This story has been updated
Kotzebue musher Katherine Keith pulled into Nome Thursday night to bring to a close a musher’s year from hell.
First there was a dead dog near the end of the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race about this time last year, then accusations of abuse in the kennel she shares with former Iditarod champ John Baker, and finally another dog death just before the finish of the Iditarod this year.
The second dog was reported to have died from aspiration pneumonia, according to a statement from the Iditarod. A similar cause was given for the dog that died outside the Koyuk checkpoint in 2017. That death was attributed to “acute aspiration pneumonia.”
An “acute aspiration” means a large volume of water or other fluid rapidly accumulating in the lungs. In the case of Iditarod dogs, this usually mean the dog gets sick, vomits and in the process inhales a large amount of that fluid.
As the story of two dog deaths in two years rocketed around the internet, Iditarod officials were moved to put out a statement saying there was no evidence the deaths were in any way related to bad dog care.
Nationally, the Iditarod has faced a lot of bad press since October when it came out that four-time champ Dallas Seavey’s team had failed a drug test in Nome months earlier. The Iditarod kept the information secret for months and only revealed Seavey’s name after other mushers complained that not naming him cast suspicion on everyone.
Later abuse allegations led Baker to withdraw from the race even though the Anchorage Daily News, in reporting that story, threw the source under a bus. The newspaper said former handler Rick Townsend was wanted on a felony warrant in the Bering Sea community, but never said why.
Court records say the 41-year-old Minnesotan is charged with theft and “fraudulent use of an access device.” Now back home, Townsend said by phone that Keith accused him of stealing a ring, and that the access device was a credit card.
He didn’t steal the ring, he said, and described the credit-card charges as the perfect musher scam: Give low-paid handlers a credit card with which to pay kennel bills, and if they ever cause a problem, go to the police and claim the credit card was used illegally.
That Baker and Keith got into a disagreement with Townsend is something on which everyone agrees. Townsend contends it was over Baker abusing dogs. Baker and Keith have denied that. Several others handlers who Townsend said could confirm his story refused to talk on the record and didn’t say much off, except to offer that Townsend was unfriendly.
“I already told Rick I don’t want to talk about this,” said Scott Engebretson, one who did talk on the record. Engebretson is a young Minnesotan who said his main job when he was in Kotzebue was to catch fish to feed the Team Baker canines.
“I liked John and Katherine a lot,” Engebretson said. “Do you think they’re murdering dogs on purpose?”
Then he said he didn’t want to talk anymore.
Up and comer
A 39-year-old woman who said she struggled with depression, an eating disorder and alcohol in her teens, Keith was featured at ESPN.com last year as a woman who found a new start in Alaska in the 1990s only to find more struggles after.
She lost a baby who asphyxiated inside her parka on a snowmachine trip. Another daughter, Amelia, was born, but her husband died in a Kotzebue Sound boating accident not long after.
Searching for a focus, ESPN’s Matt Crossman wrote, “Katherine sought out new experiences. She trained for and competed in triathlons and Iron Man competitions as a way to refill her reservoir of willpower, strength and grit that emptied when Madi and Dave died.”
A relationship with Baker, famous in Kotzebue for having won the Iditarod, formed and blossomed. Keith began to focus more on dogs. She ran her first Iditarod n 2014 and finished back in the pack at 32nd. She was forced to drop from the race in Unalakleet the next year. Another back of the pack finish came in 2016.
But 2017 was a breakout year.
Before the Iditarod, she ran the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada to Fairbanks, and won rookie of the year honors with a seventh-place finish.
She followed that up by cracking the Iditarod top-20 with a finish just behind Baker.
Against that history, this looked to be the year she might join the Iditarod’s elite women. And she was again closing in on a top-20 finish when the race hit the Bering Sea coast.
Then came a rough, 50-mile crossing of the barren tundra from Shaktoolik to Island Point and past onto the windswept ice of Norton Bay on the way to Koyuk. A run that had been taking 8 or 9 hours for teams in good weather took Keith almost 10.5 hours.
Just behind her, four-time Iditarod champ from Martin Buser from Big Lake took almost 10 hours.
Keith arrived in Koyuk at about 7 p.m. The Iditarod would report one of her dogs dead about five hours later.
“Blonde, a 5-year-old male from the race team of Katherine Keith, died at the Koyuk checkpoint,” an Iditarod press release said. “Blonde had been dropped there earlier in the day and was being treated by veterinarians for signs of pneumonia.”
Crossman last year described Blonde as a lead dog and Keith’s favorite. The Iditarod’s report was, as is often the case, cryptic.
There was no information on whether Blonde came into the checkpoint under his own power or was brought in as a rider in the dogsled after faltering on the trail. There was no indication of what led doctors to suspect pneumonia or what treatment “for signs of pneumonia” meant.
Aspiration pneumonia – a dog vomiting and then inhaling intestinal matter – has long been a risk in the Iditarod and was what killed one of Keith’s dogs last year. A study of 23 dogs that died in the Iditarod race between 1994 and 2006 found that about 20 percent of them died from aspiration pneumonia.
Dogs suffering from aspiration pneumonia are usually put on IVs to battle dehydration and antibiotics to treat lung infections from the inhaled matter.