The most tumultuous year in the roller-coasting, 45-year history of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is stumbling toward the March 3 start of Alaska’s biggest sporting event with no end to the troubles in sight.
Mushers are feuding with each other. Race sponsors are worried. Animal-rights activists are threatening. And fans are disgruntled and tired.
Raine Hall – one of the driving forces behind “Iditarod The First 10 Years,” the race’s first paid employee in the 1970s, and a longtime fan – might have summed the situation of the moment as well as anyone:
“PETA doesn’t have to do a damn thing,” she said. “Iditarod’s tearing (itself) asunder.”
PETA is the acronym for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an even more radical animal-rights group than the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which almost killed The Last Great Race in the 1990s.
PETA is reported to be planning its first public protest of the Iditarod in Alaska during the ceremonial start in Anchorage this year.
HSUS nearly put the Iditarod out of business in the 1990s. It leaned on the Timberland Company, then the Iditarod’s biggest sponsor, to slow the race down in the interest of providing more rest for the dogs.
When Iditarod failed to meet HSUS demands, Timberland abandoned the race, taking with it a half-million dollar per year sponsorship – about a quarter of the Iditarod budget at the time.
But Iditarod weathered that storm and animal-rights protests faded for a time as better dog training, better veterinary care, and some good luck helped produce a string of years – 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 – when the race was run without a single dog death, something veterinarians had once thought impossible.
And the 2013 interruption in that run wasn’t really a fault of the racing, but more of bad checkpoint management. A dog left out in the wind in the Bering Sea coast village of Unalakleet was buried in blowing snow and suffocated. The Iditarod fixed the problem by arranging for shelters for dogs in Unalakleet.
Then came 2015 when two dogs – first, Wyatt, and then, Stiffy – in the team of four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, died at different times along the 1,000-mile trail to Nome for reasons that were never determined. After that, PETA began calling for an end to the race.
PETA’s opposition gained a lot of steam when a documentary titled “Sled Dogs” surfaced in late 2017. And this is really where any attempt to outline where the Iditarod is today has to start.
Here’s the timeline:
Nov. 1, 2016: The trailer for “Sled Dogs,” a documentary filmed in cooperation with Iditarod officials, emerges and throws the Alaska mushing community into a panic. Though the film focuses largely on abuses in commercial, dogsled tour business in Canada and Colorado, it includes footage of dead dogs in Alaska, some scenically gorgeous footage of the Iditarod Trail, and a crusty, former Alaska dog handler claiming that dogs which can’t run fast enough are killed.
“‘This horrible anti-sled dog film is going to be screened at film festivals around Canada. It is pure propaganda, NOT a documentary,’ Alaska musher Lisbet Norris posts on her Faceback page.”
Dec. 4, 2016: Despite efforts by the Iditarod and Canadian mushers to kill the film before it reaches cinemas, “Sled Dogs” screens for the first time at the Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia, Canada and ties for the honor of top documentary.
An Iditarod investigation into whether film director Fern Levitt acted unethically in soliciting Iditarod’s help to film the race start and finish in Alaska goes nowhere. Levitt, in an interview with craigmedred.news, denies any wrongdoing and defends her film as a fair representation of what goes on in the sled-dog industry.
Dec. 24, 2016: The continuing efforts of Canadian mushers to block the film hit a deadend when the Canadian Media Fund, which helped finance the documentary, declares that a “review into the allegations established that the producers ensured that the documentary conformed to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and to all programming standards endorsed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.”
Feb. 16, 2017: Some mushers, noting the controversy brewing in the wake of “Sled Dogs” and mindful of the warnings veterinarians have been voicing for years about dogs losing too much weight during the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, suggest maybe the time has come to consider ways to make the events more dog friendly. Sixty-nine-year-old former Quest winner Frank Turner from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, suggests maybe the top prize should go not to the driver of the first team to finish, but to the driver of the team veterinarians judge to have received the best of care.
March 4, 2017: The Iditarod gets underway with a ceremonial start in Anchorage before everyone trucks north to Fairbanks for a restart, which is the real start. A lack of snow in the Alaska Range is said to make the traditional trail too rough for mushers.
March 10, 2017: Only three days into the race, Iditarod suffers its first dog death. Veteran musher Seth Barnes arrives in Galena the night of March 9 to report Deacon died along the trail. The cause of death is never determined.
March 11, 2017: The Iditarod reports its second dog death in as many days. This time it is a dropped dog being flown home from Galena that overheats and dies of hyperthermia in an airplane. It is later revealed several other dogs were also stricken but survived. What exactly happened is never explained.
