So now it is official. Not one, but two female mushers in the Iditarod Trial Sled Dog Race were threatened or grabbed by men this year as they traveled along a wild stretch of the most famous national historic trail in the north.
One incident is unprecedented. And two?
In the first encounter, three-time Iditarod runner-up Aliy Zirkle from Fairbanks said she feared for her life in what might best be described as a stalking incident involving a snowmachine driver she says followed her for two hours.
In the second incident, the Iditarod finally confirmed on Friday that back-of-the-pack musher Sarah Stokey from Seward reported “that she had been grabbed inappropriately by two men on snowmachines. The men were stopped next to the trail and gave Sarah the impression they wanted to give her a ‘High 5.’ The incident occurred as she passed by.”
An Iditarod timeline puts the latter incident at about 7:30 p.m. , shortly before sunset on March 13, a Sunday two weeks ago. The attack on Zirkle happened in the dark of night two days before that.
How and why these things would happen is hard to fathom. The women of Iditarod have long been revered sports figures in the 49th state. The late Susan Butcher, a four-time champ, was arguably the most famous person in Alaska in the 1980s.
And Zirkle, who came tantalizingly close to winning the Iditarod in 2014 when she finished only a couple minutes back, might be the most popular musher in the 49th state today.
A 26-year-old resident of the village of Nulato, Arnold Demoski, has been charged with assaulting her. He has said he never harassed the musher and pleaded not guilty.
He was also accused of running his snowmachine over the dog team of four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King of Denali Park, killing one of King’s dog and injuring others, some seriously. Demoski has publicly apologized for that collision and the death of the dog. He said he was driving drunk.
The men who grabbed Stokey have not been identified. A trooper investigation into that accident is continuing. The lack of publicly identified suspects has not stopped the speculation those men were probably drunks, too.
Alcohol has been both the bane of Alaska and a convenient excuse for bad behavior for decades. The Anchorage Daily News, an Alaska newspaper that has gone out of business, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1988 for chronicling the problems alcohol fuels and compounds in the rural areas of the state.
“Something is stalking the village people,” wrote managing editor Howard Weaver. “Across the state, the Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts of Bush Alaska are dying in astonishing numbers. By suicide, accident and other untimely, violent means, death is stealing the heart of a generation and painting the survivors with despair.
“A growing sense of helplessness simmers in alcohol throughout the Bush.”
Following on the Alcoholics Anonymous model, the 10-day series suggested the first step to solving the problems of rural Alaska was for people to accept that they were powerless over alcohol.
“Within the heart of the ancient cultures at risk, a tentative, first response to the terrible reality is beginning to stir,” Weaver wrote. “A growing sobriety movement unites activists from across the state in a new campaign against alcohol, the deadly catalyst for so much Native death and suffering. Individual accountability and community unity are the touchstones of the movement that draws from traditional Indian spiritualism, contemporary self-help and Alcoholics Anonymous for its prescription.”
Twenty-eight years later, the sobriety movement is still plugging along. It has shown success in some communities. But in other places, the idea that people are powerless over alcohol has been grabbed as the perfect excuse for misbehavior.
As Demoski told the Alaska Dispatch News, “I don’t care if people know if I was drinking and driving…I want this community to forgive me and I want my employers to forgive me, and hopefully I can get over this alcohol problem.”
Demoski has been dealing with that problem since he got busted for under-age drinking in Fairbanks in 2008. He is not alone. There are many young men in rural Alaska who never reach the point where they feel truly compelled to quit drinking.
The state’s long-standing answer to this dilemma has been to allow villages to vote themselves dry. Millions of dollars have been spent trying to enforce rural prohibition in Alaska, hundreds of people have gone to jail for bootlegging, bad homebrew has killed more than a few Alaskans, and little seems to have changed.
Somewhere, somehow the state needs to find a new way, because if the assaults on Iditarod mushers are proven to be alcohol-fueled — the claim of Demoski that it all happened because he was drunk is at this point unsubstantiated and whether the other snowmachiners were drinking at all is unknown — the drinking problem has reached a new low.
Drunk drivers on snowmachines have hit dog teams in the past, sometimes killing dogs. But men on snowmachines, whether drunk or sober, harassing woman mushers making their way north along the trail is an entirely new phenomenon.
And one that can’t be tolerated.