Good-bye Gold Loop

The “Gold Loop Trail” especially planned for the pandemic-plagued Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race of 2021 is no more thanks to another body blow from Mother Nature.

Iditarod Race Marshall Mark Nordman Wednesday announced the planned route through the now deserted Iditarod mining district from the ghost town of Iditarod to the ghost town of Flat is buried beneath deeper snow than the modern Iditarod is prepared to handle and has thus been abandoned.

Say good-bye to climate change for a year and welcome back the real Alaska.

When conditions like this befell the so-called “Last Great Race” in the distant past, mushers teamed up to form a train of dog teams that took turns breaking out the trail. Sometimes, the dog drivers were even known to put on snowshoes and themselves take turns at the front of the train breaking trail for the dogs behind.

Those days, however, are long gone.

Iditarod mushers are still required to pack snowshoes as “mandatory gear” in their sleds, but some Iditarod old-timers have questioned how many of the new-age competitors even know how to put on their snowshoes.

It’s not as easy as you might think as a four and a half minute REI video tutorial explains:

“First things first, figuring out left versus right. Some snowshoes have a conveniently located L versus R on the base of the binding….the ball of your foot should be over the crampon…(but) “especially if you have larger boots, you want to make sure you have enough toe clearance.”

And then there are those “complicated strapping systems,” which vary from snowshoe to snowshoe.

Trailbreaking failure

In this particular case, however, Nordman blamed the problem on “the Iditarod trailbreaker crew,” a gang of volunteers on snowmachines, who have “had a challenging time breaking the trail open due to the sheer volume of accumulated snow and has been unable to dig out a safe, well-marked trail to allow teams to travel to Flat.”

The loop trail to Flat was to have run for about 20 miles which is a long distance to ask anyone to dig. Given that they couldn’t put in a trail, the current Iditarod plan is for racers to simply turn around at Iditarod and race back to where they began at Deshka Landing on the Susitna River near the community of Willow north of Anchorage.

Three-time Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champ Brent Sass from Eureka is currently in the race lead, but that’s no guarantee of Iditarod success. Sass has a reputation for pushing his dogs a bit too hard. He famously blew up his team in the 2016 Iditarod.

After a mandatory, eight-hour rest in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint on the 1,000-mile trail to Nome, Sass’s dogs reluctantly left the checkpoint only to later stage a rebellion on down the trail. Sass was forced to return to the checkpoint and let them rest for 24 hours before trying again.

“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 events,” Iditarod reporter Sebastian Schnuelle,  a former top-10 Iditarod finisher observed at the time. “In my position I am running a delicate balance of telling the true story, while trying to be respectful at the same time. 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 (have) 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. It does not make Brent a bad person, bad musher, but it also does not make him a hero.”

A year later, Sass was pushing his team to run down Quest leader Matt Hall when two of his dogs collapsed, leading him to summon a rescue. He later claimed the dogs were well-rested and shouldn’t have gone down.

“Everyone who follows my kennel knows that Healy and Caputo’s father, a Golden Harness winner, died suddenly and unexpectedly not too long ago,” Sass wrote on his Facebook page. “I often carry Basin’s collar on my sled, he’s tattooed to my chest, and his name tag is sewn to the hood of my jacket. When I saw his boys crash like that, I feared the worst. I’m thankful that they’re happy and healthy today! I don’t know what to think about what looks like some sort of genetic issue and the future careers of these boys and their siblings. We have a lot to figure out and I’ve already been in touch with some very smart vet med folks to start that process.”

No genetic problems were ever identified. What killed Basin was a dog fight. The dog died while Sass’s dog team was parked along the Denali Highway. The musher was there on a training run, had stopped at a lodge to rest, and had left the team staked down outside.

Another musher arriving at the lodge discovered several dogs had chewed loose from their harnesses and attacked Basin. That musher, who has told few the story and prefers not to be named, broke up the dog fight and summoned Sass and a caretaker from the lodge to aid Basin. He said Sass and the caretaker tried to save the dog but were unsuccessful. 

The musher who witnessed Basin’s death has wrestled with the same “delicate balance” described by Schnuelle. When dealing with dogs, bad things sometimes happen. Every day in the world outside of Alaska, dogs get loose from their owners only to be struck and killed by motor vehicles.

It has been estimated up to 6 million dogs per year die after being struck by motor vehicles. That a few dogs should die in fights in Alaska where dogs remaining working animals is to be expected. It could be that Sass is just cursed with bad luck.

Maybe it will change this year.

COVID-19 arrives

Then again, bad luck seems to be stalking the 2021 Iditarod. First there was the pandemic that almost killed the race, then the snow that shortened the pandemic-modified race route, and after yesterday’s announcement of too much snow came the announcement that a musher had come down with COVID-19.