March 13, 2017: The Iditarod announces a dropped dog returned safely to Anchorage from the trail got away in the city, was hit by a car and died. The body of Groovey, a dog belonging to former Iditarod champ John Baker, is identified by the microchip implanted in all Iditarod dogs.
March 14, 2017: The number of dog deaths related to the race climbs to four when Flash, a dog in the team of Katherine Keith, dies about 10 miles shy of the Bering Sea coast checkpoint of Koyuk. Keith is Baker’s Kotzebue, Alaska, training partner. While the duo is commiserating over dogs lost, 58-year-old Mitch Seavey from Sterling reaches Nome to win his second Iditarod in a record time of 8 days, three hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds. He takes almost an hour off the record his son, Dallas, set in 2012. A four-time champ thought by most to be the Iditarod’s biggest star, Dallas finishes second.
March 15, 2017: The fifth dog death of the race comes when Shilling, a dog in the team of Roger Lee, drops dead about 10 miles out of the Bering Sea coast village of Unalakleet. The death appears linked to pulmonary edema, a build-up of fluid in the lungs that can be brought on by exercise.
March 16, 2017: Iditarod announces Flash died of “acute aspiration pneumonia.” It is a disease caused when a dog coughs up stomach contents while on the run and then inhales them. On the same day, citing the number of dog deaths, PETA calls for an end to the Iditarod.
March 17, 2017: A Oregon drug-testing lab tests urine sample taken from four of Dallas Seavey’s dogs six hours after he finished the race on March 15. The samples test positive for tramadol, a synthetic opiate and an Iditarod-banned doping drug. Scientists conclude that since only four dogs were tested and all four were found to be on tramadol, the probability is greater than 99 percent that the entire team was drugged. The doping report is kept secret by Iditarod.
March 20, 2017: A second analysis is run on the samples from Dallas’s dogs. Again they prove positive for tramadol and two metabolites. Again the information is kept secret.
April 10, 2017: Dallas is informed by Iditarod that his dogs have tested positive for tramadol. Discussions begin between the Dallas and Iditarod officials. The positive doping test and the fact the race’s biggest star and the race are debating what to do about a positive drug test is kept from the public.
May 23, 2017: Wells Fargo Bank and Guggenheim Partners end their Iditarod sponsorships. Days later the Iditarod blames PETA for the departures.
June 24, 2017: On the opening day for entries in Iditarod 2018, the race announces Dallas is among the 58 mushers officially entered. The Iditarod Membership Meeting is held the same day. The race, which has never revealed a previous doping positive, does not reveal the latest doping positive to its membership. The board meets and allows Travis Bealls, who is undergoing treatment after assaulting his girlfriend, to race in 2018. The minutes of the meeting reflect no discussion of doping. Meanwhile, Dallas tells some in the Willow area that he is planning to run Norway’s Finnmarkslopett in 2018. They are left baffled; the Finnmarkslopett and the Iditarod are staged at about the same time in March. A musher cannot do both.
Oct. 6, 2017: The Iditarod board meets and approves a change to “Rule 39 (Drug Testing Policy).” The minutes offer no details on why or what. They express more concern about the TV news show “Nightline,” which has talked to Iditarod officials in the process of doing a story on the movie “Sled Dogs.” Iditarod revenues are reported to be down $168,000 from the year before.
Oct. 9, 2017: For the first time in the history of The Last Great Race, the Iditarod publicly but obliquely reveals a team has tested positive for drugs. Knowledgable sources say the doping positive is not the first, but still the news rocks the tight-knit world of sled-dog sports. A press release says Rule 39 has been “revised” to establish that “a musher is strictly liable for any positive test, unless the musher can establish, to the satisfaction of an independent review board by clear and convincing evidence, that the positive test(s) resulted from causes completely beyond their control.” The rule mimics that of the International Federation of Sleddog Sports and other competitions. The press release reveals the rule became necessary “because several dogs in a single musher’s team in the 2017 race tested positive for a prohibited substance.” It goes on to say the Iditarod’s legal counsel then advised the Board it could not enforce the rule unless it could prove the “intent” of the unnamed musher.
Oct. 13, 2017: Almost immediately, questions arise about what drug and whose dogs. Speculation surrounds almost all of the Iditarod’s stars, given every team in the top-20 is tested, and it could be any of them. Mitch Seavey suggests it doesn’t matter whose team was doped, because the doping is likely due to someone trying to sabotage The Last Great Race.
Oct. 17, 2017: Iditarod reveals the drug in question is tramadol, but refuses to say whose dogs were doped.
