The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which publicly proclaims itself to be “All About the Dogs,” has quietly penalized two top female mushers for being all about the dogs.
One of the women, Mille Porsild of Willow by way of Denmark. was the first female finisher this year and the other, Michelle Phillips of Tagish, Yukon Territory, Canada, the second.
Porsild ended the race 14th overall with Phillips 17th. This is where they are still listed in the Iditarod’s online standings.
But an Iditarod spokeswoman, in response to questions from this website on Monday, revealed the women have been relegated to 17th and 18th, respectively, as punishment for breaking an Iditarod rule.
No explanation was offered as to why Porsild dropped three places in the standings, losing almost $3,500 in prize money as a result, and why Phillips slid down only one position. The spokeswoman said she was trying to get an answer from race marshall Mark Nordman, but Nordman was not commenting.
Porsild learned of her penalty while rushing from the race finish to Denmark to be with her mother who has terminal cancer and is dying.
For the dogs
Of the fact, Porsild and Phillips broke an Iditarod rule there is no doubt.
Caught in a raging coastal storm along the Bering Sea between the remote villages of Koyuk, population 330, and Elim, population 350, near the end of this year’s race, the two mushers took cover in a primitive shelter cabin – what most people in the U.S. would call a shack – along the Kwik River.
As the winds howled and drove snow across the windswept barrens outside, they also made a decision to bring their dogs into the shelter with them, a violation of Iditarod Rule 37, which states among other things that “dogs may not be brought into shelters except for race veterinarians’ medical examination or treatment.”
The rule was written long ago in the interest of competitive fairness. Although Iditarod dogs can, like all dogs, thermoregulate their metabolism to adjust well to life outside in the cold, the dogs rest and recover better in the warmth than in the cold with some variations based on their fur.
The Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University has concluded that “the lower critical (resting) temperature of healthy adult Siberian huskies is less than 32 degrees, but in some short-haired dogs it is 59 degrees.”
Below or above these optimum temperatures, the Center notes, “the dog has to expend energy to maintain its body temperature” and if the animal is required to expend too much energy, “hypo- or hyperthermia occurs.”
Hypothermia is a dangerously low body temperature. Hyperthermia is a dangerously high body temperature. Given dogs sweat only through their paws and their mouths, which is why they pant so heavily when hot, heat is actually more of a physical problem for them than cold.
As a result of this latter fact, the fur on dogs bred to run the Iditarod has grown thinner and thinner over the years since the first race in 1973 because thinner-coated dogs are better able to rid themselves of the excess heat generated by running and thus can run faster for longer distances.
As the Purdue scientists note, “thicker coats decrease heat loss from the skin” making more heavily furred dogs more susceptible to “thermal thermal distress at higher temperatures that might be acceptable for other dogs. Dogs with thin to absent fur have less capacity to retain heat.”
Diminished cold capacities
This lessened capacity to retain heat is why many mushers now carry dog coats, something unimagined at the time of the first race, to put on their dogs in extreme cold and wind. And most mushers are well aware of the cold-weather needs of thin-coated dogs.
Porsild herself might be considered an expert on this subject. She came to Iditarod after years of adventuring with sled dogs in ice-covered Greenland where winter temperatures regularly drop to 50 degrees below zero.
The heavily coated, “polar husky” furballs she lived and worked with there look decidedly different from the thinly coated Iditarod huskies with which she now lives and races.
Huskies and hounds
That different dogs require different care, as the Purdue researchers noted, is obvious.
One might here entertain a discussion of whether Iditarod should do a better job of enforcing Rule 43 stipulating that “only dogs suitable for arctic travel will be permitted to enter the race.” But the rule was written solely to keep Chugiak musher John Suter’s publicity-seeking poodles out of the race in the 1990s, and has been ignored since Suter and his poodles abandoned the trail.
Iditarod dogs have since been bred to create what a website for purebred dogs now calls “the new ‘Eurohound,’ a cross between an Alaskan Husky and German Shorthaired Pointer. These dogs first successfully entered the competitive world of sled dog racing in Scandinavia. It’s one of the most formidable racing dogs in the world today, combining the husky’s sledding ability with a pointer’s enthusiasm and athleticism.”
