The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ended in Nome on Monday with the smallest finishing field in 30 years, the second champion from rural Alaska in a decade when rural Alaska has all but abandoned sled dogs, one dead dog, and a future as tenuous as ever.
On the upside, the race appeared to have its first budding Twitter star in an age when the President of the United States of America has made the social media platform the battleground for hearts and minds.
Blair Braverman came to the so-called Last Great Race from a town called Mountain in mountainless Wisconsin by way of California with the perfect surname – Braverman – and a made-for-TV hubby to match – Quince Mountain. She fumbled her way for 1,000 miles north from Willow to finish an oh-so-heroic 36th out of 39 teams to reach Nome, just one more than in 1989.
On the downside there was the dog dead, which brought the predictable expressions of grief and outrage from animal right’s activists, and there was to go with it a tangled tale of an unprecedented number of teams that faltered and flailed along the Bering Sea coast late in the race.
Some got going again and some quit.
To the Iditarod faithful, the quitters were rebuttal to the argument that dogs are forced to run. Clearly, as the evidence showed, the dogs have some choice.
You can’t push a string
The dogs can, like factory workers, go on strike. How bad things have to get before people, or dogs, unite to take such a stand is fuel for a legitimate discussion about what the Iditarod is in these times and what it should be going forward.
But for the zealots on either side, there is nothing to talk about.
There are Iditafans living in some fantasy land where the race is nothing but the Westminster Dog Show on snow and the mushers beneficent gods.
And on the other side, there are whacked out, vegetarian animal right’s activists who think dogs should live on a diet of soy, because apparently industrial agriculture can raise plants without killing anything, and never be told to do anything, let alone be expected to perform.
For the folks in these little camps, the Iditarod is easily defined. It’s all good, or it’s all bad, and there is no need to discuss anything.
Unfortunately, the issues surrounding the Iditarod are not so simple.
And forget the dead dog. It’s just a distraction. Dogs die tragic deaths every day. By the time you finish reading this, several will have been struck and killed on American roadways.
An estimated 1.2 million per year are run down by motor vehicles. That’s 23,000 a week, 3,300 per day, 137 per hour, or a little better than two dead dogs per minute.
If you want to do something for dogs, get your nose out of your cellphone and devote your full attention to the road when driving.
On the other hand, let no one be deceived by the Iditarod claim that the Last Great Race “is all about the dogs.” The Iditarod is no gift to the canine world. That is as simplistic and wrong as the belief that the race is inherently evil because a dog sometimes dies.
The Iditarod is simply more “all about the people” than all about the dogs.
All of which turns the focus to Nicolas Petit from Girdwood, the man who looked on his way to becoming the 2019 Iditarod winner before becoming the race’s biggest loser.
This not to suggest that there is anything made up about the collapse of Petit’s dog team as there was with Smollett’s story. It is meant to say people need to give more weight to facts than to emotions.
That is especially important in the Petit case because in that interview he made the case, albeit it inadvertently, for why dogs that struggle on the Bering Sea coast should never run another Iditarod.
The questions that follow are simple: What happens to those dogs?
And that opens the door on other questions: How many races can an Iditarod dog do at the pace the race is now being run? And how many dogs is the Iditarod churning through to field the competitive dog teams that do tow the start line?
Fern Levitt, the director of the controversial documentary “Sled Dogs,” has described some Alaska kennels as glorified puppy mills, and the accusation is not wholly off base.
“There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in dog mushing,” the late Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod champ, infamously said at a mushing symposium in Fairbanks way back 1991. “We wouldn’t, as a group, pass anybody’s idea of humane treatment of animals. As a group, we don’t pass my standards of humane treatment of animals.
“These people are out there abusing their animals. I hope this sport does die if we can’t, as a group, educate each other and work together to clean up our act.”
The sport changed in the years that followed. Mushers got more selective about breeding. Old dogs were adopted out rather than killed. The practice of dumping dogs at animal shelters slowed even if it never fully ended.
Kennel sizes for competitive mushers shrunk. The Iditarod instituted as anti-doping program at the behest of some of the sport’s top racers to clean up drug use.
Fairbanks sprint mushers Kathy Frost and her husband the late Lloyd Lowry, showed that some sled dogs dumped at the pound could be turned into race winners as did John Schandelmeier, a dog driver from Paxson who in 1996 won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, the north’s second biggest distance race.
Schandelmeier still keeps a small kennel, and his wife, Zoya Denure, regularly runs Iditarod, but they can’t hope to compete in a race that has again become dominated by mushers keeping large kennels as the result of a booming business in sled-dog tours.
Sled dogs pulling people across Alaska glaciers in sleds or in carts on Alaska trails have provided lots of dogs off-season jobs that help pay bills and cover the costs of food and veterinary care for small armies of dogs between Iditarods.
