Iditarod catastrophe

One dog is dead and others are injured as the result of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s worst nightmare come true.

Two teams in theĀ  Alaska dog race, which has been losing support in Alaska villages for years, were early Saturday attacked by a snowmachine rider along the Yukon River in the Interior.

“Early this morning, as Aliy Zirkle was making her way towards the Nulato checkpoint, a snowachiner repeatedly attempted to harm her and her team,” the race reported in a press release. “One dog received a non-life threatening injury.

“Upon arrival at the Nulato checkpoint, Zirkle reported the incident to race officials and a report was filed with the Alaska State Troopers. Contact was also made with the village police officer in Nulato.

“Jeff King, who was behind Zirkle, experienced a similar incident 12-miles prior to his arrival at the Nulato checkpoint. This incident resulted in the death of Nash, a three-year-old male. In addition, Crosby, a three-year-old male, and Banjo, a two-year-old male, received non-life threatening injuries. King requested and received medical attention at the checkpoint.

“The suspect has been identified by the village police officer in Nulato, and authorities are conducting an investigation.”

King and Zirkle were both reported to be upset, but OK.

Alcohol was reported to have been involved in the incident as it often is in crime in rural Alaska. But alcohol is really just a contributing factor that removes the inhibitions that hold resentments and anger at bay, and in some villages there has been deep resentment about the Iditarod brewing for years.

The race is in some places seen now as an invasion by the rich and famous that comes and goes and gets a lot of national attention, but leaves nothing behind. Villages used to be a part of the Iditarod, but no more.

In many of them, the Iditarod flies in crews of checkers and veterinarians from the Lower 48 to man the checkpoints, and flies them out again as soon as the last of the racers go through. Racers are “corralled” to minimize their interactions with villagers.

The corralling began with good intentions. Some racers were gaining a competitive edge by forming relationships with village residents who then provided them assistance during the race. But the unintended consequence was to push Bush villagers farther from Iditarod mushers at a time when some of them were coming to be seen as Alaska celebrities, sometimes national celebrities.

The situation was not helped by the fact dog teams themselves are all but gone from the Bush. The cost of maintaining them is prohibitive. Dog food, which must be flown in, is financially out of reach of the many, who can afford but one or two dogs if any.

Unemployment curses the region. There is surplus of young men out of work, which almost invariably creates problems in any society.

Fans of the Iditarod were quick to lash out with cries for speedy prosecution and punishment for the offender in this case, but the story here goes a lot deeper than one drunk on a snowmachine.





40 replies »

    • That’s where he was said to have been, but if you close the Last Chance, what happens? People just start making that home brew some of which is vile. It’s killed people.

      • Or a local in town liquor store. Like I said, a liquor store folks drive to and from seems like a recipe for problems.

      • there has been talk of that Jay C, but putting a liquor store in an Alaska village always turns into a hugely contentious issue.

  1. Craig, do you have any opinions on a similar incident that happened in the same area to Blake and Jennifer Frekking’s teams in 2008? I have looked for the name of that snow machiner with out any luck. I was wanting to look up and see what he was charged with and what sentence he received.

  2. It did not look like there was any corralling happening when Brent Sass came into Unalakleet. All of the people crowding around him could not have been all Iditarod personal.

  3. Craig, I get it. Yes, there well could be some resentment on the part of some groups feeling like they have been pushed to the side, even in their own village. The Iditarod of today is not of the same making of the one that the founders started. Villagers were well involved in the success of it in the beginning, but shoved aside now. None the less, the actions of this young man need to be dealt with for the seriousness that it is. Maybe, just maybe after that, the lines of communication, and the healing can begin. Lets hope for the best, and maybe that line of communication will happen. Having the locals involved with the race means a bunch to them.

  4. Craig, I respect your writing and your opinions…and I am an Outsider. But I read that Nulato is now afraid that Iditarod will re-route around the village and no longer go through it. That doesn’t sound like resentment to me; it sounds like the village as a whole finds some benefit to the presence of Iditarod.
    And NO action whatsoever happens in a vacuum. There is a story behind every tragedy and every victory. It’s what each individual chooses to do with their story that makes it uplifting or tragic. Sure, there are factors; but the bottom line is that Demoski intentionally attacked 2 people and a LOT of innocent dogs (one dead, 6 or 7 injured). Anger, resentment, booze: there is no excuse.

