Alaska “Mushing Mortician,” Scott Janssen, and pathologist friend Jim Lanier are now fully recovered from their near-death experience of March, and the 2018 Alaska Iditarod Trail Sled Dog seems already ancient history.
But before The Last Great Race is forgotten for the year, the Iditarod rules committee needs to take note of the latest near death and take a simple step to make the event safer:
Order mushers to use a sled with a 6-foot basket and equally sized sled bag when making the run along the Bering Sea Coast from Unalakleet to Nome.
Five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson says five and half feet would do, but he might be over-rating some of the people racing the Iditarod these days. Swenson, who is as comfortable on the trail in life-threatening conditions as you are in your office, also thinks a shorter sled and a tent would suffice.
So would a bivy sac and a good sleeping bag for some people. You don’t need much of a wind break when you’re down at ground level in a bivy, but you do need a certain bit of competence.
If you’ve never spent time in winds gusting to 60, 70 or 80 mph, you don’t understand how easy it is to lose the bag to the wind. That’s what makes a dog sled that is its own bivy a potential life-saving piece of equipment:
Zip the sled bag open. Dump gear. Crawl into the sled. Zip the bag shut and start getting into your sleeping bag inside where nothing can blow away.
Or, as in the case of Lanier this year, if you find another musher in rough shape on the trail, get them into the sled bag, help them get into their sleeping bag, tell them to settle in while you go for help, and zip up their cocoon rather than compounding the problems of search and rescue by boosting the people needing help from one to two.
Zipping in used to be something of an Iditarod norm when things got bad.
The year was 1992, and Freedman writes of a group of mushers that included the late Bob Ernisse, veteran musher Bob Hickel from Anchorage and rookie Debbie Corral from Eagle River. They lost the trail in a ground blizzard in the notorious Solomon blowhole between White Mountain and Nome near the end of the race.
Ernisse found himself in bad shape and told the others he couldn’t go on. The story picks up there with Freedman recording Ernisse’s narrative:
“So we decided we were going to wait out the storm. Bob helped me get all of the gear out of my sled so I could climb inside….I got inside the sled and inside my sleeping bag. But the zipper on the sleeping bag was broken. Bob tried to help me, and finally I said I would just hug it to my body and zip up the sled bag. I went to zip up the sled bag, and the zipper was solid ice, just frozen solid. There was a Velcro strip, and I pushed from inside the sled and Bob pulled from the outside, and we finally got it closed.”
With Ernisse saying he was safely tucked away, Hickel went to his own sled and climbed inside. Ernisse went to sleep and woke the next morning to find himself covered in two inches of snow that had blown inside the incompletely sealed sled bag.
Ernisse went to climb out of the sled, but found his legs wouldn’t work. He screamed for help and Hickel, who had been sleeping comfortably, finally answered. Hickel went to assist Ernisse, but ended up at Corral’s sled.
“He unzipped her sled bag, and she looked at him, and said, ‘What?’ Freedman writes. “He said, ‘Are you alright?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.'”
Hickel then went to assist Ernisse, who did need help. With the help of Hickel, Corral and a local musher Ernisse and Hickel met on the trail, the injured musher made it to the Safety checkpoint and was evacuated from there. Hickel and Corral went on to finish the race.
And now, when a musher gets in trouble as Lanier – a 77-year-old from Chugiak – did this year, there is not much others on the trail can to do to help because on the “sit down” or “tail dragger” sleds in use today, the basket and sled bag in front of the driver are barely big enough to hold an injured dog or two, let alone a musher.
It’s a dangerous situation. Just ask Hugh Neff, a former winner of the bitterly cold, 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
What was it his girlfriend Nicole Faille wrote on Facebook after Neff nearly froze to death near the end of the 2014 Iditarod?
“With hypothermia setting in, he climbed into his sled and sat contemplating that his sled might become his coffin.”
The keyword there is “sat.” Neff would later describe sitting in his sled feeling his body dying in the cold. By the time rescuer Dave Branholm found Neff, whose team quit out on exposed and windswept Golovin Bay east of Nome, Neff was seriously hyopthermic.
Neff and Faille accused Iditarod officials of dillydallying to rescue the freezing musher, but rescuing someone from along the Iditarod Trail in a storm is not as easy as driving a few blocks to the supermarket in Seattle or Minneapolis.
When Branholm found Neff, he was sitting on the bag of his dogsled with his sleeping bag down around his knees and the cotton undergarments beneath his parka frozen stiff because he couldn’t get into his sled.
The basket was too small. The situation was the same for Lanier and Janssen this year and for Janssen again in 2015 when he said, “I almost froze to death on the ice outside of Koyuk….When they found me, I had a sleeping bag draped over me and my 11 dogs.”
He had a sleeping bag draped over him because, again, he couldn’t get into the sled bag. This has become a dangerous Iditarod new norm.
One might think safety the first priority of anyone undertaking a 1,000 mile winter journey across the frozen wilderness of the far north, but the Iditarod is a race and racers do whatever necessary to go as fast as they can.
This is why the Iditarod since near its very beginning in 1973 has had a list of required “mandatory items.” Without such a requirement someone interested in saving weight would be almost certain to shuck his five-pound sleeping bag, or her ax, snowshoes and dog-food cooker with it’s heavy fuel.
Sled dog racing is no different that any other kind of speed racing; winning is about maximizing the power-to-weight ratio. A musher gets faster, stronger dogs to gain power and throws out every last ounce of unnecessary gear to save weight.
Bigger sleds have disappeared because they’re perceived as heavier and because late in the sleep-deprivation competition called Iditarod, it’s nice for the dog driver to be able to sit down and rest, maybe even lean his head on the handlebar to grab a few minutes of sleep.
However nice some mushers might think this, Iditarod needs to protect them from themselves, and it needs to protect the race.
A dead musher on the trail would get the Iditarod a lot of attention. No doubt about that. The near-death stories already get a lot of attention.
At first, too, and sadly, the reaction to death of a musher on the trail might be less than the reaction to the death of a dog. But when questions start getting asked, and it becomes obvious a lot of people have known for years that a very real safety issue has been consciously overlooked, what then?
And yes, some mushers are sure to complain about being required to use a sled with a 6-foot basket (or even a five and half-foot basket) for the coast run, but some of them would complain if they won the Nenana Ice Classic.
And yes, a long sled might be slightly heavier, but not burdensomely so.
Four-time Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion Hans Gatt, a top-10 Iditarod finisher from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, builds a beautiful tail dragger.
“The Tail Dragger,” as he simply calls it, “is a sit down sled for the ultra-serious competitor. With only 4-feet basket length out front it is very lightweight and features excellent handling and extreme flexibility. The seat assembly offers lots of room for storage and it can be used in many different ways to carry food, gear and straw.”
Gatt says the sleds weighs 44-pounds.
Jim Miller at Prairie Built Sleds in North Dakota builds sleds for quite a few Iditarod mushers. His “Easy Rider” comes with a 62-inch or 72-inch (6-foot) basket and weighs 40 to 48 pounds, according to the Prairie Bilt website.
“The 72-inch model is a popular wilderness adventure sled often found on the Iditarod Trail,” he writes.
It’s matching sled bag can be had with “an expendable nose” to make more foot room if anyone ever needs to crawl inside in an emergency. It has full length zippers to make it easy to access and compression straps to hold gear tight against the frame of the sled when the load is small or to make it possible to close the bag if the zipper fails.
It’s the kind of sled bag that could save someone’s life.