New Iditarod champ Pete Kaiser from Bethel is something of an oddity in that his kennel is reportedly home to only 45 to 50 dogs. The Seaveys – Mitch and Dallas who between them have won six of the last eight Iditarods – keep hundreds of sled dogs. Last year’s winner, Joar Liefseth Ulsom, this year’s runner-up, has more than 100 around his house in Willow.
Big kennels change the way people think about the race. The mushers with big kennels can afford to burn dogs out because they have replacements waiting in the wings. They can push dogs to the limit in effort to win.
As a result, anyone who hopes to beat them has to do much the same. And then the adventurers at the back of the race, mushers with far lesser teams, have to elevate their pace to avoid getting squeezed out of the competition because they are too far behind the race leaders.
So let’s go back to Petit again and what he says happened to his team on the trail from Shaktoolik across the barren flats to Island Point on the edge of Norton Bay.
“Puppie gotta poop, and Joey tackles him,” Petit said in an Iditarod Insider video before pausing and inhaling deeply. “I had enough of this Joee. Knock it off….There was just a puppy being harassed by a bully, and what do you do?
“Let the bully be a bully? Or do you tell the bully, that’s enough? Vocally only.”
So Petit stopped the team to disciple Joee. This happens. Dogs can be jerks. Maybe it was all vocal as Petit says. Maybe Petit just yelled at the dog. Personally, I’ve always grabbed these dogs by the throat, rolled them over on their back, and held them down until their eyes revealed they understood exactly who was in charge of the pack.
But let’s accept Petit at his word – a politically correct “vocally only” – and let Petit pick the story up from there again:
“(I) picked up the snowhook, and said all right let’s go,” and then he starts looking around at the sky in mimicry of dogs ignoring him.
Needless to say, the dogs didn’t move.
“I stayed four and a half hours I think, on the side in the wind with the straw,” Petit goes on to say “And I decided that was not a good place to spend any more time. It was good that we had the straw, we used it and all that. So I packed up whatever straw I could and tried to go. I tried to go with other teams coming by; that didn’t help.
“Joar tried to help me, but we weren’t going to jeopardize his race trying to help me. He tried once, I said, ‘OK, thank you’ and then he went.”
One can break all of this down to a few words.
Petit stopped to discipline a misbehaving dog, and his team staged a full on mutiny.
Whether that was a mental issue (as a some mushers and a lot of Idit-a-fans argue) or a physical issue (which is much more complicated) is explored lower down in this story, but to look forward before looking back, let’s pursue Petit’s explanation that the issue was mental because, in his opinion, “this dog team was not tired. This dog team was not overexerted.”
So what is wrong when a professionally trained team just sits down and won’t go even though the dogs have plenty of energy because they weren’t “overexerted?”
Well. again, here’s Petit’s explanation:
“We had a very, very tough run last year. We had to find our way through something that we were not expecting….Basically it was a really, really tough run we did last year. And I’m very proud of them for what they did then. And I can’t blame them for not wanting to go back to a place where their last experience with it was the toughest run of their lives.”
Focus on Petit’s words: “I can’t blame them for not wanting to go back to a place where their last experience with it was the toughest run of their lives.”
This represents an old Iditarod view. When Iditarod dogs struggle and stumble on the coast, they remember. And because they remember, you best leave them at home (or get rid of them) because you can’t count on them in future races.
In the Insider video, Petit made nicey-nicey talk about how he’s going to avoid that model.
“My dog team and I will be flying out to Unalakleet or someplace close to there, running through with there with steaks and T-bones (for treats)….We’re going to have a good, old-time going back and forth….We’re going to show them this is our new backyard, and there’s nothing to be scared of everything’s fine.
“And no, I will not get rid of my dogs.”
It all sounds good. Unfortunately, practical realities argue against it. It is expensive to fly a dog team to Nome and more expensive to fly it from there to Unalakleet. It might be possible to rehabilitate dogs that have been through what was clearly one bad experience and what Petit now claims were two bad experiences.
But rehabilitation would be an experiment that could well fail. In the cold light of day, it would be much more sensible for Petit to do what other mushers have done and start over with a largely new group of dogs.
Someone who knows Petit well expects that at least some of the dogs of Iditarod 2019 will be sold to mushers in other countries, like Norway where they won’t recognize the terrain, or given to junior mushers who run in the treed terrain of the Susitna River valley, or adopted out to friends.
But Petit is also one of those rare mushers with a pretty small kennel of 30 dogs or less. He might be forced to undertake the retraining experiment. Others won’t. They will take the easier route, and Petit’s dogs were not the only ones flagging on the coast this year.
Not all of the people behind those teams have the same, dog-friendly reputation as Petit, either. Some of them are known for being all about business, and the wise business decision is to move on from a dog team of quitters.
Hopefully, some of the dogs can be rehabilitated or hang on as training leaders or get adopted out to new homes or sold to recreational mushers or skijorers.
And some likely won’t.
It would be nice if Iditarod kept track of this churn if for no other reason than to get a handle on whether the Iditarod is truly good for the dogs or not. Andy, five-time champ Rick Swenson’s famed lead dog, raced for 10 years and lived to the age of 20. That is beyond a ripe old age for any dog.
