Update: This story was revised on March 26, 2019 to reflect the findings of a gross necropsy on the dog that died in the Iditarod.
When Richie Beattie’s dog Oshi died at the end of this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the kennel of the Two Rivers musher quickly turned to the internet for help, and soon the money started flowing in to cover medical expenses.
It was not the first time someone involved in a sport steeped in the traditions of an Alaska long gone grabbed for the social-media lifeline of the 21st Century here and now, and it will certainly not be the last.
Social media in Alaska, as everywhere, is influencing everything. It has invaded the so-called “Last Great Race” in ways big and small.
Long before the 2019 Iditarod began, Wisconsin’s Blair Braverman was everywhere in the tubes, soliciting funds to finance her sled-dog dream and building a new and creative backstop for Iditarod success: a small army of Twitter followers that Iditarod organizers could not ignore.
When Braverman’s team quit on the Kaltag Portage, the unseen army clearly came in handy.
“So some interesting things have happened,” she told NPR after the race. “I was sitting in the cabin. I think I was there for about 20 hours. And I called the race judge. And he’s like, do you have enough dog food?
“And I said, not really. And he goes, ‘There’s a crew of three mushers ahead of you. They’re traveling together. If you can catch up to them, maybe they would have extra dog food. Then you may continue the race. So I mushed for three hours. We get to Old Woman cabin, and what do you know? But there’s three dog teams parked there.”
A race judge taking such actions to keep a back-of-pack (BOP) musher in the race is unprecedented in modern Iditarod history. The history is that race officials try to squeeze out struggling BOP mushers.
After a snowmachine crew trailing the race in 2010 helped 58-year-old Kathleen Frederick wrestle her dogsled out of the waters of Dalzell Creek, the 5-foot, 3-inch woman got call from a race official on the Iditarod’s satellite phone at the Rohn checkpoint.
Frederick was given a simple choice: She could be disqualified from the race for receiving “outside assistance,” or she could drop out. The former librarian and former teacher turned practicing attorney tearfully scratched.
Such is the norm at the back of the Iditarod pack where the less capable mushers have long dealt with the reality of established and arguably justified double standards.
When two-time Iditarod runner-up, 16-time top-10 finisher and longtime race favorite DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow lost her team three times in the Dalzell in 2014 and then asked some news reporters and others for help in getting the dogs out of the Gorge, there was no ultimatum to be answered.
Frederick and Jonrowe were, however, decidedly different competitors. Jonrowe, an aging veteran, had shown she knew how to get a dog team to Nome. Frederick, a rookie, had convinced some she wasn’t yet ready to do so.
It was a harsh judgment, but harsh judgments have long been an Iditarod norm. And pre-Braverman, it has always been different at the back.
Back of pack musher Robert Loveman from Montana was so irritated by Iditarod double standards that he in 2009 sued the race, arguing it shouldn’t have withdrawn his team as “non-competitive” when it was still within an Iditarod timeline intended to define competitiveness.
Loveman lost. An Alaska judge ruled the Iditarod had no legal obligation to follow its own rules.
Rules and rules
“Modern day Iditarod rules allow the elimination of teams that are not “in a position to make a valid effort to compete”. Specifically; “If a team has not reached McGrath within seventy-two (72) hours of the leader, Grayling/Galena within ninety-six (96) hours of the leader or, Unalakleet within one hundred twenty (120) hours of the leader, it is presumed that a team is not competitive,” Morgan Buckingham later wrote in her 2012 “Run for the Red Lantern Blog” as she attempted to make it into the Iditarod field.
“Winners of the Red Lantern Award in this day and age may not even be the last team on the trail, they might be the last team allowed to finish the race. In 2009, Rob Loveman was withdrawn for non-competitiveness. In 2010 Hank Debruin was forced to scratch or be withdrawn due to non-competitiveness, even though he was well under the Unalakleet time limit.”
Debruin’s ouster was in some part his own fault. Back of pack mushers understand they are on their own and can expect no help from race officials.
Debruin was but 12 minutes behind Montana’s Celeste Davis at the Nulato checkpoint in 2010. If he’d left Nulato with her or simply refused to answer the phone when Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman called minutes later, Debruin might have been allowed to finish.
But he answered the phone and the rest is history. Davis that year drove on to collect the ceremonial red lantern given the last musher to finish the race.
Her time of 13 days, 5 hours was 14 hours faster than Braverman’s time of 13 days, 19 hours this year. Davis, a nurse back home in the Lower 48, finished despite breaking her nose in a crash in the Dalzell early on. She hid the injury from race officials confident that if they found out she would be quickly tossed out of the race.
Braverman, to her credit, eventually reached Nome fourth from last this year. She was more than a day in front of rookie Victoria Hardwick from Bethel, but then Hardwick had an old-fashioned backstop to buy her a little extra time if necessary.
She has a long association with the Old Friendly Dog Farm in Bethel, an Angtsman family operation. And Andy Angstman, one of the younger generation of Angstmans, now sits on the Iditarod Board of Directors as the representative of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club.
Since the beginning of Iditarod, personal connections and politics – big and small – have imposed their influences as they do in all things. Iditarod functions as a small town with all the good and bad that accompanies the same.
Social media has only leveraged off that base.
Braverman brought with her to Iditarod almost 80,000 gung-ho and well-meaning Iditarod followers. Her #UglyDogs fans raised $4,000 to help send Nikolai fourth graders on a trip to Anchorage and said their Igiveaord campaign brought in a whole lot more for other good causes.
The organization claims almost $104,000 in charitable giving, a number widely reported by Alaska’s mainstream media. But it’s hard to tell how much money was raised. It might have been well more than $104,000; it might have been less. There is no accounting.
