As alleged Iditarod assailant Arnold Demoski from Nulato was settling into a cell at the Fairbanks Correctional Institute on the evening of March 13, an attack on at least one more Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher — and possibly more — was underway along the Yukon River.
An Alaska State Trooper has now confirmed an incident involving 28-year-old Sarah Stokey from Seward, but would not go into detail. Iditarod officials have failed to respond to repeated requests for information. Stokey was among the last six mushers, four of them women, to finish the 2016 Iditarod.
Several mushers have independently recounted an incident along the frozen Yukon wherein Stokey was approached by men on snowmachines who tried to pull her off her dogsled. All of the mushers asked their names be withheld for fear of retaliation from the Iditarod Trail Committee.
Leo Rasmussen — the former mayor of Nome, for decades the official Iditarod greeter at the end of the trail and a race fan — was not so reluctant to speak publicly. He last week said he believes the Iditarod tried to cover up a number of incidents.
“Actually about six mushers were involved, four of them women,” he said. “Two snowmachiners pulled up on either side of her and tried to pull (Stokey) off her sled.”
Another musher, according to Rasmussen, “hollered to her, ‘grab your ax and use it'” to drive the men off. Iditarod rules requires mushers to carry an ax in their sled as part of their traditional survival gear.
Craigmedred.news has been unable to independently substantiate the ax statement or the report of multiple mushers attacked, but has confirmed Rasmussen’s report that earlier snowmachine assaults on Iditarod celebrity Aily Zirkle from Fairbanks and the dog team of Jeff King from Denali Park, a four-time champion, were not the only incidents this year.
Snowmachines are everywhere in rural Alaska these days, and problems between snowmachiner drivers and dog teams remain extremely rare, which makes the attack on the 46-year-old Zirkle only more bizarre.
The three-time Iditarod runner-up and fan favorite described an incident unprecedented in Iditarod history.
UNPRECEDENTED IDITAROD ATTACK
“Over the course of almost two hours one man, by using his snowmachine, made prolonged, aggressive and what I believe to be deliberate threats to me and my team,” she said in a statement published at Iditarod.com. “For two hours, I felt like a hostage, and I sincerely believe that our lives were in danger. I was terrified. Had it not been for my defensive reactions, we could have been maimed or killed.”
As described by other mushers, the incident involving back-of-the-pack musher Sarah Stokey sounds similar. The young musher originally from Cape Cod was reported to be scared but not injured.
That the Stokey incident passed unnoticed by the media horde covering the race is not surprising. The Iditarod is informally divided into two classes of mushers: contenders and the BOP — shorthand for back-of-the pack. Almost all media attention these days focuses on the race leaders.
The BOP is left alone to struggle north largely out of sight as it tries to stay ahead of Iditarod officials looking to boot mushers for going too slow in order to get the race over as soon as possible and thus cut down on costs. The Iditarod lasted just under two weeks this year, about two days less than a decade earlier and a week less than the 1980s when it was not unusual for the last musher to take three weeks to reach Nome.
As the race has evolved over the years, mushers and Iditarod officials have regularly worried about its relationship with village Alaska. Some villages have always loved the Iditarod. The reception in others has been sometimes lukewarm and varying from year to year. Some villagers, who appear to be a small minority, view Iditarod as more an intrusion in their lives than a celebrated Alaska sporting event.
Still others see it as an excuse to party, which has caused past incidents with dog teams being hit by drunk drivers on snowmachines. The 26-year-old Demoski has cited drunk driving as the reason he crashed into King’s team at more than 60 mph, killing one dog and seriously injuring several others.
Demoski’s snowmachine hit King’s dogs with such force, authorities say, that the impact blew its cowling off. King retrieved the part, and authorities say it matches Demoski’s Ski-doo.
Demoski turned himself in to village police the day after the crash, and in an on-camera interview with an Anchorage television station KTUU apologized for killing King’s dog, saying the animal was the victim of a drunk-driving accident. Demoski also said King was his “favorite musher.” He has said nothing publicly about his alleged encounter with Zirkle.