Clearly Iditarod and the associated training was good for Andy. But experienced mushers say there don’t appear to be many Iditarod dogs lasting more than a few races anymore.
Iditarod dogs are microchipped. Iditarod could keep track of how many races the average dog now does before it is replaced. But Iditarod doesn’t keep that data. It’s almost like Iditarod doesn’t want to know.
Selling the myth
That’s understandable. The Iditarod myth of Braverman and brave women challenging the unforgiving wilds of Alaska plays better than the reality of mushers taking their dog teams to the edge of collapse or beyond to try to win a dog race or satiate their egos.
What happened on the Bering Sea coast in this year’s Iditarod was unprecedented. More than a dozen teams, almost a third of the field, stalled out between the time the race left the Yukon River at Kaltag and reached Safety, the last checkpoint before the finish.
Teams were quitting all over the place, forcing mushers to make long, unplanned stops. More than half of them managed to get started again and eventually make it to Nome as Brent Sass did in 2016.
But a half-dozen were forced to scratch including 67-year-old veteran Cindy Gallea from Wykoff, Minn., who had appeared for most of the race to be babysitting the back of the pack on the run to White Mountain. After the mandatory, 8-hour rest there, she set out for Nome and ran into trouble.
Twenty miles out, her team stalled, and it ended up taking her more than 22 hours to go the 55 miles to Safety, where she scratched. Behind her, Bethel rookie Victoria Hardwick – whose team made an unplanned, 8-hour stop between Elim and White Mountain plodded on to Nome to wrap up the race.
This sort of chaos happened all over the place. The team of musher Sarah Stokey from Willow took 17 hours to cover the 20 miles from Safety to Nome. The fat-tired cyclists who won the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational did it in a fifth the time; their average speed for the entire 1,000 mile ride was actually faster than Stokey’s average speed for the last 20 miles.
Musher Jessie Holmes, a seventh place finisher as a rookie last year, had a Sass-esque experience on the 50-mile trail from Elim to Koyuk. A run that should have taken his team seven to eight hours took more than 36.
He plummeted from fifth in Shaktoolik to 27th by the finish line in Nome.
“What I am having a bit of a problem with is the often skewed opinions the fan base has, sitting far away, without seeing the firsthand hand events,” Iditarod.com reporter Sebastian Schnuelle wrote after Sass stalled in 2016. “It rubs me a bit the wrong way reading comments about how Brent ‘did things right by his dogs’ with returning to the checkpoint. I am sorry to having to point this out, but it was not Brent who made that choice, it was his dogs who did. When dogs refuse to go, a mistake was made.”
Schnuelle and other Iditarod reporters were strangely quiet this year as teams faltered left and right. Maybe it was the magnitude of the failure.
Petit had a lot of company in failing to properly judge the condition of a dog team. And there is no denying Petit’s team looked downright phenomenal – barking and pulling at the towline – when he blew through Shaktoolik only a couple of hours before his entire Iditarod comes to an end.
Veteran Iditarod mushers can’t remember seeing dogs jumping against their harnesses wanting to leave a coastal checkpoint. To have them then give up only about 10 miles down the trail just buggers the imagination and raises another question.
Could this have as much more to do with the Iditarod dogs of today than the new mushers?
The old Iditarod was run with dogs with a lot of Siberian husky in them. Siberians – or Slowberians as some call them – had a bad reputation for harboring a problematic penchant for self-preservation.
If a musher asked too much of them, they would instinctively back off the speed, or so it seemed, to try to protect themselves. They were like alkaline batteries slowly dimming in a flashlight. They’d keep going and going and increasingly dimming and dimming for a long time before they went out.
On the outside, todays dogs are lot different from Siberians. They are more hound than husky. They have shorter hair and longer legs. They arrive at the starting line as lean, mean, running machines ready to rock instead of packing a few extra pounds intended to be burned off on the way to the coast where the race is to begin.
And there has been speculation that they have changed on the inside, too, that the Siberian, self-preservation gene has been bred out of them, speculation that the new Iditarod dogs might be such that they burn bright like a protected lithium cell until shortly before they entirely shut down.
Managing such a team – whether it shuts down because it is physically spent or, as Petit argues, mentally failing – becomes a lot more difficult. Dogs don’t come outfitted with battery indicators.
If you can’t tell by looking when the dogs are faltering – and in Petit’s defense it bears reiterating that his team looked great in Shaktoolik – the problem of teams crashing on the coast would only seem destined to continue, though after this year it’s hard to imagine it could get worse.
The Idit-a-fans seems to think this is fine. The Idit-a-enemies thinks its horrific. And the great middle? Well, Iditarod might want to figure out what they think fast because the future of the financially troubled event hinges on public opinion.
And to have large numbers of teams quitting unexpectedly along the coast is just asking for trouble. The weather was benign this year. What if it had been otherwise?