPod Touch, a device capable of two-way communication, in his sled. Two-way communication devices are illegal in the race. Sass was disqualified.
Sass himself was diplomatic about the incident, saying he’d accidentally screwed up but a rule is a rule. His friends and fans, however, were angry, and his hometown newspaper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, took up the cause, arguing Sass has been booted on a mere “technicality.”
There was never any indication that Sass stirred the hornet’s nest, but Iditarod officialdom clearly wished he’d have disappeared after the DQ and hauled his fan club along with him. Iditarod management has never really liked criticism even when it made the race more interesting.
That’s understandable. Nobody likes criticism.
But what would the Iditarod be without things going wrong? The nature of the wilderness is that little functions smoothly. Life there is not like in the city. Not only do the trains not run on schedule; there are no trains.
The wilderness is the opposite of the easy life in the urban jungle. The wilderness comes with problems: The trail is bad, or there is no trail. People get lost and injured. Dogs get banged up or sick. The weather imposes its will and everyone suffers. Equipment break. Dreams die. Hopes arise. Emotions shift.
All of that is the blood and guts of the Iditarod. And because so much of what happens on the Iditarod happens out of sight or in the dark, little if any of it exists unless mushers talk about it. The Iditarod shouldn’t be imposing rules suggesting mushers talk less, it should be demanding they talk more.
Unless mushers bring the race alive, Iditarod is pretty much left to sell a dead baby.
A bunch of dogs pulled some guy to Nome on a sled and nothing happened. Who cares?
Take the cold snap out of last year’s race on the flat rivers of the Interior, and it’s a sleeper. There was Sass and the Ipod controversy, and there were a bunch of people suffering and frostbit, and then there was what?
One of the Seavey’s won, didn’t they? The whole race got pretty boring along the coast until the bumbling, stumbling Mushing Mortician broke something again and had to be rescued. That made for decent TV.
These are the kinds of stories that make the Iditarod. The race needs the less than perfect humans just as it needs controversy. It should be embracing these things, not trying to squelch them. The race was on the right path when it stole the Iditarod Insider idea from the NFL channel and NFL.com.
Now Iditarod officials need to watch NFL-TV and read NFL.com and see how the NFL handles controversy. When the NLF started its own network, journalists were skeptical the football powerhouse was trying to build a propaganda arm to soft-pedal its product. That didn’t happen.
Almost the opposite in fact. The folks on the NFL channel and NFL.com now sometimes seem to be better journalists than the journalists. When Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton behaved badly after losing the Superbowl, a lot of media danced around the issue.
Not so the NFL channel. They went right at it. Newton had his defenders, and he had his critics and none of them were afraid to say what they thought. It made for an interesting discussion. It heightened interest in the game.
It helped the NFL as a business. The Iditarod doesn’t seem to get business.
The Iditarod doesn’t seem to understand what it is selling. The Iditarod seems to want to make itself into another Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race, a race that might have passed into history if not for what the weather did this year.
Saying this is difficult, but running the Rondy on a 3-mile course on the streets of Anchorage where teams had to pass each other head-on and everything happened fast made for a better Rondy than any since out-spoken mushers Eddy Streeper and the late George Attla left the scene.
Rondy was a spectator event this year, not just a bunch of dogs running away from downtown into the emptiness of the Campbell Track and coming back a long time later so the some musher could report “I had a clean run.”
Boring. Boring. Boring.
Which is what it now seems the Iditarod wants. There are people involved with the organization who think it would be great to make Iditarod into a 10 mph, doggy version of NASCAR sans the thundering cars, the crashes, the fights between drivers, and never a bad word spoken.
What would the late Joe Redington’s lead dog Tang have said about this?