    • nobody, and no village, wants to be shunned in the aftermath of something like this no matter what they might have thought about the event before. i’m sure there are some in the village who are fans, too. but i truly doubt, the more i examine this, that Arnold Demoski really intended to hurt anyone. i think he wanted to scare some people. i think his intent was the first encounter with Ail: brush her going past, intimidate her, but no more. who knows what happened with Jeff. at high speed it’s pretty easy for a snowmachine to hit something and kick left or right. it could be he really wanted to give Jeff a good scare going by at 70 mph, and just hit something that bounced him into the team. the key question the remains is why? why would someone want to terrorize Iditarod mushers?

      • “Why?” is beside the point. The point is that he terrorized them, caused lots of damage and took an innocent life. No matter his intention, his actions stand…and I read that he has been arrested for assault at least twice before. Maybe if there had been real consequences, he would not have had the opportunity today. How many chances do we give to someone to kill? So what if his first intent was to “intimidate” Aily? He came back at her several times.
        It doesn’t matter why he wanted to do this; he chose to do it. We are judged by our actions, not our intentions.

  5. In the course of my employment with the State of Alaska, I traveled to many remote villages in Alaska, and quickly learned staying with local families was advantageous. Rather than staying alone and isolated in a public building, I became part of an instant network in the community, and received feedback from my host family about my presence in the community. I always paid my hosts, and called ahead to find out what I could bring to help out. Over the years, I brought fresh eggs, fresh fruit, 5 lbs of Krusteaz, a flat of canned cat food, reindeer stew meat, and delivered Native delicacies from relatives, were along the route, such as walrus meat and frozen sheefish. In exchange, I sampled, oogruk, muktuk and seal meat, along with pilot bread and heavenly sourdough pancakes.
    Hosting and feeding visitors in the Bush is expensive; the cost of goods/gas there is 3-5 times the price of goods in Anchorage.

    What exactly do the ITC and the media contribute to the villages the race passes through, or for the children who cheer on the mushers?

  6. Dutch courage is never an excusse. This person needs to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law

  7. Alcohol is never an excuse. Trying to intentionally hurt humans and innocent animals is a disgrace. Ihope they throw the book at the perpetrator and lock him up and melt the key. Or give him to a bunch of mushers and what is left should be left out for bear bait

  8. I’m just an old lady in Minnesota. Here, it’s the rich drunk white guys that chase people down.

    If the Iditarod is serious about improving relations with interior villages, they should start a nonprofit and endow some of these villages to help those that want to carry on the tradition. Funds could be used toward purchasing dogs and their maintenance. Education, preferably in conjunction with native mushers, could also be done. I know that many mushers, native or not, embrace the culture and probably would be willing to help. It would be something if every village that wanted a team, had one.

    Seeing the teams go through Huslia last year was the highlight for me.

    I understand the despair.

    • me, too. but if he’s smart he’ll claim it was just an accident — that the mushers got it wrong — and blame the booze. it’s become a convenient excuse out there. or maybe he can make up some story how about it was homebrew that had him hallucinating and he thought he was running over aliens. then again, it could be homebrew doing that because where alcohol has been restricted people making some of the most vial alcohol on earth to drink.

  9. Hey Craig, do the villagers also have a problem with the Iron Dog? Maybe there’s some jealousy going on here and some anti-white racism.

    You can’t have it both ways…live in a village with a traditional subsistence life-style and be bitter against the white man who has a higher standard of living and the luxury of a dog team. How does that sound? The white man has a dog team that the natives used to have and can’t afford because they can’t buy white man dog food?

    And don’t call me racist either. I have three native adopted brothers and a native adopted sister.

    You’re right….the incident is not in a vacuum; it exists because of bad attitudes in a chosen lifestyle.

    • the villages seem to like the Iron Dog. it’s a more relevant part of their culture at the moment; it gets in and out of town fast; and the iron dog competitors (God help for saying this but it’s the truth), aren’t as full of themselves as some in the Iditarod. i suggest someone do this: go count the number of Alaska Natives, especially rural Alaska Natives, in the Iron Dog and compare that number to the number in the Iditarod. it’s an eye opener.

