nic petit

Nicolas Petit/Iditarod photo

With a little help from the mainstream media, hard-luck musher Nic Petit from Girdwood this year became the first musher to twice quit the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the same year.

The first time, race marshal Mark Nordman ruled Petit’s announcement that he was scratching didn’t count because Petit had yet to fill out the proper paperwork.

The Anchorage Daily News (ADN) on March 11 reported “Petit made the decision Tuesday night to drop out of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race after a day of misfortune.

“Petit told race officials he was planning to go home as he pulled into Nikolai….He started making phone calls to inform loved ones that he was heading home.”

As it turned out, an ADN reporter had made the mistake of believing what a musher said upon arrival in a checkpoint, overlooking the reality that Iditarod dog drivers invest a year or more of their lives (and sometimes most of their money) in a once-a-year shot at getting a dog team from Willow to Nome.

Frustration comes easy in such circumstance, and more than one musher has voiced the opinion he or she was done with Iditarod only to later experience a change of heart.

Saved by the marshal

After Petit’s announcement, Nordman posted on the Facebook page Alaska Mushing News to say a musher announcing he was scratching isn’t a scratch until the paperwork is complete.

petit scratch

A social-media debate quickly followed about the ADN reporting Petit’s comments along with what he said after about his problems with sick and vomiting dogs, dogs with frostbite, and a dog requiring stitches after being bitten in the nose by another dog.

Those comments were seized on by the animal right’s group People for the Ethical Treatment (PETA), which is trying to put the Iditarod out of business.

While PETA was beating up on the Iditarod with claims that running sick and frostbitten dogs was animal abuse, Petit was back on the trail trying to claw his way back into contention for a top-20 if not top-10 Iditarod finish.

The seventh to last team out of the Nikolai checkpoint, Petit’s recovering dogs pulled him from 49th there to 15th when the race reached Unalakleet on the Bering Sea Coast.

The team had slipped to 17th by Elim, another 150 miles along the 1,000-mile trail, but showed no signs of faltering. It actually looked to be getting stronger. On the 50-mile run from Koyuk to Elim, in fact, Petit had the fastest team in the entire Iditarod field.

His team’s average speed of 8.6 mph bested that of race winner Thomas Waerner by more than 2 mph. His dogs were in one of only three teams to top 8 mph on that leg of the race.

Then came disaster on the way to the penultimate checkpoint of White Mountain.

Petit’s teams have developed something of a reputation for running fast right up until the time they don’t want to run anymore, but that isn’t what happened this time, according to Iditarod and the Facebook page for Petit’s kennel.

Both indicate weather was a problem sometime Thursday night or early this morning on the stretch of trail that climbs up and over what has come to be known as “Little McKinley,” a reference to what used to be the name for the tallest peak in North America.

The 1,000-foot climb from sea level to a saddle to be crossed before the drop to Golovin is a grunt in good conditions, but on a trail fairly easy to follow. The trail across the top is not always so clear.

Teams on Wednesday night were facing fresh snow, warm temperatures and winds gusting to 50 mph as a storm moved in from the west. 

“Just got off a satellite phone with Nic,” his “kennel family” posted on his Facebook page Thursday. “I’m updating you all because I’m certain you are as confused as we are about why he left in the storm when his initial plan was to stay in Elim until after the storm for the sake of the dogs.

“It was as we suspected…with pressure to hit the trail he decided it was as good a time as any in a massive blizzard and didn’t want to have to scratch. He said the dogs looked AMAZING out there and nothing was wrong…he simply couldn’t find a trail marker. Not for anything. It must have blown away or something. Once he realized he couldn’t find the trail he hit the button as he knew time wasn’t on their side in a storm.”

“The button” sends an SOS message via the GPS satellite trackers now carried by Iditarod mushers. Once the button is hit, a musher is generally considered out of the race, although the rules aren’t exactly clear on that.

“…Activation of any help or emergency signal, including accidental
activation, may make a musher ineligible to continue and may result in an automatic withdrawal from the race,” the rules say.

As with so many things Iditarod related, the rules are somewhat confusing. If a withdrawal is “automatic,” there is no “may” involved.

Officially, Iditarod this time rejected the idea of withdrawal, which is generally considered to have negative connotations in the mushing world, and reported “Petit scratched at 5:20 a.m. today between the Elim and White Mountain…by activating his SOS.”

Golovin search and rescue volunteers Jack Fagerstrom and John Peterson got on their snowmachines to respond to the SOS, located Petit, and guided him and his dog team to a shelter cabin.

The scratch marked the second year in a row Petit has run into big trouble on the coast. He was leading the race last year when his team quit between the coastal checkpoints of Shaktoolik and Koyuk.

He has now scratched in three of his last seven races, but in the other four he finished in the top-10. 














11 replies »

  1. And what about Jim Lanier’s rescue this year by lodge staff while he was huddled down and freezing once again along the trail?
    Everyone was so up in arms by the ITC’s decision to ban Jim from the race and yet what everyone feared came true…
    It seems to me that Lanier/ Petit both needing rescues was the real “twofer” for 2020…along with the two longtime sponsors dropping out of supporting this race.

