Part II of a two-part series: Part I examined the circumstances behind collisions involving dog-loving Nulato snowmachiner rider Arnold Demoski and two Iditarod dog teams — incidents that left two mushers shaken, one dog dead and several other dgs injured. Part II explores the separation that has developed between some villages and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The year the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began to separate itself from village Alaska was 1986. It was the year Joe Garnie, an Inupiat musher from the village of Teller on Port Clarence north of Nome, should have won.
Quite possibly the best musher never to win Iditarod, Garnie was in ’86 beaten by a lawyer who wasn’t even in entered in the competition. The British cycling team “Sky,” winner of three of the last four Tour de France races with two different riders, has popularized the term “marginal gains” in endurance racing circles in recent years.
Attorney Dave Monson, a musher best known as the husband of Iditarod legend Susan Butcher, pioneered “marginal gains” in the remote north more two decades before Team Sky first organized. Monson in ’86 greased Iditarod checkpoints just enough to provide Butcher and her team the edge they needed to win.
At the time, Iditarod rules encouraged mushers to stay in the homes of villagers. Villagers were part of the race. They weren’t supposed to be actually helping the mushers, but more than a few did. They wanted to be friendly. They sometimes had a meal ready and hot water waiting to prepare dog food for a visiting team.
This sort of cooperation between mushers and villagers had been going on for more than a decade before ’86, but Monson fine-tuned it into a coordinated effort. And every second that saved Butcher in ’86 brought her a second closer to victory. And every bit of strategic advice a well-rested, Monson, an experienced competitor himself, provided in the checkpoints brought Butcher another dog whisker closer to victory.
It was a close race none-the-less. At White Mountain, where the lead teams take a mandatory, 8-hour rest before starting the 80-mile push to Nome, Garnie was only four minutes behind Butcher.
As the race wound up and over the Topkok Hills out of that checkpoint, his team twice managed to catch and pass Butcher’s, but it could not pull away. Once over the hills and into the Solomon Sloughs within 30 miles of Nome, Butcher passed Garnie for the last time and began to pull away.
Fully spent himself from running in the Topkoks, his team equally tired, Garnie gave up the chase. He eventually finished second 55 minutes behind Butcher.
CONTROVERSY BEHIND THE SCENES
All of the reporters on the trail that year and the mushers near the front knew what had happened, though it was not publicly discussed at the time. Everyone in the media was afraid to talk about Monson’s role in the Butcher victory for fear any comment might sound sexist or demeaning, as if one of greatest mushers of her era needed help from a man.
Butcher, of course, made that all seem some sort of silly by dominating the Iditarod for half of the next decade. But by then the ’86 race, in which some thought Garnie was cheated out of a victory, was old news and lost to history.
Butcher went on to great success. By the time she retired in 1995, she was a four-time Iditarod winner and the most nationally recognized Alaska musher ever, and Garnie was back in Teller and out of Iditarod. He would come back to tour the trail a few times between 2009 and 2014, but he would never be competitive again.
Butcher was destined to die a premature death from cancer in 2006 at age 51, sadly leaving behind two daughters and her ever faithful and beloved David.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the 1986 race that helped Butcher score the breakthrough victory that gave her the confidence of a champion and changed her mushing career forever was destined to transform the Iditarod.
First came the “Monson rule” as it was informally called. The rule banned “outside assistance” in the form of spouses, friends, companions or other advisers. Most mushers thought it made the race more fair, but not fair enough.
So in 1992, a new, even firmer rule was put in place. It banned mushers from staying in the homes of village friends and flying extra supplies along the trail. The rule required mushers to park their teams in an Iditarod corral in the village checkpoint, and stay in community buildings if they decided to stop and rest.
Not only did the rule sever relationships with villagers some mushers had developed over years and years of Iditarod, it had other consequences. Some mushers stopped staying in checkpoints all together. Rather than try to catch an hour or two of rest in a noisy community center, they would grab straw for themselves and the dogs and go on down the trail to camp out.
Pre-race trail tours that mushers once took to “familiarize the dogs with the trail,” as mushers liked to say, also began to disappear. A lot of those tours had been about developing relationships with host families in villages.
