On a faster, easier race course in what constitutes mild weather by Alaska standards, yet another dog has died in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The latest death brings to five the number of fatalities, though only three have actually happened on the trail. One dog died while being shipped to Anchorage after suffering a wrist injury early in the race and being dropped. Another perished after it got loose in the state’s largest city and was hit by a car.
Such bad luck comes for the Iditarod after a long string of good luck. Since 2010, Alaska’s “Last Great Race” had been on a roll.
This came after years of veterinarians warning that given the number of dogs on the trail – upwards of 1,400 – plus the time they spend in the wild and the distances they run, it is statistically unlikely the race can be run without a dog death.
Against that backdrop, 2010 was seen by some as a fluke.
But there were zero dog deaths again in 2010, 2o11 and 2012, and there was but one in 2013. Twenty-fourteen followed with no deaths. Then disaster struck when two dogs from the team of four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks died along the trail in 2015.
But they were the only deaths that year, and the year that followed would have been dog-death-free had not the team of four-time Jeff King been hit by the drunk driver of a snowmobile on the Yukon River.
One of King’s run-down dogs was the sole fatality in the 2016 race.
Things have not gone so well in 2017 with the Iditarod and the whole world of sled dogs under attack from a Canadian filmmaker.
Meanwhile, the third, fourth or fifth fatality in this year’s race – all depending on how one wants to count – came Wednesday as one of the Iditarod’s back-of-the-pack mushers approached the Bering Sea coast.
“At approximately 10:30 a.m. this morning, Shilling, a three-year-old male from the race team of Roger Lee collapsed and died shortly thereafter,” the Iditarod Trail Committee reported. “The incident occurred about ten miles prior to Lee’s arrival in Unalakleet.”
Lee is a 53-year-old former Brit who came to Alaska in 1990 and later joined the fabled 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska National Guard. He was running Iditarod with a team owned by Alaska’s local famous “mushing mortician,” Scott Janssen.
The ITC provided scant details on what happened leading up to the dog death, reporting only that the dog died “unexpectedly” and a necropsy to try to determine the exact cause was planned.
Lee was the second to last musher to reach Unalakleet, some 250 miles from the finish. He arrived there about a day after two-time champ, 57-year-old Mitch Seavey from Sterling won the race in Nome in a record time of 8 days, 3 h0urs and 40 minutes.
Aside from the dog deaths, it has been a banner year for the Iditarod with Seavey and his team breaking the course record – albeit on an easier course along the rivers of the Alaska interior than over the Alaska Range – and with the whole race moving at a speedy pace.
The last place musher – Cindy Abbott from California – left Unalakleet at 7:13 p.m. on Wednesday. She was a full day ahead of her previous best time in 2015.