Shortly after his television interview, Demoski was arrested and flown to court in Fairbanks, 270 miles to the east, where a magistrate suggested the Nulato villager had been involved in what “could amount to be an act of terrorism.”
DRIVER PLEADS NOT GUILTY
He was later charged with three counts of felony assault for the alleged attacks on King and Zirkle. He pleaded not guilty in Fairbanks on Tuesday.
Not long after Demoski’s arrest, Minnesota musher Blake Freking, whose wife, Jennifer, had a dog killed on the Yukon while running the Iditarod, expressed his gratitude that “Alaska state troopers are looking in to this.
“When we had the same situation in 2008, the troopers would not even return our calls,” he posted on Facebook, “much less make contact with the drunk that hit our team. If the residents of Nulato want to help the situation, the week-long party that takes place at the juncture of the Koyukuk and Yukon needs to be addressed. The individuals that hit our team were returning from that party and judging from the location and time, I am assuming that this guy was doing the same.”
A snowmachine hitting King’s team at high speed, running over dogs and speeding on down the trail is consistent with a drunk driving collision caused by someone foolishly or recklessly trying to pass too close to a dog team. The incidents involving Zirkle, who says she was repeatedly confronted, and Stokey, who was said to be grabbed by people trying to pull her off her sled, sound more like attempts to haze, scare or intimidate mushers.
“It wasn’t really an assault,” Trooper James Lester said of the Stokey incident when reached by telephone in Galena. But he wouldn’t describe exactly what it was.
“I obviously don’t want to comment,” he said.
According to Lester, Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman was the one who reported the incident to troopers in Galena. Stokey was supposed to provide troopers a detailed account after the race finished. That never happened.
Why is unclear.
IDITAROD GAG ORDER
At least a half-dozen sources say that at the official Iditarod Finishers meeting in Nome at the end of the race, it was decided problems along the trail this year should not be talked about publicly. The Iditarod has long adhered to an omerta that would make Lance Armstrong and the other dopers of the old Tour de France proud.
Stokey said in a brief telephone interview that “I had everything that happened taken care of by Karen Ramstead (a race judge) and Mark Nordman.” Stokey refused to go into detail.
Nordman did not return a message left at Iditarod headquarters. Neither did anyone else there. Ramstead, contacted by Facebook message, did not respond, although her Facebook page said the message had been read.
Stokey, in refusing to discuss what happened, said “It’s not the type of publicity that needs to be promoted.”
Rasmussen said he decided to speak up because he doesn’t think Iditarod is helped by covering up these sorts of incidents.
“I’m sick and tired of this happening,” he said. “There’s no place for it. They sure tried to pull her off her sled. Something needs to be done. This is not new. There’s been an awful lot covered up in Iditarod’s past history.”
“This does seem to be a more widespread issue than one person (attacked),” added a musher with direct knowledge of the Stokey incident.
“It makes me wonder about what else is going on out there with other women if they’re willing to reach out and touch an Iditarod icon like a musher,” the musher said. “If this was me, all sorts of hell would be being raised. It was my understanding that (Stokey) gave a statement to troopers.”
As of the moment, that has not happened.
“I’ve been trying to get a hold of her,” Trooper Lester said.
Both the names and genders of some mushers involved in this story are being withheld because of an Iditarod “gag order” mushers were required to sign this year.
“They actually had all of the mushers swear to not say anything that reflected anything bad on the race,” Rasmussen said.
OTHER IDITAROD THREATS
“They could take my only Iditarod finish away for talking to you,” one musher said. “That’s a pretty high thing to hold over my head.”
Most people devote nearly two years of their lives to dogs in order to complete qualifying races necessary to gain entry into their first Iditarod, and then there there is no guarantee of finishing. Many rookies don’t make it to Nome on their first try. Costs of competing are high. Marketplace.org last year put the costs at $70,000 to $100,000.
Rasmussen believes the Iditarod Trail Committee engaged in a cover-up of the Stokey case to hide simmering community-relation problems the multi-million dollar sporting event faces in impoverished Alaska villages.
“Those people were the founders of the Iditarod,” he said. “They made the Iditarod. (But) quite honestly, they’ve lost the villages because nobody has a tie to (dog mushing) any more.”
