Commentary

A difficult trail shared by all

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The Iditarod Trail north of the Alaska Range

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

 

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4 replies »

  1. Why did you not talk about this person’s attack on Aliy Zirkle and her dog team? That is the evidence that this was deliberate and intentional. He came back at her 3 times during the first engagement and then once again later. Then he turned back down the trail to find someone else (probably after Aliy bopped him with the club she had made out of trail markers). Her testimony is that it was an attack – no mistaken coming to close to the dog team because I was drunk is going to explain away Aliy’s testimony!

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    • i’d love to talk to him. unfortunately, when i was writing that story he was in jail. i agree that Aliy’s account certainly sounds like someone engaged in a deliberate and intentional act to scare her, which raises all kinds of questions. that said, the evidence that he actually tried to hurt her or even hurt Jeff’s dogs is thin. as Will Forsberg and others have observed, if he’d want to hurt someone he could have just run into them at speed. we’ve had quite a few people injured and some killed in that way — all claiming to be “accidental” — in recent years. intentional acts here, of course, raise the question of “why?” and that goes directly to the issues of what life is like in village Alaska and how some people there view the Iditarod. no matter what went down here, it’s clear Demoski’s behavior is not how one behaves around friends.

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  2. My two cents worth …

    Only the people involved have the evidence. All of us could speculate till the cows come home and we won’t know any of the details until the court proceedings conclude. I think there is much more to this than what we know or have heard thus far.

    Demoski has holes in the dialog he already submitted in video media. He also has a history, he has made certain choices in his life. We all have those fork in the road good or bad decisions/opportunities.

    We saw his video interview footage that does not make sense. He blacked out and said he didn’t remember hitting them BUT he amazingly remembered he had gone back to check on them??

    He then discovered it must have been him when he heard the news and saw his snow machine damage, and he also remembered going back to check on them yet did nothing because he thought he would get in trouble, so do you think he knew he did something wrong at that point?? Something does not add up in my way of thinking.

    I also disagree with you, I think there are many kennels that would argue with you about this being a rich mans event. It is a HARD WORKING person’s event. 365 days a year, for years, no slacking taking care of dogs. Training, working and the desire to do that kind of work. You have to be driven and dedicated to want to do anything in life. Native or not, anyone has the opportunity to choose this.

    No one takes you by the hand and states “there there sweetie pie, I am laying out the red carpet for you” If you want to do that work and gain skill, many have interned with kennels so they could learn. I don’t think anyone handed it to them.

    It IS however, much easier to sit back and have checks mailed to you or work for someone else.

    There are kennel owners that have day jobs to pay for their kennel upkeep while they spend their evenings and weekends working and caring for their dogs.

    I believe there is so much misplaced jealousy and anger everywhere, not just Alaska. People working hard becoming successful while those that are unwilling to do the same work, or put in tremendous hours, or take the chances, by choice, or would rather NOT put in that time but are then jealous of the person who has done so and done well … Like the classic “Henny Penny” story.

    I have visited remote Alaskan villages but have not lived in them so do not have distinct idea of their current way of life and education available to them, you have insight that I know nothing about.

    I also don’t know how you teach someone to be driven and passionate; this has to come from within and exposure to possible opportunities and personal confidence but you can never MAKE the horse drink the water.

    Thanks for the opportunity to stick my neck out!

    Cat

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    • Cat — I have to agree with most of that. I know a fair number of mushers of meager means. That is not, however, the perception in rural Alaska. My old friend Howard Albert, a hugely talented Native guy from Ruby who sadly took his own life way back when, observed in the ’80s when we were sitting around a campfire in Rohn that the the Iditarod was then being taken over by “doctors, lawyers and businessmen with money.” I think it might have been a third or half true then. It’s a little more true now. But the rural perception is that EVERYONE involved has money and little of the money gets left in the villages. The resentment in some places is palpable. We may never know what happened here. People are often as dishonest in court as they are in life. But as someone who likes not only the Iditarod, but they idea of the Iditarod and even more then old belief of Joe Redington, Joe Delia, and others now gone that everyone should get out and see what they are made of in the winter wilderness of the Iditarod Trail, I cannot help thinking Iditarod needs to work even harder than it does now (and good Lord Mark Nordman tries) at reconnecting with village Alaska.

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