A Monday decision by 27-year-old Arnold Demoski to plead guilty to charges related to harassing musher Aily Zirkle during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and running down the team of Jeff King with a snowmachine has reopened discussions of exactly what happened in the dark on the Yukon River in March to leave one dog dead and several injured.
And the picture isn’t any clearer now than it was then.
Nulato, Alaska, resident Demoski has taken the blame for everything that happened while sticking to his story about being blacked-out drunk and running into the dog teams on his way home to Nulato from a party in the tiny village of Koyukuk.
The problem is that this story has never fit with the timeline for what happened on the river on March 11.
To make this story work, Demoski would have needed to leave the village of Koyukuk, harass Zirkle, and then return to Koyukuk for an hour or more to party again until King’s team passed that point.
This is what some people involved with the Iditarod believe happened, but there is no evidence to support that scenario.
Demoski has consistently said that what he remembers is driving home from Koyukuk when he encountered both mushers, hitting Zirkle’s team and injuring a dog, and hitting King’s team and killing a dog.
That is simply impossible because Zirkle was on the trail ahead of King by more than the aforementioned hour. Demoski would have hit King’s team and then encountered Zirkle’s team if he was homebound.
That is the exact opposite of what happened.
Here’s the March 11 timeline, according to Iditarod records:
Brent Sass of Eureka leads The Last Great Race out of the Galena checkpoint at 11:45 a.m., speeds downriver and is into an out of Nulato just after sunset on March 11. He will sit there waiting out an 8-hour Yukon River layover while all of the problems develop behind him.
He can be ignored in considering everything that happens next. The important players are the ones set to follow Sass west along the trail.
While Sass was blowing through Galena, Zirkle was in the checkpoint completing the mandatory, 8-hour rest that all mushers must take at one checkpoint along the Yukon. She completed that and left at 6:46 p.m. It was still daylight, but just barely.
The sun was low on the horizon to the southwest. It was only a half hour until sunset. The temperature was 24 degrees. The wind was blowing at 8 mph with gusts over 15 mph that sometimes swirled the light snow that had fallen earlier in the day.
But the winds would quickly settle down into a peaceful night as the skies cleared above.
Ahead on the trail was the Nulato checkpoint. It is about 40 miles from Galena via a well-packed snowmachine highway. The trail is basically flat. Riding behind a well rested team, Zirkle planned to make the Galena-Nulato run in one quick push.
And once she passed Sass, she became the Iditarod’s virtual race leader.
Close behind Zirkle going out of Galena was a trio of past Iditarod champs. Iditarod checkpoint records show Mitch Seavey from Sterling left only four minutes behind Zirkle. Jeff King from Denali Park was 51 minutes back. Dallas Seavey, Mitch’s son, was an hour and 49 minutes off the pace.
Zirkle, by her own account, had a pretty uneventful run for the first 25 miles or so down the Yukon to the confluence with the Koyukuk River. The tiny village of Koyukuk, only about 100 strong, and The Last Chance Liquor Store hug the river bank near there.
The Koyukuk is the scene of a party every year when the Iditarod goes through. It is not unlike the parties that line the trail from the Willow restart just north of Anchorage for almost 100 miles north to Shell Lake on the edge of Alaska Range.
Alcohol tends to fuel them all.
“Past Koyukuk the river runs west for five miles, heading directly for a 1,000-foot ridge dead ahead, then makes a 90-degree left turn to the south to run along the base of the ridge. There is a liquor store at the northwest corner of the bend that is frequented by villagers from up and down the river,” the late Don Bowers Jr. wrote in a 2000 trail guide that remains an Iditarod standard. “Unfortunately, you may have to watch for discarded bottles and cans and inebriated snowmachiners.”
Almost nothing has changed in the years since.
Whether it was drunkenness or simply bad behavior that led someone to harass Zirkle will probably never be known, but it appears from the GPS track that she ran into trouble near Gemodedon Island about an hour out of Nulato and not far downstream from Koyukuk sometime around 1 a.m.
Zirkle’s nightmare – she has said that what happened on the Yukon left her traumatized – came not long after she took the Iditarod lead. In that moment, she had every reason to believe things were setting up well for her to have a shot at a first, elusive victory after a couple of heart-braking runner-up finishes.
She was ahead of King and the Seaveys, all of whom had yet to complete their mandatory, 8-hour rests on the Yukon.
And then she was stopped by a man on snowmachine who banged into her team and injured one of her dogs, she said in an interview this summer. His behavior was menacing.
He went away. He came back again. He shined his snowmachine headlight on Zirkle. She couldn’t tell what was going on but began to get very worried. Then he left. She thought about taking the team into the woods along the river and hiding, but decided that would just make them more of a target.
So she kept going.
Farther down the river, she was approached by another snowmachine. She worried this might be another attack, but it turned out to be a Good Samaritan. Zirkle told the man, whose name she never got, that she was under attack and needed help. He promised to go to Nulato and bring back someone to guide her in.