ALASKA WAS CHANGING TOO
Iditarod wasn’t the only thing changing in the ’80s. Snowmachines — the machines most of the rest of the world calls snowmobiles — were undergoing a technological revolution, and because of it sled dogs — the animals Iditarod founding father Joe Redington tried to save by starting the race — were disappearing from villages. Along with them went rich mushing traditions.
Sled-dog racing was once a sport dominated by Alaska Natives, many of them from the villages. Many villages had their own races. And from the 1950s on, Native men like Gareth Wright, Jimmy Huntington, Jimmy Malamute, George Attla, the “Huslia Hustler”; Herbie Nayokpuk, the “Shishmaref Cannonball”; and Emmitt Peters, the “Yukon Fox,” were known and admired statewide.
They were part of a large fraternity of rural Native mushers. Almost half of those who finished the first Iditarod in 1973 were Alaska Natives. Rural Natives — Carl Huntington, Peters and Jerry Riley — won the three Iditarods that followed the inaugural event.
Native domination ended in 1977 when the legendary Rick Swenson claimed the first of his five races. Swenson was a Minnesota transplant, but he at least had some things in common with most Native mushers: he didn’t have much money, and he was living in the Bush.
Swenson would eventually move to the suburbs of Fairbanks, because the cost of living is lower there. And all of the Iditarod winners for the next three decades would be White people living along Alaska’s limited road system for the same reason.
It would be 34 years before a Native from rural Alaska won another Iditarod. And the winner would be different from the villagers of old. The champ in 2011, John Baker, was a businessman from Kotzebue whose family owned an air taxi. Baker had both the drive and financing necessary for Iditarod success.
Most rural residents didn’t and don’t have those assets. As a result, year-by-year, more and more rural mushers faded away. It is these days hard to find a dog team in many villages. The dogs have been replaced by snowmachines that are now almost as reliable as automobiles and cost less to operate and maintain than a kennel even when gas is at its rural peak of $10 per gallon.
There were but five Native mushers — Baker among them — in the field of 85 that started the Iditarod this year. Only one was from a village. The others, like Baker, hailed from regional hub cities where the cost of living, though high, is still lower than in remote areas.
NOT SO PRIMITIVE
Were these changes the whole of the picture, the story of change would be significant. But they are in some ways but the tip of a larger iceberg.
As technology and economics were changing the race, they were was also changing people in rural Alaska. Many urban Alaskans, having never spent much time in villages, have this idyllic view of what Alaskans call the “subsistence lifestyle” wherein people live happily off the land by hunting and fishing.
People in rural Alaska do hunt and fish a lot, and they trap which doesn’t fit as nicely with the idyllic urban view, but they are also — especially the young people — what the technology crowd likes to call “early adapters.”
Two particular pieces of high tech are today almost everywhere in rural Alaska — the smart phone and the latest and best in snowmachines. There is a reason the Iron Dog — the world’s longest, toughest snowmachine race, a high-speed affair that roars north from Big Lake along the Iditarod Trail to Nome before turning back to finish in Fairbanks some 2,000 miles from the start — this year boasted nearly five times as many entrants from rural communities among its 84 entries as the Iditarod.
The Iron Dog has become rural Alaska’s race. Young people in rural Alaska today grow up wanting to be Iron Dog racers, not Iditarod mushers. Those who live in villages along the Yukon or Kuskokwim rivers or on the Bering Sea coast learn to ride on unregulated snowmachine freeways.
The Yukon River from Ruby west to Kaltag at the start of the portage to the Bering Sea isn’t so much a trail as an Alaska autobahn. Twenty-six-year-old Arnold Demoski, roaring down it in the dark of Friday night with his Ski-doo Tundra pegged at a top speed of 65 or 70 mph, wasn’t doing anything unusual, he was doing what everyone does on the Yukon if the trail is smooth.
If he’d been on a sled capable of doing 100 mph, he’d likely have been doing the 100 mph prosecutors have since claimed he was doing. Is this dangerous? Potentially. Rural Alaskans die in snowmachine crashes with some regularity. The accidents are not widely reported.
Twenty-four-year-old Isabel Griest died as the result of a head-on collision between two machines on the Ambler-Shungnak Trail in the Northwest part of the state in February. She and a friend were speeding to Shungnak to participate in a fundraiser to raise the burial costs for two elders. Her death warranted a four-paragraph story in the Anchorage newspaper. It went unmentioned outside of Alaska.
