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.
“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
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.
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 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.
“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.
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.