      • People are people no matter what the package is we come in. Bigots use race and culture to disguise their violent disgustingness and hatred for others.

        Let everyone stop blaming other’s cultures and take responsibility for our own evil.

        You’re saying Iditarod dog mushers are more narcissistic that Iron Doggers…..interesting…

        You’re saying the Iditarod mushers are not as equal as Iron Doggers when it comes to representation by Alaska Natives. Racial quotas will not make mushers more accepted in the villages. To please the anti-white racists, let’s just have two trails; let the native mushers go through the village checkpoints and the non-native mushers can use a bypass trail.

        What in the world does race have to do with racing?

  10. Having assisted Joe Delia as a checker at Skwentna for several years, I have seen the race up close. Craig may be on to something, but he fails to bring up a lingering issue in some villages. It is not just the Iditarod race that spawns resentment in the Bush. I have recently worked on Alaska Reality shows, and I have witnessed an attitude towards the crew that is similar to what Craig’s article touches on. Believe it or not, one issue that remains is the ages old clash of cultures that still exists in the Native, Non-native world. When an individual mixes booze with hate, bad things happen. Can the racers be trained for this? No! No one, not even the ITC can avoid a mad-man filled with these two ingredients.

  11. You’re clearly holding a grudge against the ITC. I have no idea why, but the fact that you’re justifying an attempt murder by a drunk driver is rather sad. Even worse, you’re making all your readers believe that Aily and Jeff (the two mushers) deserved what they got.

    You also forgot (or hid?) the fact that most villagers are happy that the Iditarod goes through their town, it’s fun for the kids, and it helps to boost the economy of isolated villages.

    It’s like justifying the holocaust because Hitler had a grudge against the jews.

    I won’t even try to write a longer reply, because the reality is so obvious that anyone justifying the attack simply won’t see reason no matter what.

    • I’m not holding a grudge against ITC or justifying anything. What I am pointing out is that events don’t happen in a vacuum. People, and often their behaviors, are products of their environments. I’ve been in these villages. I’ve followed the Iditarod on the trail on snowmachine to Nome. It is fun for some kids in some villages. There is also a lot of resentment about the race. One would have to be blind not to see it. The ITC is well aware and works to try to overcome it. The task is by no means easy.And the problem is by no means simple.

    • Thanks for letting everyone know about your complete ignorance about the Iditarod and dog sledding in general. For your information, the WINNER of the Iditarod doesn’t get nearly enough money to even cover the costs of running a kennel, let alone buying food or a car for themselves.

      • Iditarod winners, Lance Mackey the possible exception, have done pretty well for themselves financially. And I know the Iditarod pretty. If you don’t believe me, ping Rick Swenson.

      • Now who kidding who, if you think there no money in this , try millions ,call back when you do your research. Here a hint, it’s not the race, it’s what happens after, kennels, books ,speaking deals ,tours, merchandise, maybe you will wise up, or can you just call people names because you don’t know what your talking about, ” NO MONEY IN DOG RACING ” very funny,

  12. I pray for the angles of protection and wisdom sourround this 2016 Iditarod race teams and the villages in their checkpoints. I’m so sad that some stupid people not all have little respect of of Mankind & Womankind and the animals there life support on this Last Great Race the Alaskan Iditarod..Lets stand in corporate Prayer for the event to be smart and to be smart. To be more aware for there sorounding to make good judgment in the situations they my be place in at a split second judgment on what nd when to act on all that is present in there lives. And lives of other in this great race the Iditarod. Thank you Lord Jesus for your protection and wisdom Amen

  13. Alcohol and riding snowmachines or boats or ATVs have no business together, regardless of circumstance or historic trauma. I live and work in a remote Alaska village, and do not feel safe running dogs or riding machines after attending to too-many-to-count head-ons and near misses–all alcohol or drug-related. It’s dangerous out there, and solutions will have to come from every collective such as profit and nonprofit corporations, law enforcement, city governments, tribes, regional and city health corporations, school districts, boroughs. We are all affected, and we all own the problem. Who will lead the charge? First we have to recognize the problem, and make it a priority. So sad to hear of yet another tragic loss.