Veteran Iditarod dog driver Gunnar Johnson from Duluth, Minn.,  was withdrawn from the race in McGrath, according to an Iditarod statement, and placed in isolation. He is reported to be asymptomatic. The Iditarod says he was twice again tested to make sure the first test wasn’t a false positive.

“Johnson did not come into close contact with race personnel or community members,
nor did he enter any buildings or community spaces in McGrath,” the Iditarod said. “However, he did park his team as he was planning to rest at the checkpoint.”

According to the Iditarod, Johnson is to be removed from the trail “using safe transport,” whatever that means. There was no word on how his dog team is to be handled, although a peer-reviewed study out of Spain has warned dogs could be carriers for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

That study found that Spaniards who were regularly around dogs increased their risk of catching COVID-19 by 78 percent. The researchers from the Biomedical Research Centre at the University of Granada and the Andalusian School of Public Health could not say why. 

They theorized that the dogs could be asymptomatic carriers off SARS-CoV-2, or their furry bodies could be magnets for pathogens encountered while they were exposed to people sick with COVID-19.

“At the international level, there are several studies that have obtained results similar to ours regarding coronavirus infection in dogs, but it is necessary to dig deeper on this issue and establish whether this prevalence of the virus among dog-owners is due to one reason or another,” lead researcher Cristina Sánchez González from the University of Granada told SciTechDaily.




















10 replies »

  1. In 17 Iditaros I never used my snowshoes-never had to… Mine didn’t even have their original bindings. I took them off. In a pinch I would fashion a binding out of two spare tug lines if I had to prove to a checker they were useable. Would have been cool to see the racers have to deal with that deep snow.

  2. “What killed Basin was a dog fight.
    The dog died while Sass’s dog team was parked along the Denali Highway.
    The musher was there on a training run, had stopped at a lodge to rest, and had left the team staked down outside.”

    Abandoning your dog team by the side of the road should result in criminal charges.

    Alaska is behind the times with NO animal protections for sled dogs or other canines throughout the state.

    Enacting a few laws would save man’s best friend from the hardship of dying on a chain while a pack of dogs eats you to death or stuck in a dog lot while a 1,200 bull moose pounces you to death…both of which occur more often than is reported in the “media” these days.

  3. Just saying since it seems the “Covid hype” is still running rampant in the “pandemic-plaqued” I’rod:
    “Facebook’s fact-checkers have come for the Wall Street Journal, causing the mainstream newspaper to be censored on the world’s largest social network, after the Journal published an op-ed from a Johns Hopkins surgeon who argued that the United States is likely to achieve herd immunity to the COVID-19 virus by April.

    The surgeon, Dr. Marty Makary, argued that a failure to take natural immunity as well as vaccine immunity into account was leading some to underestimate when herd immunity could be achieved. Citing a 77 percent decline in cases over the past six weeks, Makary called for “contingency planning for an open economy by April.”

    • Funny how we have been told for the last year to just shut up & listen to the “experts” but when an “expert” goes against the grain censorship is quick to follow?
      Who are the puppet masters that are driving this global collapse of world economies?
      Americans need to stop following mandates that are not laws and lead with their own experience.
      Sadly, we are a nation full of sheep with their heads down and face covered by soggy diapers!

  4. In a non-covid year with no loop, what would have happened? Would they simply stop the race, would they have picked up and airdropped teams beyond the heavy snow areas, or would they simply have allowed those in the race to continue the race they signed up for?

  5. Thanks, Rod. Appreciate the history; as I believe you once said: “someplace to someplace instead of no place to nowhere and back”.

  6. I don’t understand why they’re calling it a “loop”. Looks like an out and back. Wondering what’s going to happen if two teams have to pass each other going in opposite directions in dicey terrain. Sounds sketch.

    • Pete, all through the lead-up years, our original run was planned right up until December of the inaugural race to run Knik to Iditarod and return. Anchorage to Nome was a rather late blockbuster change (one that really made the race the world renowned event it quickly became.) Head-ons were to be part of that first model. The “Loop” plan for this year would have been a good addition. For one, it would have cut down on the number of head-ons. Two, Flat was historic, too, and longer lasting as a mining center than Iditarod. Early on, an 11-mile-long plank road was constructed from Iditarod to Flat. Later, Iditarod was in a large part disassembled and reassembled in Flat. The huge abundance of dredge tailings and availability of drag lines allowed Flat to construct a superb bush runway in the early years of air transport. I don’t know what Race planners’ had in mind, but (without really knowing, just conjecturing) it seems like Flat could have had more extant resources for use as a turnaround checkpoint than Iditarod.

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