Some mushers privately agree with that assessment, and some are admittedly trying to improve the situation. Justin Savidis, a 41-year-old Iditarod veteran from Willow, and friend Joe Carson, a sponsor and sometimes McGrath resident, have begun planning for the McGrath Mail Trail 202 race next year to expand contacts between rural Alaskans and Iditarod mushers.
“Teams are invited to stay at the school, B and B or Inoko lodge in McGrath beginning December 12th to train until the race start the following Saturday,” he posted on the race’s Facebook page. “McGrath has opened it’s doors to mushers and their dogs for this race.
The anticipated race route will be McGrath to Nikolai, travel to Medfra around the back of Apple Mountain and into Takotna.”
The race, Savidis said in a telephone interview, is more about building goodwill in the Iditarod checkpoints of McGrath and Nikolai than it is about running dogs. Savidis, who had a pre-mushing career working with troubled youth, said he is working on a plan to try to get McGrath area kids involved in the race.
WORKING TO MAKE IT BETTER
“Best news I’ve heard in a long time!!” Nordman, the Iditarod race marshal, posted in a comment on the McGrath 202 page.
Publicly, Rasmussen said, Iditarod doesn’t want to talk about village relationships in anything but the most positive light for fear it “might hurt the race.
“If (Demoski) hadn’t killed one of King’s dog, that (incident) would have been hush-hushed, too,” he said.
The way in which that dog death was first reported did raise questions. Angela Marie Rosario, an Iditarod fan and Wisconsin dog musher was watching video live-streamed from the Nulato checkpoint when King and Zirkle arrived shortly after 3 a.m. on March 12.
“I saw video of Aliy and Jeff coming into Nulato and it was evident there was a big, big problem on the trail,” she later posted on Facebook. “I have been frantically searching for news ever since.”
Official Iditarod trail reporter Sebastian Schnuelle, working at Iditarod.com, was in Nulato at the time. At 3:59 a.m., he reported that “Jeff King, Aliy Zirkle and Robert Sorlie are resting in the dog yard.” It was almost four hours later, at 7:40 a.m., that Schnuelle finally revealed that “a very unfortunate incident happened this morning here in Nulato. Both Aliy Zirkle and Jeff King’s teams were attacked by a snowmachiner. Here is the link to the official press release.”
In a lengthy phone interview, Schnuelle said the delay in reporting the dog death was not intentional on his part. The only reporter covering the 2016 race by traveling on snowmachine, an arduous task, Schnuelle said he knew there was a problem when he arrived in Nulato, but didn’t know what. The Iditarod Insider, the video arm of Iditarod.com, was already covering it, so Schnuelle decided to go to bed and get some much needed rest.
A seven-time Iditarod veteran, he was awoken almost immediately and asked to go back up the trail toward Galena because “something scary is going on out there,'” he recalled. “We didn’t know what was going on.”
He said it was unclear whether there had been an accident or the Iditarod had somehow come under attack. Schnuelle motored back along the trail, but couldn’t find anyone or any sign of where King or Zirkle might have been attacked.
He finally encountered musher Mitch Seavey from Seward on the wide and empty Yukon and asked if there’d been any problems. Seavey replied, “What problem?” Schnuelle said.
Schnuelle returned to Nulato, filed his 7:40 a.m report, and was long gone to the north along the trail before the Stokey hit the trail from Galena to Nulato. He was unsure of what to think when told she was also confronted.
“I thought things had gotten better,” he said. “There was a big welcoming (in Nulato). More people were involved. There were lot of local people manning the checkpoint. In these communities, I had a very positive experience.”
And it is possible things have gotten better.
A BIG RIVER IN EGYPT
Behind the scenes, Nordman has been for years a workhorse in trying to build stronger relationships between the Iditarod and Alaska villages, but publicly the Iditarod-village relationship — like so many other issues roiling rural Alaska — just isn’t talked about.
Sometimes it appears the biggest river running through the 49th state isn’t the Yukon but denial. Rasmussen said that has to change.
“It’s not going to get any better,” he said, until people start talking about their feelings, their differences and what to do about them.