Iditarod’s problem?



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.















9 replies »

  1. Let us not forget every major alcoholic beverage manufacture makes an “Iditarod” commemorative mug, bottle, shot glass or seasonal brew for this race & the Iditarod Commitee (ITC) get considerable kick backs & free marketing…
    Not to mention the drunken Bon Fires start in Willow and dot the trail to Nome.
    It is not the native man’s fault he fell pray to white man’s pollution of spirit.

  2. Actually thinking that AA “accepting powerlessness over alcohol” leads to continued refusal to take responsibility; is a misconception. If you read through the 12 steps, the whole rest of the program is about understanding you cannot drink period, you will never be able to stop yourself from wanting it, your previous methods and thinking don’t work, what goes on in your head about yourself in relation to the rest of the world and how screwd up it is, and then accepting responsibility for past and current activities.
    It doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. There are lots of other sobriety programs out there, and many work for many people for different reasons. But let’s not slam recovery programs. Too many folks are out there dying.

  3. I grew up in a village in Greenland, which had a ration system for alcohol. 30 ‘points’ gave a person the possibility to buy 30 beers, or 30 drinks of any alcohol (beer was 1 point, bottle of wine was X points, a bottle of whisky was Y points and you could use them in any combination and thru-out the month, but the points expired at the end of the month. Generally a large part of the native population 18 and over, were drunk on the first of every month when they were paid and the “alcohol point cards ” were given. The full amount of booze was consumed over the next 24 hours! That resulted in a major hung-over town on the second of every month, so hardly no one but the public employees (mostly non native) worked (doc, teachers, police officer, etc) Despite issues during these major binges, the rest of the month were free of alcohol related issues. I wonder if that would be a way of curtailing the problems in Alaska’s Bush?

    • There have been some communities here experimenting with putting people on “limits” in that way, Aino. I haven’t been to any of them or investigated the results. But I or someone should. It’s a complex problem, and this state needs to start looking at more options than now in play because the track record of “just say no,” isn’t good, and Alaska rural prohibition is nothing but a mirror image of the failure of the U.S. experiment with national prohibition. But these are things Alaskans really don’t want to talk about.

  4. I was discussing some of this recently with my partner, who’s German, and she said “Americans need to write more essays in school.” It seems difficult for a lot of us to accept that someone can be culpable and still retain their humanity.

    Anyway, one thing that struck me is that this appears to be a problem isolated to Iditarod even though Iditarod is by no means the only distance race running through rural communities. I don’t know for a fact if things like this have been happening at some of the other races off the road system but to my knowledge it doesn’t happen during Quest or during the mid-distance races. Possibilities include 1) that I’m dead wrong and it has been happening in other races, 2) that it’s just plain old probability (the huge size of the Iditarod field), or 3) specific feelings about the Iditarod and Iditarod mushers in villages along the Yukon.

  5. I agree with Moira. Playing the victim card, “oh I am powerless over alcohol”, is a ploy to avoid responsibility. Everyone has the power over alcohol. You have the power not to put their fingers around the bottle. You have the power not to lift the bottle to your lips. If you don’t want to utilize this power, that is your CHOICE.

    For decades the “solution” to Bush alcoholism has been the same: throw more money and more programs at the Bush. Reach out to the “victims” (cough, cough). But as it is clear to see, this route does little good. Yet people want to keep trying this approach. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Throwing more money and alcohol programs at the Bush might make some people feel good. But history has proven that the results are the same (a failure) and it’s an insane waste.

    Only ISIS members can decide to change their ways and become respected members of civilization. No one else can make this change for them. Only Natives in the Bush can decide to change their ways and become respected members of civilization. No one else can make this change for them. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for ISIS to change. Neither will I hold my breath waiting for the Native alcohol culture in the Bush to change.

  6. Drinking while driving ATV, boat, and/or snowmachine is a real problem here in the village and region where I live and work. And this is an understatement. It is not something people generally care to address proactively at any level. Problems remain unsolved if communities don’t recognize the problem with clear enforceable action plans involving both education and enforcement. This is a complex problem that requires concerted effort by all parties, groups, organizations and tribes in each community/region. I personally see people driving under the influence weekly or more, and hear others stating their intention to drive on local VHF while intoxicated (slurred speech & swearing are give-aways), and I can barely get a raised eyebrow of agreement when my own concern is expressed. How many deaths and injuries and loss of property will it take in lawless communities before this ugly tide turns? We are not discussing a person’s right to drink here, but the public’s safety. Time is past due to honor the lives of those lost and affected by drunken drivers with some proactive changes in the villages with this problem, and to stop giving priority to the perpetrator’s short-lived mindset of remorse without consequence. Right now, as I write this, we have one drunken elder hollering on VHF. Even if he gets on his snowgo intoxicated, and he might, who would I report to? Troopers are too far away, and too overwhelmed to “respond” through the blizzard this morning, as planes are not flying. This is real. And so the cycle continues, taking casualties every now and again–doctors, dogmushers, young mothers, sons, sometimes two at a time. Be careful out there. And as Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle have shown us, wearing reflective gear up the whazoo, that is not enough. Gotta get the drunk drivers off the trail, roads, and rivers. It is that simple.

  7. The problem with the philosophy that you are powerless over alcohol is that people don’t take responsibility for their actions. A much better program in my opinion is Smart Recovery where a person examines their thoughts and reactions to certain stimuli which makes them turn to alcohol and helps give them tools to handle their thoughts and reactions in a more empowering way. This gives them control rather than feeling helpless and powerless and turning to alcohol.

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