The organization maintained a spreadsheet listing 123 DonorsChoose projects – 119 of them in Alaska – for which it recommended contributions. It’s fund-raising conclusions come from totaling the money donated to those projects, but there is no real way to tell if the money came solely from #uglydogs or if there was some from #supportiveparents or #friendlybusinesses.
Whether Igivearod raised thousands of dollars or tens of thousand of dollars is, however, largely irrelevant. The organization backed well-meaning causes and generated significant positive buzz for a race that has long been under attack from animal rights activists and reeling in the wake of accusations that one of its top mushers – four-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey from Talkeetna – doped his dogs in 2017.
The race in 2018 it announced it had cleared Seavey, but the claim rang hollow given the organization has never identified any other possible suspect. Seavey and dad, Mitch – another Iditarod champ, has argued he was sabotaged by another musher or animal-rights activists, though there is no evidence of any such tampering.
And Iditarod covered up a scientific analysis that concluded Seavey’s team was most likely doped in Nome a half-hour to an hour before it was tested. Team Seavey members were at that time reported to be in the dog lot tending the team.
Although Iditarod imposed no penalty again Seavey even after identifying his dogs as doped, he used social media – primarily YouTube – to wage war against the Iditarod and the tactic appeared to work.
Morrie Craig, the director of the race’s anti-doping program was ousted, and most of the Alaska volunteers who had been the boots-on-the-ground heart of the doping program quit. They have avoided social media, at least to date, and refused to talk about the program when asked.
Off the record, one offered a simple response to a question as to what was wrong: “Icarus.” Icarus is an award-winning documentary about hidden Russian sports doping.
Documentary films and books remain the air power of modern information wars and the mainstream media the rusting armored divisions. But social media is now a massive, uncontrolled army capable of launching human wave attacks.
Canadian film maker Fern Levitt bombed the Iditarod, and sled-dog sports in general, with the movie “Sled Dogs” in 2016, but Iditarod and Idit-a-fans have been biting back on social media across a broad front ever since.
At least in Alaska, they seem to be winning.
After only three days on GoFundMe, musher Nicolas Petit was more than two-thirds of the way to raising the $2,500 he says he needs to return with his team to Shaktoolik where the dogs mutined during this years Iditarod.
Petit wants to return to Shaktoolik to retrain a team that mutined on the Bering Sea Coast this year, forcing him to quit Iditarod 2019. Petit contends the dogs have mental issues that needed to be resolved, and he has found a strong vein of support for that idea.
The out-pouring of support for Beattie was similar after his kennel posted this on GoFundMe:
“Our gofundme campaign is in honor of a warrior dog who died living her life to the fullest & having the time of her life. Her memory will carry on through the years as Wildthingz recovers from this devastating loss. Wildthingz will move forward as a staple to our great Alaskan dog mushing culture.
“Financial expenses for medical treatment and memorial services are substantial. We welcome your support in honoring our beloved Oshi.”
The kennel promptly raised $2,900 – $400 more than its goal. Almost half the funds came from seven women who from the comments clearly viewed Oshi as part of the Beattie family.
“My heart aches for all at Wildthingz Dog Mushing, with the loss of amazing Oshi. She was the leader of the pack,” one of them wrote.
The Iditarod first reported Oshi died of aspiration pneumonia, an illness caused by dogs inhaling food particles or gastric fluid, but later revised that to say a gross necropsy performed on the dog determined Oshi died of pneumonia of an unknown origin.
The foreign material that kills canines in sled-dog races is usually regurgitated stomach that is then inhaled. This is aspiration pneumonia.
Three dogs have died of aspiration pneumonia in the last three Iditarods. All of the deaths have come in the stretch run along the Bering Sea Coast.
Healthy dogs are normally pretty well protected from the disease. It “is,” as Finnish scientists studying canine pneumonia observed in a 2017 study, “difficult to induce experimentally in healthy dogs; the pathogenesis is therefore considered complex, involving several underlying mechanisms.”
Despite that, the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, has had some of the same pneumonia problems as the Iditarod.
A dog died this year of aspiration pneumonia and another the year before. After this year’s death, Quest chief vet Nina Hanson told the Yukon News that aspiration pneumonia is “one of the more common” causes of sled dog death.
Neither of the races report how many dogs come down with aspiration pneumonia and survive thanks to the efforts of veterinarians. The survival rate for dogs stricken with the disease has been estimated at 77 to 81.6 percent.”
Experienced Iditarod vets who asked not to be named said a couple of things could be going on to contribute to deaths in long-distance races. One is the simple stress of racing 1,000 miles with minimum rest in an environment that requires dogs to process 10,000 to 12,000 calories of food per day to fuel their bodies and keep them warm.
It is difficult for some dogs to handle the volume of calories they need. Gastric distress follows and they can sometimes cough up food because of that.
If they inhale some of the vomit in the process, aspiration pneumonia can develop, and dogs near the end of the Iditarod or quest might be especially vulnerable.
High intensity exercise over long distances has been shown to temporarily depress the immune systems of human runners. Given the high-pace of the modern Iditarod, it is possible the immune systems of dogs are similarly compromised.
But it is one of those things you are unlikely to find a topic on social media, which generates a lot of smoke often with a serious lack of fire beneath.
In this case, serious Iditafans don’t care much about dogs falling victim to pneumonia because to them the race is flawless, and animal’s right protesters don’t care because the deaths were inevitable in a race that they view aspure evil.
And for those of either view, social media is a gold mine; pick a side, find a rich vein, and start mining. Then share your gold with the like-minded.
Victory goes to whomever accumulates the most loot.