Updated: Mitch Seavey expected in Nome before 4 p.m.
Bad news just kept coming for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday even as it prepared to crown another champion.
As Mitch Seavey from Sterling sped toward a race-record finish, Alaska’s biggest sporting event reported a fourth dog had died – this one in the team of Katherine Keith from Kotzebue. Keith is the partner of former Iditarod champ John Baker.
Only one dog died in the Iditarod last year, and its unfortunate death was the result of the kind of accident that could happen on any city street: it was run down and killed by a drunk driver.
This year, Keith was racing just behind Baker as both tried to crack the Iditarod top-20 when a 4-year-old male named Flash collapsed and died on the sea ice about 10 miles out of the Bering Sea coast checkpoint of Koyuk, the Iditarod Trail Committee reported.
The death marked more misfortune for the Baker-Keith kennel, which suffered Iditarod fatality number three on Saturday hundreds of miles from the race course. A Baker dog named Groovey, a three-year-old male, died in Anchorage after being hit by a car.
Groovey, according to an Iditarod press release, got loose from a dog handler and went missing only to later turn up dead near the intersection of two busy Alaska streets. The Iditarod reported his death on Monday after Anchorage Animal Control identified Groovey by his microchip.
The death was the second Iditarod related dog-death away from the race course this year. The Iditarod on Saturday reported a dog that had been dropped from the team of Scott Smith died of heatstroke, a danger more commonly associated with dogs locked in hot cars in the summer, while being flown to Anchorage. The dog had been dropped after it injured a wrist.
The details surrounding that death remain unclear. The Iditarod at first suggested it was related to the dog being shipped while still wearing a dog coat – a windbreaker put on thin-coated dogs to protect them when they are on the trail. But it has since emerged that the dog – a 2-year-old named Smoke – was one of three dogs among 75 being shipped to Anchorage which suffered heat stroke.
“Two additional dogs on the flight…displayed symptoms of hyperthermia,” an Iditarod spokeswoman emailed on Monday. “They were observed and released from pet E.R. (emergency room) on Saturday.”
The Iditarod has yet to respond to a query as to whether those dogs were also wearing coats or provide a timeline for their journey to Anchorage. The original Iditarod press release said “Smoke died unexpectedly during air transit from Galena to Anchorage,” but it is unclear whether the dogs were on a direct flight.
Some pilots with connections to Iditarod believe the Galena dogs might have been shipped first to Fairbanks and then later to Anchorage and somewhere along that journey exposed to an environment warm enough to cause heatstroke. Pilots familiar with the 60-year-old, “Indiana Jones”-esque cargo plane being used to ship dogs out of Galena have questioned how a dog could over heat in its unheated cargo compartment.
The first Iditarod dog to die was a two-year-old belonging to Seavey. It was running in a “puppy team” being driven by Seavey handler Seth Barnes from Stocton, Ala. when it collapsed just before the Galena checkpoint less than halfway into the race.
Iditarod later reported a necropsy on the dog found “abnormalities...but the underlying cause of death was not determined. ” The abnormalities were not disclosed, but the Iditarod said the dog would undergo further testing.
Barnes was running a conservatively paced Iditarod with orders to acquaint young dogs with the trail when the dog died. He was the 43rd musher into Galena. Seavey was the first.
Barnes eventually continued along the trail and was in the coastal village of Shaktoolik on Tuesday. Seavey, a two-time Iditaord champ and already the oldest musher ever to win the race, was far ahead with his son, Dallas, looking to be the only one with any hope of catching the leader and then not much.
The younger Seavey, a four-time and defending champ, trailed his father by two hours leaving White Mountain, the race’s penultimate checkpoint, on Tuesday morning, and he looked to be trying harder to hold off a challenge for second from Nicolas Petit of Girdwood than catch Seavey the elder.
Petit was only 13 minutes behind Seavey the younger who was down to only eight dogs. Petit had 13, but there is an old rule in mushing that says a team can only go as fast as the slowest dog. Dallas dropped two dogs in White Mountain,apparently hoping to pick up speed, and his trail times were already indicating his team was a little faster than that of Petit.
Neither of them, however, had shown the speed to match that of Seavey the elder who has been behind one of the fastest teams in the field since the race left Fairbanks on Monday. He was on pace to easily break the Iditarod record time of 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes and 16 seconds set by his son last year.
But the course for the race is different this year. Dallas set his record on the traditional Iditarod Trail route from a starting point in the Susitna Valley north of Anchorage, up and over the Alaska Range, and then north to the Yukon River.
Because of low snow in the Range this year, the Iditarod elected to officially start the race in Fairbanks to the north. That avoided a crossing of the range and put mushers on the flatter, snow-covered rivers of the Interior that join the Iditarod at Ruby on the Yukon.
The race has twice before run this course. Dallas holds that record, too, going from Fairbanks to Nome in 8 days, 18 hours, 13 minutes and 6 seconds in 2015. Barring disaster, that record and the overall record is certain to fall to his father this year.