The downside is that the dogs aren’t as well adapted as Siberian huskies for living in brutal cold.
Given the nature of the fur on the dogs Porsild and Phillips were running, the two mushers made a decision the best thing to do for the dogs was to bring them into the Kwik River shelter.
Four other mushers – Matt Hall from Two Rivers, Lev Shvarts from Willow, and former champs Mitch Seavey from Sterling and Joar Leifseth Ulsom from Willow by way of Norway – subsequently protested that Porsild and Phillips had broken the rules.
Hall and Seavey finished behind Porsild. Shvarts finished behind Phillips. After they complained, race officials moved Hall and Seavey in front of Porsild, and Shvarts in front of Phillips.
The position of Ulsom, who has what might politely be called baggage with Porsild, did not change. Ulsom and Porsild were partners when Ulsom won the race in 2018 and when he finished runner-up the following year.
Then the couple split. The split was by all reports somewhat less than friendly. Ulsom shortly thereafter married a younger woman, and Porsild put together her own Iditarod race team.
She finished 15th and rookie of the year in her first race in 2020; Ulsom was sixth. Porsild cracked the top-10 the next year with a fifth-place finish while Ulsom dropped to eighth.
Porsild was still in contention for another top-10 finish this year with almost an eight-hour lead over Ulsom when she left the Koyuk checkpoint, but she and Phillips, who left Koyuk just behind Porsild, ran into the teeth of the incoming storm.
It was so bad that the 61-year-old Seavey – a three-time champ and a veteran of almost 30 Iditarods – mushed out of Koyuk only 11 minutes behind Phillips only to decide to turn around and retreat to the checkpoint.
Pushing on into the storm all the way to the Kwik arguably cost Porsild and Phillips in the end. Twelfth and 13th out of Koyuk, they were 14th and 17th in Nome before being further knocked down the standings for that decision to bring their dogs into the shelter.
Ulsom managed to pass Porsild as she and Phillips were finally leaving the Kwik River cabin.
Some veteran Iditarod mushers, who asked not to be named for fear of future problems with race officials, said they could see no significant competitive advantage in what Porsild and Phillips did.
Mushers traditionally make the 50-mile run from Koyuk to Elim in one push. Instead, the two women camped for hours and wasted more time unhooking their teams to bring the dogs into the shelter, and then more time hooking the teams back up in order to get on the trail again.
Someone interested primarily in racing just keeps marching into the storm as some other Iditarod racers did, they observed. Winner Brent Sass from Eureka bragged to Alaska Public Media that he and his team managed to press on after the wind ripping across the Blueberry Hills north of Unalakleet blew him off the trail “into the abyss.”
“Anyone who cared about dogs or the race image, in general, would thank these highly experienced women for their judicious dog care,” one musher said. “A light slap on the wrist or a cabin cleaning fee would be in order perhaps.”
Seavey, Hall and Ulsom did not respond to queries as to their opinions as to what level of punishment was warranted. Shvarts’ answer was “later;” that came a day ago. He refused to comment further.
The actions of Porsild and Phillips came shortly before the Iditarod and race volunteers got busy rescuing other mushers from a storm that settled in over the state’s northwest coast.
After the rescues of Gerhardt Thiart from Cheboygan, Mich., and Bridget Watkins from Nome, Iditarod put out a media release highlighting the efforts of good samaritans and “White Mountain search and rescue, along with support from the Iditarod trail snowmachine crew who monitors the back of the race, (and) are in the process of bringing both sled dog teams to White Mountain. The sled dogs will be immediately evaluated by Iditarod race veterinarians upon arrival. “
The media release was much the same after the rescues of mushers KattiJo and Jeff Deeter from Fairbanks along with Sebastien Dos Santos Borges from Chazey-Bons, France.
“Due to the ground storm and high winds, all three teams received snowmachine
assistance by White Mountain search and rescue to the Nome Kennel Club shelter cabin, where they stayed until improved weather conditions allowed for Iditarod volunteers to assist with transporting the mushers and their teams to Nome,” it said.
