While Alaska begins the celebration leading up to the weekend kick off of the iconic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, 64-year-old, musher Kirsten Bey is home recovering from serious injuries suffered after being rundown by a motor vehicle on a remote section of the famed trail along the Yukon River.
Bey said via a Facebook message from the Fairbanks hospital on Tuesday that she doesn’t know what happened, but Alaska State Troopers and the organizer of the 2020 Serum Run Expedition from Nenana to Nome say she was hit from behind by a snowmachine.
Troopers on Tuesday reported Bey was about five miles out of Galena on Monday evening when “she was struck by an unknown snowmachiner.” The agency later updated a public statement to say the driver of the snowmachine had contacted the agency “and is cooperating with the ongoing investigation.”
Troopers have not, however, identified the driver.
“I don’t remember getting hit by the sno-go,” Bey messaged from her hospital bed. “Last I knew, we were travelling well. It was about 8:30 or so at night.
“The dogs really like going at night. Trail was good. Temperature was pleasant. I was enjoying the last few miles into Galena.”
Exactly what happened next and the moments that followed are a blank. Bey has no memory of being hit or knocked off her sled.
“Next thing I knew, I was getting on a snowmachine to be driven to Galena,” she said. “I have a vague vision of my sled on its side. The medics did a great job on me in Galena and got me flown to Fairbanks.”
Unlucky but lucky
Bey praised the staff of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for the care she got there.
“There were a few ‘brain bleeds,'” she said, “(but) these were rechecked (Tuesday) morning and are stable. So no fear of further brain damage.”
Both of the bones in her lower leg were broken just below the knee, she said, “but X-rays indicate simple breaks that should heal fine with rest and limited movement. There could be ligament issues but we we won’t know that until healing is underway and (the) swelling goes down.
“It appears I was very lucky.”
Or as lucky as a dog musher so unlucky as to be hit be a snowmachine can be. She has no idea where the snowmachine came from, but does wonder how the driver failed to see her.
“I do have reflective tape on the back of my jacket, and my (teams’) gangline, neck and tug lines and the line along my runners all have reflective tape throughout them, and I was wearing my headlight.”
Her dogs were uninjured and other mushers pitched in to see that they got safely home.
The accident was reminiscent of that involving four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park on the trail out of Galena during the 2016 Iditarod. King escaped injury but one of his dogs died.
Hit from behind
He was on his way to the village of Nulato from Galena when a speeding snowmachine headed down river slammed into his team. The driver of the snowmachine kept going after the crash, but the 59-year-old King picked up a piece of the snowmachine cowling torn loose by the impact of the crash.
Demoski was arrested and taken to jail in Fairbanks. He claimed to have been so drunk he remembered nothing of the incident.
Despite that he eventually entered into a plea agreement that saw him plead guilty to charges of criminal mischief in the third degree, fourth-degree assault, reckless endangerment and drunk driving in connection with the death of King’s dog and the harassment of musher Aily Zirkle from Two Rivers.
Zirkle had been left terrified by the behavior of an unidentified driver on a snowmachine who stalked her on the trail.
Demoski’s guilty plea required him to complete six months and three days in jail, pay more than $35,000 in fines and restitution to the two mushers, and serve five years probation.
The 135 miles of trail along the Yukon from Ruby to Galena – sight of an old air station where during the Cold War U.S. Air Force fighter jets sat ready to intercept bombers from the now defunct Soviet Union when they probed Alaska air space – and on to the villages of Nulato and Kaltag is the busiest stretch of trail on the Yukon.
Some years, the route shared by snowmachines, dog mushers, fat-tired cyclists and walkers is a car-lane wide. In years with considerable snow, such as this one, however, it often narrows to the width of a single snowmachine.
Such trails will sometimes become ruts with berms along their sides firm enough to make it difficult for a snowmachine to leave the trail. A driver trying to get out of the rut to pass a dogsled, another snowmachine, or a person can hit the berm at an angle and get bounced right back into the middle of the trail.
What exactly happened in this case, including how fast the snowmachine was going and whether the driver had been drinking, has yet to be determined.
But what has been clear for a long time is that the machines that have made winter travel between Alaska villages so much easier in the past decade do bring with them the same risks to vulnerable trail users that cars and trucks pose to those people elsewhere in Alaska.
A jury in Kotzebue, a regional hub along the northern edge of the Bering Sea, in 2011 found 22-year-old Patrick Tickett guilty of manslaughter after the snowmachine he was driving ran down and killed an Anchorage doctor.
Dr. Roger Gollub, a pediatrician who sometimes journeyed to the community 550 miles northwest of Anchorage to treat children, was on the runners of a dogsled behind a team belonging to Tracey Shaeffer when Tickett hit him from behind at an estimated 60 mph.
Schaeffer who was riding in the basket of the sled when the collision took place was also seriously injured.
The crash broke Gollub’s spine and “tore Schaeffer’s diaprhragm and ripped her spleen apart,” the Arctic Sounder newspaper reported. Tickett was reported to have been drinking heavily and doing drugs before the crash.