  14. It’s not scary to suggest that people carry guns to protect themselves. It’s smart, not just for Iditarod competitors, but for anyone who wants to protect her or himself. If Aliy or Jeff had some way to defend themselves once the attack started, we would have a different result. Yes, the guy should be found and prosecuted and yes, people should be armed. No need to be afraid of firearms. The rest of the excuses is just lame. People can be angry. Lots of people are angry about lots of things, but attacking others, trying to harm or kill them, and killing innocent dogs cannot be excused. Iditarod competitors did not create the situation. People need to start looking at the cause of these problems and they need to look to the nation’s leaders. Attacking people in a dog race is disgraceful. Making excuses for them is also disgraceful.

    • Shelly: I don’t know where to begin to respond here, but maybe first by being honest. I was just out on the Iditarod Trail to Nikolai and back with the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I had a gun in my pocket the whole time. I consider it an important survival tool if the snowmachine were to break down or if I was to some how fall of and get seriously hurt. It is a good signalling device and handy for getting food. But do you really think this situation would be better if Aliy or Jeff had shot someone? Is that really a solution? Would that make villages that barely tolerate the Iditarod now suddenly welcome it? You need to go back and reread. I’m not making excuses for anyone. What I am doing is pointing out this didn’t happen in a vacuum. This wasn’t some happy drunk accidentally running into a snowmachine. This was someone full of anger, and there is a reason for the anger. Iditarod competitors did in some ways create the situation. How do you think you’d feel if Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Katy Perry and a gang of other celebrities moved into your house once a year, sort of pushed you aside to take it over to party, and then sort of left with a “thanks, but we don’t even know why we keep coming back to your dirty little house ever year.”

      • Apparently now it’s easy to shoot a person who driving a moving snowmachine, in the dark, while you are standing on a dog sled hitched to fourteen moving dogs.

        People who think that movies are real and that guns are easy to use to stop situations like this are just frightening.

    • The “good guy with a gun” argument, back again.
      You’re much more likely to be shot by your own gun than you are to defend yourself or someone else, and that’s just facts.
      You’re more likely to be shot by your own gun in the hands of a toddler than you are to defend yourself or someone else.
      Sorry, gun nuts.
      You are wrong all the way around.

  15. Good perspective, whatever prompted you to write about it. Resentment has been a factor in village-Iditarod relations for a long time. Another case I can remember was Bob Bright and his team deliberately attacked by a snowmobiler. In that case his earlier remark, “this race can’t be so tough if a woman can win it!” could have been a factor.

  16. Yes, there are problems in rural Alaska. Yes, there are problems with some feeling alienated from the race that comes through there villages. But, that is no excuse to hurt or kill any living creature.

    • Donna — I’m not excusing anything. You know me. Most people think I’m too much the hard-ass. But what happened here didn’t happen in a vacuum. Something like this has been coming for a while, and there were incidents similar to this in the past. Jerry Austin actually had a dog stomped to death in Kaltag back when Kaltag was a problem place on the trail.

      • Craig–my first impression of your article is that of excuses. Sorry–maybe I read it the wrong way, but that was my impression. Drunk driving is a problem everywhere. There is no excuse for it, whether it kills a dog or a human. (I’ll still read your opinions though.)

      • Hm, I can’t go with you on this one, Craig. The only person responsible for violence is the person doing it. I understand that you are not making excuses, but the Iditarod is not responsible for the person doing this.

        Most Alaskans, I would expect, hate the way our state is changing. But none of us get to attack people to make a point about it. If we did, there are many more deserving people than two Iditarod mushers.

      • People are, by and large, products of their environment, Tyler. That’s all I’m pointing out here. If the Iditarod is to be made safer, it might be a good idea if we all worked on improving the environments that could lead someone to the sort of rage that would make them do this.

  17. So agree! Alcohol isn’t required when we have a pervasive situation where people act out their fear-driven hatred with violence. I have FB friends who have been ranting against the ITC, for a number of concerns, in language that grows more and more violent with every post and reply. Friends yelling at each other in text. People responding to this in event by suggesting it’s more evidence people should be carrying guns, that shooting the snowmachiner is justified (post attack, not just in self defense), and vigilante violence is a solution. It’s scary and bigger than Iditarod and bigger than Alaska.

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