“The mushers have been in direct communication with the race marshal while at the shelter cabin and the race teams are reportedly in good health. Upon arrival in Nome, the race teams will be given a full veterinary check.”
Meanwhile, the mushers who personally took extreme measures to care for their teams and ensure no rescues were necessary were quietly punished with not a word said about their efforts to ensure their teams remained in good health.
A veteran of a dozen Iditarods, Phillips wrote on her Facebook page that she has had enough and this would be her last Iditarod.
Whether she sticks to that position or not only time will tell. Many an Iditarod musher – including five-time and now decidedly retired champ Rick Swenson – have had a Tom Brady moment immediately after the race and announced retirements that didn’t last.
But she clearly holds strong views on the importance of dog care.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated Millie Polsid’s 2021 finishing position.
Hats off to Michelle & Millie for putting their dogs first, a priority, as Craig points out, is covered under Iditarod rules. Both of these mushers are among the most experienced in the trail, no one should question their evaluation of the conditions warranting briefly sheltering dogs. The race marshal’s judgement is not only counter to the spirit of the race, it reeks of sexism by good ‘ol boys shamed by losing to women, and hands ammo to Animal Rights fanatics. ——Great reporting Craig
Thanks. I was wondering when someone was going to raise the sexism issue. It does look bad when the one male involved somehow ends up with a lesser penalty than the two women.
Thank you for sharing this story. I hold both Michelle and Mille in highest regard. I hate to see all the new marketing to make a few more bucks. I pay the “Insider” fee but was disgusted that when Brent Sass’s dogs were being honored at the finish live we Insiders couldn’t see it live. You had to pay extra for that.
It’s pretty clear. Rule infraction occurred. Rules are rules. The finishers club has the most say on rule changes and she has been a member for a long time. Michelle will whole heartedly run in the quest at -50 with no shelter in site but now wants it changed when its convenient for her. . For the record, she told everyone before the start that this was her last race. She has never brought up this concern before. She did not inform the race of the infraction. She waited to get called out. She knew the rule and has for years. The ruling was correct and fair.
Rules are rules. So why didn’t Iditarod follow them? The rules quite specifically say that White Mountain is the last place at which a time penalty can be assessed.
In fact, that rule is much clearer than the one you site as “rules are rules.” It says dogs can be brought into a shelter “for race veterinarians’ medical examination or treatment.” The conjunction “or” is significant there.
If the sentence said “and,” it would have tied the veterinarians’ examination and treatment together, ie. dogs can only be brought into a shelter to be treated by a vet. But the “or” removes that connection to make the sentence say that dogs can be brought into a shelter for treatment, period.
One can argue that getting them warmed up was treatment for hypothermia or threatened hypothermia. Were they truly hypothermic? I don’t know; I wasn’t there to stick a thermometer up their butts. And does it really matter if they were or if the musher just thought they were and thus brought them inside for treatment?
P.S. The Quest is irrelevant. Both the wind here and the condition of the dogs, which face bigger physiological demands in the Iditarod than in the Quest, change everything. There are very few dogs that get to Koyuk in the same shape they were when they started in Anchorage, and there are a lot of dogs which by then have lost a considerable amount of weight. The loss of fat reserves makes them more susceptible to the cold, and especially the cold and wind.
But you know this.
Sounds like Mitch was the musher to put the best interest of his dogs over his finish…turning back to safety in an Alaskan storm is what keeps man and K-9 alive in AK.
Yep , Mitch seavey made decision to go back in dogs interest. Can i fix that for you? Mitch’s dogs made the decision to go back for their own safety. Mitch was discusted and frustrated with his lack of team control and loss of position in the race and vindictively struck out from behind to cripple mille and Michele. ( fixed😉)
You may be right (or have insider knowledge) but it still takes a dog driver to run these hounds into these nasty storms which seems to happen year after year for as long as I can remember. I am reminded of a time on the Kahiltna Glacier where a ranger argued with me “If you don’t leave in a storm, you’ll never get up the mountain”. Needless to say, we were lost off trail in a complete white out a few miles out of camp and nearly fell in a crevasse setting up tents. I have always preferred to wait out the storm when traveling in the wilderness.