The story was much the same when 32-year-old Simeon Duny was struck and killed by a speeding snowmachine in the village of Alakanuk on the lower Yukon in December. That story warranted six paragraphs in the Anchorage newspaper.
Snowmachines are so ubiquitous in rural Alaska these days that the media in the 49th state treats snowmachine crashes and fatalities the way the media in the lower 48 treats traffic accidents. When two young men in Anvik hit a tree head on at 60 or 70 mph on March 11, basically exploding the snowmachine on which they were riding into a pile of shattered parts and leaving both of them injured, the crash didn’t even make the news.
ALASKA AS IT REALLY IS
When the Iron Dog races across the Alaska landscape, it speeds through a world where the snowmachine has largely replaced the dog as everything but a pet. Though one snowmachine can do the work of an entire dog team, the cumulative total of snowmachines in nearly any village now exceeds the number of dogs once kenneled there.
Snowmachines are everywhere because almost everyone owns one. When rival villages play basketball games — basketball being the most popular winter sport in rural Alaska — snowmachine parking lots are often needed to contain the sleds of the fans of the visiting team.
Iditarod today enters the real world of rural Alaska as a slow-moving relic of another time. The public face of village Alaska is that it continues to embrace the Iditarod. The Iditarod is an Alaska icon. A village would hardly dare express any other view.
But spend time on the Iditarod Trail and you’re likely to leave any number of villages feeling the Iditarod is considered as much an annual inconvenience to be endured than a sporting tradition to be cherished.
The race’s relationship with rural Alaska has faded. This is not to bad mouth the Iditarod organization. There are people in the organization who work their asses off to try to maintain good relations with villages.
And it’s not to bad mouth any village or villagers. It’s not the responsibility of a village or any villager to be a friend to Iditarod. Iditarod has grown into a sport for a handful of professionals and well-to-do, White people from urban America. Or not-so-well-to-do White people from urban American who can put together the rich-people connections to fund the $70,000 to $100,000 it is now estimated to cost to run Iditarod.
Nobody in Alaska much likes to admit what Canadian musher Hans Oettli stated bluntly a few years ago. But here is what Oettli , one of the organizers of the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon territory, told the Canadian website UpHere.com:
One could argue this given that there are some still near-paupers in the game like four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, but the exceptions to the statement don’t really matter because Oettli’s words pretty much nail the perception of the Iditarod in rural Alaska.
The race is about rich, White, folk from somewhere else playing their game in a wilderness where most of the residents are Alaska Natives struggling to find ways to transition from the fading subsistence economy of old to the cash economy of today. There are issues of class and race here that cannot be ignored, and the differences have only grown over the years.
If Iditarod is to survive, it needs to deal with these issues. It could start by returning to the race’s roots.
Dump the corralling. Encourage mushers to once again stop and stay with families in the villages.
If this encourages more mushers to spend a little time along the trail developing personal relationships with villagers before the race in hopes of gaining a competitive advantages, that’s not a bad thing — that’s a good thing.
If this gives some struggling Alaska Native musher an edge, that’s a good thing.
If it means a little more money gets left with people in the villages by mushers re-engaging pre-race tours out there, that’s a good thing.
If it means more sled-dog teams traveling trails where they are now rarely seen, that’s another good thing. Familiarity helps breed understanding.
Where snowmachines and dog teams regularly co-exist, such as in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley or the Caribou Hills of the Kenai Peninsula, snowmachine drivers learn to be on the look out for dog teams, and friendships sometimes develop between riders and mushers who see each other regularly on the trails.
The village of Nulato issued a very proper public statement after Demoski hit and killed a dog in King’s team and injured others, and injured a dog in the team of Aliy Zirkle while scaring the Fairbanks musher half to death in an earlier encounter.
“We are disturbed and saddened that celebrated Iditarod veteran dog teams led by Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle were struck by a resident of our village,” it said.
One cannot helping wondering, however, what the reaction might have been if someone had hit and killed a dog in the team of the revered George Attla back in the day. There likely would have been community outrage. But the Iditarod was different then. And Attla, a musher now gone, hailed from the village of Huslia only about 80 miles northeast of Nulato.