Part 1 of a 2 part series
When snowmachine driver Arnold Demoski says the collision that killed one dog and seriously injured others in the team of Iditarod musher Jeff King in the dark of night on the Yukon River late Friday “wasn’t intentional,” there is every reason to believe him and almost no reason not to.
Demoski is not some wild-eyed dog killer. Just the opposite. He has a little, mixed-breed, cuddle-dog named Copper at home in Nulato, and he cares for his grandmother’s big, mixed-breed dog, named Lucky.
Friends and family says he loves those dogs and his girlfriend, Alice, who is dealing with her own emotions in the wake of Fairbanks Magistrate Romano DiBenedetto on Sunday suggesting her boyfriend might be a terrorist.
“I’m just trying to hold it together every day being eight months pregnant,” she said Tuesday.
Now, before the people who believe Demoski should be put in jail for a long time or worse level accusations that I am “making excuses” for what he did, let’s get a few things clear:
First, what Demoski did is deplorable and disgusting, and it is understandable that some people want him to spend more time in jail for the death of a dog than the year in prison an Anchorage motorist was ordered to serve for running down and killing a cyclist. The thinking is wrong, but it is understandable.
Second, there is no evidence — none — that the 26-year-old from Nulato wanted to hurt King or kill his dog. When Demoski says he’s sorry a dog died and that others were injured, there’s every reason in the world to believe he is being honest.
Third, making an example of Demoski won’t do anything to help close the gulf between snowmachine riders in rural Alaska and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Ask around out there, and it’s not hard to find people willing to admit, as one said off-the-record Sunday, “I probably came closer (to a dog team) than I should have.”
Asked why, he begged off with the answer “I don’t know.”
Others who admitted they might have, sort-of, kind-of “buzzed” a team gave similarly vague answers: “I shouldn’t have to get off the trail into soft snow for them.” “I wanted to show them how fast I was.” “I wanted to get their attention.”
WHY DOESN’T MATTER
And at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter why somebody decides to pass close to a dog team because it is an inherently dangerous act no matter the reason. Dog teams need to be given a respectable amount of distance if for no other reason than the unpredictability inherent in encounters between dogs and machinery.
“At high speed it is hard to focus on distant objects,” observes Will Forsberg, a long-time dog musher, a past champion of the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race, a neighbor of King in the Denali area, a snowmachine rider, and a veteran of tens of thousands of hours on the winter trails of Alaska. ” I think it is entirely possible that Arnold came upon Jeff’s sled suddenly and turned at the last second to avoid hitting him. If Arnold’s ‘intention’ was to ‘attack’ and injure Jeff, he could have simply rammed into the back of the sled.
“Of course, Arnold may also have seen Jeff and he was trying to go by him as close as possible to scare him….I’m still wondering how he hit the dogs if he had missed the sled. Maybe some reporter will finally get around to asking him. Did Arnold veer back into the team intentionally after passing the sled? Or did the frightened dogs move into the path of the machine?”
The movement of the dogs is a wild card in all encounters between dog teams and snowmachines. The best trained dog teams are like little trains steaming straight ahead down the trail. Less well trained teams are sometimes like snakes, weaving their way left and right as they go.
Then, too, when a dog is suddenly startled by nearby sound or motion, there is no telling what it might do. Suddenly fearful, it might make a split-second decision to jump in a direction that takes it into the path of a speeding snowmachine instead of out of the path.
These variables make it impossible to say what exactly happened on the Yukon Friday to result in a dog death. Some of the answers might or might not be sorted out in court. But this analysis really isn’t about that anyway.
It’s about what happens going forward.
It’s about the future of Iditarod. Some have suggested the Iditarod Trail Committee needs to police the race route to make it safe for mushers. That is as unrealistic as expecting the organizers of the Tour de France to guarantee the protection of cyclists in the famous bike race.
Some of the world’s top terrorism experts say protection for the Tour is “almost impossible,” according to VeloNews.com, despite the fact the the Tour enlists “12,000 gendarmes; 9,000 police and CRS (French police reserves), and 45 Garde Républicaine motorcyclists” to guard the route, according to Cycling Weekly.
NOT ENOUGH POLICE
Alaska is reported to have less than 1,300 law enforcement officers in the entire state.
Obviously, the solution in the north isn’t policing with Alaska already short on officers and facing a growing budget crisis. But there are things that can be done.
Demoski’s actions didn’t happen in a vacuum. It appears unlikely they were the sole fault of his drinking too much, no matter how much he had to drink. And he isn’t innocent no matter how badly he might feel about what happened.
The death of King’s dog was the result of Demoski driving recklessly close to a dog team.
As King pointed out in a taped interview with KTVA-TV, “The river’s a mile wide. The trail is 40 feet wide, and he missed me by inches….”
The drunkest of drunks had plenty of room to miss King and King’s team if he was thinking about the danger of passing too close to a dog team, if he was concerned about protecting his canine friends, if he truly didn’t want to risk killing a dog.
Demoski, according to his own admissions, was sober enough to remember encountering dog teams and of going back to take a look at, if not check on, the team of Aliy Zirkle because he thought he might have hit it. He was sober enough to keep the snowmachine upright after plowing into King’s team at high speed. He was sober enough to follow the trail for miles from Koyukuk home to Nulato and park his snowmachine in the yard. He didn’t drive it into the side of the house in a drunken stupor.
Demoski has said he didn’t mean to kill or injury any dogs, but he did take the risk of passing way too close to two teams.
Clearly, he didn’t have enough respect — respect being a big word in rural Alaska these days — for the vulnerability of the dogs to give them a wide berth. The issue the Iditarod faces going forward is how to build more respect so this doesn’t happen again.
The Iditarod of today isn’t the Iditarod of old when the likes of George Attla, the “Huslia Hustler,” Herbie Nayokpuk, the “Shishmaref Cannonball,” and Emmitt Peters, the “Yukon Fox,” were old friends come to visit in the villages of rural Alaska. The Iditarod of today often feels more like an invasion of strangers in that little visited part of the state north of the Alaska Range.
It’s a safe bet most of the people reading this story, and certainly the vast majority of those judging Demoski, have never been in a village north of the range. There is a world out there far different from the world of urban Alaska.
A few on Facebook have tried to suggest the accident on the Yukon might simply have been the result of an annual, alcohol-fueled party near the confluence of that river and the Koyukuk. They’ve argued for somehow eliminating that party to make the race safer.
This ignores the fact the Iditarod runs a gauntlet of alcohol-fueled parties for nearly 100 miles from Willow through Skwentna to Shell Lake every year. There are thousands if not tens of thousands of snowmachines operated along this stretch of the trail during that time.
No dogs have been rundown. By and large, the people attending the parties are big Iditarod fans. Even the drunken snowmachine operators (and sadly there are some, actually too many) are cautious around the dog teams. These people revere Iditarod mushers.
It’s different in rural Alaska. The Iditarod still has plenty of fans there, but it has in many ways grown away from the villages — not closer to them — over the last four decades. The race isn’t respected the way it once was in village Alaska. It truly needs to work on forging new bonds or the problems out there are destined to get worse, not better, in the future.
NEXT: PART TWO — FRIENDS AND PARTNERS