He took off. Zirkle kept going down the trail. Help never arrived, but the snowmachiner who had harassed her before came back. Zirkle said she cannot identify him. He was wearing too much arctic gear. But she says she’ll never forget the snowmachine.
Thankfully, the man left again, but Zirkle was by this point on the verge of becoming a nervous wreck.
The other mushers
While this was happening, the other lead mushers – Mitch Seavey, King and Dallas Seavey – were strung out behind Zirkle along the trail back to Galena. Where Demoski was at this time is unclear.
His story since the beginning has been that he got so drunk he doesn’t remember much of what happened that night. But to commit all of the crimes to which he pleaded guilty, he would have to have been busy.
His story that “he was returning home from Koyukuk after a night of drinking when he struck Aliy Zirkle and Jeff King’s teams,” as told to Anchorage television station KTUU and others in March, simply doesn’t fit the time line.
Zirkle arrived in Nulato at 2:17 a.m. Dallas Seavey was next behind her 50 minutes later. He reported seeing no snowmachines on the trail. King didn’t arrive in Nulato until an hour an 18 minutes after Zirkle. He had a dead dog in his sled and others injured after being struck by Demoski’s snowmachine.
There is no doubt about that part of the story. Demoski’s snowmachine hit King’s team with such force the cowling flew off the Ski-doo Tundra II. King picked up the cowling, brought it to Nulato and turned it over to authorities. It matched the snowmachine with the missing cowling parked in Nulato. The snowmachine was Demoski’s.
Of the Zirkle encounter, Demoski has said only that he had a close encounter with her team and then circled back on his snowmachine to make sure she was OK, but lacked the courage to approach her for fear she’d figure out he was driving drunk.
Then he took off.
Iditarod reporter Sebastian Schnuelle said the Village Public Safety Officer in Nulato helped identify Demoski because he owned one of two white Tundra II snowmachines in the Nulato-Koyukuk area. It is unclear if anyone talked to the owner of the other.
One confusing story
So here’s the problem: If Demoski was bound for home after a party at Koyukuk, hit Zirkle’s team, and turned around to see if she was OK, he’d have to have gone back to Koyukuk (as most associated with Iditarod appear to believe), hung out there for an hour or more, and then made another run back to Nulato in order to hit King’s team.
Demoski has never said anything about returning to Koyukuk. His story from the beginning has been that both the encounter with Zirkle and the collision with King happened on his way home to Nulato.
That said, drunks, if he was drunk, are known for notoriously bad memories.
But Demoski’s story does fit well with what happened to King. King estimated Demoski was going 80 mph when his snowmachine hit the dog team. That’s probably high. The snowmachine in question is unlikely to reach that speed, but it could easily have been doing 60 mph on the snowmachine highway between Koyukuk and Nulato if driven by a guy in a rush to get home from a party.
A drunk snowmachiner in a hurry to get somewhere hitting a dog team is something that has been known to happen in Alaska too often.
But the rest of the Demoski story just doesn’t jive with the available evidence. The evidence would appear to indicate one of two things had to happen:
One: Demoski left the Koyukuk party, harassed Zirkle, and then came back to the party or passed out somewhere along the river for an hour or more to allow King’s team to get in front of him as those associated with the Iditarod believe. This is the only way Demoski could get into position to collide with King on the way back to Nulato, if Demoski was the man earlier harassing Zirkle.
Two: There was another snowmachiner rider out on the river on the night in question.
As for the Good Samaritan who went to get help for Zirkle that never materialized, he remains unknown. He might have gone to Nulato and done nothing. He might have talked to someone with the Iditarod who simply refused to take his report seriously.
Or Iditarod officials may have taken it seriously and refused to act. Amy Nancy, a school teacher from Nulato, has said she was told not to go out on the trail to look for mushers in trouble. So she pestered Iditarod officials to do something. One of them has admitted the idea of sending someone out onto the trail was discussed and the decision was made that it was too “dangerous” for anyone to go alone.
Hours afer Zirkle’s arrival in the Nulato, a team of Iditaord officials would finally head back along the trail to Galena. By then, King’s team had been hit and a dog had died.
Zirkle, meanwhile, was left wrestling with demons.
If all of this isn’t enough. prepare yourself for this:
For months now, there has been a rumor going around that Demoski intentionally attacked the Iditarod team. The rumor goes like this:
Because of the weekend arrival of the Iditarod in Nulato, a local basketball tournament was canceled. Demoski was so angry about that he decided to vent his frustrations on Iditarod mushers.
No evidence has been found to indicate such a tournament was on any official state schedule. Several residents of Nulato have said they knew of no such tournament.
Repeated attempts to reach Demoski to talk about this have failed. His attorney has always gotten in the way.
Many would now like to believe that since Demoski pleaded guilty and said he was sorry for everything that happened, all is fine. But it’s not that simple. As the Fairbanks Four case in Fairbanks made clear just last year, people can sometimes confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
CORRECTION: This story was edited on December 12, 2016 to correct the arrival of Brent Sass in Nulato.