  2. My children love Nic Petit, his team and his dogs. He is fantastic. I hope he wins next year.

  3. What this race needs is more Shishmaref Cannonballs and fewer delicate little PETA flowers.

  4. My commentary on one part of Nic’s run only, just the last stretch before he quit. Only one having no long distance racing experience at all could fail to see that, no matter what the state of Nic’s team earlier in the race, their condition physically and mentally at the end was simply superb. By that stage of a long distance run, you simply cannot force a team to go 8 mph if they don’t want to. Nine hundred miles in, 8 mph dogs are happy dogs. By that point, you’d better pretty much let the dogs drive themselves at the speed they choose. Baby talk to them or whatever your style, but you’d better do no more than transmit your happy approval, grin ear to ear, and enjoy such a magic carpet ride as Nic’s team was giving him. Nine hundred miles into a race, any communication resulting in the dogs feeling forced is likely to precipitate a big slow-down, if not a shut-down. Only someone with zip experience at distance racing would claim Nic was over-driving his team at the end.

    • I should have added, not to say Nic was not having other problems early on, but over-running certainly was not one of them. Had Nic’s dogs been over-run earlier in the race–which keeps a carry-over effect driving performance downward the farther you go–they would not have been building to such a peak out on the coast, Such a physical and emotional peak as Nic’s team was experiencing speaks of a well-paced run all along the way. That’s oh, so starkly evident, at least to anyone who knows one whit about dog team behavior. .

      • Yea, and that assertion of “over-driving EVERY Irod” shows either lack of understanding of dog psyche and endurance or dearth of recall. If Mr. Stine paged back to the race two years ago, he would note that Nic was driving a veritable freight train, peaking on the coast, widening the lead over a couple of other hard-charging teams. But losing the trail crossing the bay and having to double back, cost him several hours, those extra miles, and, so importantly, took a toll on team enthusiasm. Then piled on top of that was then turning once more toward Koyuk. That was veritably going three times over about the same ground, a downer effect on any team, Even with all of that stacked up, here’s what’s telling about whether his dogs were over-driven: even with that freight train superiority taken off their peak by the extra time, miles, and repetition,they still had plenty in the physical and mental tank to finish a strong second..

        Mr. Steve can use his other arguments and I’ll consider them, but his “over-driving” claim casts a pall over his cred as a sled dog man.

  5. Petit “over runs” his dogs every Irod, so why should we be surprised?
    It is a testament to the fact that vets along the trail are culpable to the “abuse cycle” year after year.
    ADN reported:
    “Petit originally decided to scratch because of mild frostbite he found on three dogs.
    Finishing would worsen their condition, he said…
    Then the dogs started puking. All of them through the day.
    “Oh, another one pukes, oh, then another one is puking,” Petit said, imitating himself on the trail. “Boy, oh boy.”
    Petit said he had to slow the pace out of fear that one dog would choke if it was throwing up while panting.”
    Does that sound like a healthy dog team?
    The three dogs with frostbite should have been dropped immediately and then he should have slowed down if he wanted to make it to Nome, but what did he do…ran them hard again to try and “catch up”.
    “His dogs were in one of only three teams to top 8 mph on that leg of the race.”
    Classic Petit on the Iditarod trail, and the ITC wonders why 40 and 30 year sponsors are dropping like flies.

    • Instead of knocking down your points one by one, I’ll just kick the legs out from under the one your entire premise rests upon: this year his dogs were well rested, happy and blazing to a beautiful finish in semi-competitive race that he planned out more like a camping trip than anything else. He pushed the button because he couldn’t find the trail and his own mind was blown, nothing to do with “over running” or “pushing the dogs too hard” or any other ridiculous concoction that doesn’t even remotely fit the facts that we know.

      You claim to be an Alaskan, maybe you should go to Little McKinley in a raging ground-storm and get a little idea what that might be like, just to get a bit of perspective on things you love to say from the safety of your armchair but have no personal experience with. There’s more to dog mushing, ownership and racing then just the stalkery creeping around taking videos of your neighbors that you and your wife seem to engage in.

      This isn’t a defense of Petit, I personally think he should have just hunkered down in his sled bag and waited it out and his decision was pretty soft headed, but in no way shape or form does that have anything to do with over running his dogs.

      • Jason,
        Wow…for someone out of state, who never has met me…you sure think you have it ALL figured out up here.
        There are literally hundreds of folks video taping Iditarod dogs…you just do not like my perception of the abuse cycle. (Which starts on the doglot and ends on the trail).
        You claim:
        “but in no way shape or form does that have anything to do with over running his dogs.”
        But Petit himself stated:
        “Then the dogs started puking. All of them through the day.
        “Oh, another one pukes, oh, then another one is puking,” Petit said, imitating himself on the trail. “Boy, oh boy.”
        Petit said he had to slow the pace out of fear that one dog would choke if it was throwing up while panting.”
        You think running a sick dog team to Nome is not “over running” them?…Sorry, but that is not what most observers feel.
        At the very least, he should have dropped the dogs with frostbite when it was discovered…but no, he kept pushing them on to Nome.
        I have been in quite a few storms in AK (sometimes far from the comfort of home), but I usually stay put in my tent or cabin until the weather improves and I can safely navigate.
        You may disagree with my assessment on this dog race and that is your opinion…plus you are a former Iditarod dog driver (highly biased).
        The rest of our country does not seem to agree with you by what we are seeing happen to race sponsors over the last two years.
        Alaska Airlines and Chrysler luckily have turned the corner and dropped this fiasco financially and I am sure that makes you mad.

  6. You are missing one important fact that does not fit your narrative that the mainstream media is to blame. The fact is, Nic’s communication team repeated a personal phone conversation she had with Nic in a public Twitter post which detailed the events. It was prior to the ADN article which quoted her facts. She later deleted those twitter post when realizing, with what I would imagine a lot of embarrassment, she told the world he had scratched.

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