Oct. 19, 2017: Mitch amps up the claims of sabotage, and a mysterious “Musher X” with a connection to Wade Marrs, the president of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club (IOFC) and a member of the Iditarod Board, sends a communique to the Alaska Daily News (ADN) claiming that race officials told him he was in the clear, but then conspired to create a controversy about his doped dogs. Mitch pitches the idea that tramadol is a sedative that no musher would give their dogs, and thus “it seems more plausible an adversary of the musher or of the race itself is to blame.”
Oct. 23, 2017: About 90 members of the loosely organized, 700-member IOFC vote to demand the ITC reveal whose dogs were doped. Shortly thereafter, the Iditarod outs Dallas, and he almost instantaneously proclaims his innocence in a youtube video. Dallas claims to have been “thrown under the bus,” saying “I’ve done everything I possibly can to try to get the information out there. I have done absolutely nothing wrong…I have never knowingly broken any race rules. I have never given any banned substance to my dogs.”
Oct. 25, 2017: With the mushing community starting to take sides on whether Dallas did or didn’t dope his dogs, an Iditarod veteran musher weighs in with another complaint about the Seaveys. “I believe there have been hundreds on top of hundreds or more dogs – dogs that didn’t make the cut – put down (culled ) routinely from (Seavey) family kennels for several decades…and this practice continues,” Zoya DeNure writes on her blog. The Seaveys deny the accusation. Dallas counters on his Facebook page with #dogsmatter.
Oct. 27, 2017: Dallas begins a one-man publicity campaign to overthrow the Iditarod board. He goes before the cameras of KTUU, KTVA and eventually ADN.com to proclaim his innocence, charge he was setup, and criticize the Iditarod for failing to protect him. His story changes somewhat over time. He starts off saying he didn’t know what tramadol was, but later confesses he had it in his kennel. He tells KTVA his dogs looked “down” in Nome, so when informed of the doping positive he realized “what was going on. They were hit with a heavy sedative.” He later tells ADN the “most likely scenario…(was that) somebody had this drug, and was standing there, and the dog yard is vacant at 10:30-11 at night in Nome. there’s not a soul around, and took the opportunity.” Dallas refuses to talk to craigmedred.news.
Oct. 31, 2017: The Alaska Department of Commerce officially dissolves the non-profit IOFC for failing to file paperwork required every two years. The president of record is listed as Bill Borden, an Iditarod veteran who lives in Georgia, and the organization’s address is listed in that state. When, how and by what sort of rules, Marrs became the IOFC president is unclear. He, like Dallas, does not respond to requests for comment.
Nov. 2, 2017: A 22-year-old dog handler at the Dallas Seavey kennel files an animal-abuse complaint with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The Borough notifies Jen Seavey, Dallas’s wife, it needs to come by to do an inspection. Dallas is in Hong Kong at the time performing as the keynote speaker at the Asia Convention. The inspection back in Alaska finds no sign of animal abuse. Mat-Su Mayor Vern Halter, an Iditarod veteran, issues a statement calling the complaint “completely false.”
Nov. 7, 2017: Jen Seavey claims the kennel was infiltrated by a “PETA activist.” No evidence is offered to support the claim. Friends of the young woman say she never had any connection to PETA, but came to Alaska – like so many – to work for an Iditarod musher with hopes of someday running the Iditarod.
Nov. 22, 2017: Though the Borough had cleared the Seavey’s of animal abuse, it emerges that the investigator who went to the kennel found a letter from Jen to two handlers firing them in October for animal abuse. The letter does not say how long the abuse had been going on, but it does tend to substantiate some of the claims made by the dog handler the Seaveys have accused of being a PETA plant.
Dec. 1, 2017: Dallas makes it official he is abandoning the Iditarod for the Finnmarksloppet.
Jan. 10, 2018: Dallas announces he’s hired a high-power, San Francisco crisis-management firm to probe who doped his dog team in Nome last year, and adds the Oregon lab to the list of possible saboteurs who might have been out to smear him.
Jan. 31, 2018: A report from The Foraker Group, a consultancy, to the Iditarod Board warns it is on the verge of losing the support of its competitors and, more importantly, its sponsors and could collapse. The report says the Board needs to rid itself of members with potential conflict of interest and patch up its relationship with sponsors. The sponsor-funded report suggests some are very uncomfortable with the buzz now surrounding the race.
Feb. 8, 2018: The IOFC, an organization officially disbanded by the state, sends an unsigned letter to the Iditarod Board of Directors demanding the resignation of Board President Andy Baker by Feb. 15 and others later. It is unknown who wrote the letter. Baker appears to have been singled out after meeting with the IOFC in November and saying he would resign if mushers and the Foraker report told him to do so. The letter suggests the 68 mushers set to race this year want Baker gone because he has “jeopardized the integrity of our entire livelihood through his poor leadership.” But there is no evidence all the mushers agree with that view.
Feb. 9, 2018: The Board announces it has unanimously agreed no one is stepping down now, but suggests it will discuss the issue again at its scheduled, April 13 meeting.
Meanwhile mushers are taking sides – most privately, but a few publicly. Iditarod veteran Middy Johnson from Unalakleet counters the IOFC demand to the Iditarod by suggesting the IOFC needs to be reformed.
Claiming to be speaking for the silent majority of Iditarod finishers, all of whom qualify as IOFC members, Johnson writes a letter to the Board saying that “while we don’t always all agree with one another, we respect what each must sacrifice for the Iditarod to thrive. We understand that we are part of something larger than ourselves.
“We take exception to this small group of mushers speaking for us, taking our voices away. This group has been overstepping authority, speaking without consensus, and focusing on subversive tactics rather than the positive, collaborative dialogue necessary to affect positive change.”
He accuses “30 mushers” of trying to act on behalf of all mushers and suggests the IOFC “should be rebuilt with an all-inclusive forum/format following Iditarod 2018.
“This process has already begun with a website seeking suggestions and contact
information at www.iditarodfinishers.org. Additionally, members will be contacted using
more traditional methods; U.S. Postal Service, landline telephone, and dog team, if
But while there are those supporting the Board, there are also those attacking it.
Former Board member Leo Rasmussen from Nome messages craigmedred.news that “I’m gone(from Iditarod), but I must say that I had come to the conclusion that the Iditarod would only succeed for about three more years before it would be completely defunct. The top of the organization is totally over the hill including their manager, who has been milking the organization for years, both of them, manager and Board, with ever declining returns.
“As much as I loved the Iditarod (and really still do) and what it did to save a very special way of life that is now fleeting ever so fast away with the current organization, I cannot wade into something that even my wife would crucify me for trying, by trying to right this sinking ship.”
And if all that isn’t enough, Rick Townsend, a former handler for Iditarod champ John Baker, Andy’s brother, is threatening to drop a bomb on the whole race. He first hints at it with a comment on the website of Alaska Public Media, making this claim:
“I worked for John Baker for the 2017 season race, and I will verify the corruption and deceit stemming from Both Andy and John Baker. John and Andy do as they please and reap the rewards, and if you think I’m wrong because John only won once, winning isn’t everything when your brother controls the money and everything else! And if you think the dog deaths were accidental , I have news for you! I can prove my statements, can John and Andy?”
In a text exchange, he claims evidence of rule manipulation by the Baker brothers and of dogs being killed by John in fits of anger. The accusations cannot be confirmed or denied. Other handlers who have worked with Baker will not comment. They say they just don’t want to get involved.
The accusations Townsend levels against Baker are similar to those DeNure aimed at Mitch Seavey. The practice of culling – killing dogs that can’t perform instead of spending to keep them fed – is a touchy subject in Alaska, although former Iditarod champ Joe Runyan was blunt enough about it in his 2003 book “Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers.”
“Let’s face it,” he wrote, “you made the decision to raise 70 pups and pick out the 15 or 20 best ones. That means there are 50 pups left to sell, give away or put down. You can’t keep the average dogs because it will ruin your focus on developing a championship team and besides that, unless you are independently wealthy, you cannot afford it.
“My viewpoint is to just get realistic and be a good farmer. Most of the pups will have such good breeding behind them that they will sell themselves. The ones that are just not performers are going to have to be eliminated.”
Since Winning Strategies was written, no musher has talked publicly about culling, and the Iditarod has become “all about the dogs.” Whether that claim is true or not is hard to ascertain.
Townsend said he couldn’t make his evidence available because “I’m giving it all to the reporter I’m set up with.” He identified the reporter as an employee of “Channel 2 Anchorage,” the city’s KTUU-TV.
Media coverage of the Iditarod in Alaska has traditionally been dominated by race fans rather than hard-eyed journalists. The toughest critiques to date have come from DeNure’s husband, John Schandelmeier, a former winner of the Quest and a musher turned columnist for the ADN, who has advocated for reform.
Most of the Alaska media seems content that the Iditarod is problem free, but now both ESPN and the Washington Post are sniffing around the story. There is no telling what might happen next.