You sound wise . Wait out the weather. The ranger also sounded wise or practical. Always a storm at hand. Mushers are probably in position you mentioned. Always a storm at some point it seams. ( unless you want to buy property you have to go at some point)😉
Thank you – that is EXACTLY what happened.
Craigmedred there is a lot of behind the scenes that you are not aware of. If the full knowledge were out there it would change some views of what happened, including yours.
Well then feel free to share it if you aware of it.
The rule is in place to discourage mushers from going out into unsafe conditions. Mitch Seavey, faced with the same storm, opted to go back to the previous checkpoint and wait it out. He did so in the best interests of his dogs. Michelle and Mille opted to go on into the storm. They were lucky–they had the luxury of a shelter cabin. Six other mushers were not so lucky, and had to call for help, thus ending their races entirely. In Michelle’s and Mille’s place, had I opted to into the storm as they did, I, too, would have sheltered my dogs in the cabin for their safety. But can you imagine if another half a dozen mushers showed up there? Whose dogs would take priority to be “in” and whose would be left “out?” These cabins do NOT have the capacity to house multiple teams of dogs. NO official likes to make calls like this with regard to rule infractions. The penalty was a time penalty–which is why one lost more placings than the other. Riley Dyche did the same thing, but the only mushers anywhere close behind him were the six who had to call for help and scratch, hence his placing was not impacted. This is simply part of life on the trail. I was glad to see that the rule violation resulted in only a time penalty–not a scratch! That is a real blessing for these three mushers. They did the right thing under the circumstances–but that also means taking the penalty that goes with it.
First off, the rule ISN”T “in place to discourage mushers from going out into unsafe conditions.” See Rod Perry’s comment posted here for the history of how the rule came to be. Rod has forgotten more about Iditarod than most mushers ever knew.
Secondly, Mitch might or might not have come back because he thought it unsafe. He hasn’t said. He might have come back because he didn’t have the leaders to go in that kind of weather. Some dogs don’t mind wind and will charge into almost anything. I had one that thought winds that were knocking me down were fun. Some dogs, on the other hand, don’t want to go into the wind for the life of them.
Thirdly, your presumption that Michelle and Mille would have needed to call for rescue if not for the cabin is just that – a presumption. I know the history of both of these women a bit. I have a hard time imagining either of them calling for a rescue. My presumption is they would have turned back and gotten into the trees to make camp there. But my presumption is like yours, just a presumption.
Given no choice, they might have pushed on for a few miles until the Kwik wind, which is sped up by the venturi effect coming down the river, generally shifts onto ones back and travel gets easier. Who knows. Those are woulda-couldas and some mushers are hardier than others, and/or might have dogs better suited to this condition. I remember when Rick Swenson walked his team through a big storm in the Topkok Hills to win, when most other turned back, that he had dogs of both the old style and the new style.
He put the old-style, heavier-furred dogs on the windward side of the towline to block the wind for the more lightly furred dogs. Don’t know if Michelle and Mille had such an option, though, because I’m not that familiar with their teams. More presumptions. We can presume all day. It’s a waste of time.
But you seem to have some specifics here, so maybe you can help everyone out on those:
1.). Who says it was a time penalty? Iditarod has said nothing officially.
2). If it was a time penalty, how much time was it for each musher?
3.) If all was equal and it was a time penalty, why are many saying Riley Dyche was instead simply fined $1,000 for his offense at Topkok.
And the fourth question, and probably the most important one even though it is totally subjective: Does the penalty fit the crime?
The rule was put in to prevent racers from gaining an advantage by sheltering dogs indoors. Is there any indication Mille and Michele gained an advantage here? Mille’s ex, Joar, was about 6 hours behind both women at Koyuk and beat them to Nome. Ramey Smyth was almost eight hours behind and beat them to Nome. Shvarts was able to erase nearly all of the seven-hour lead Michelle had on him at Koyuk.
Where is the indication the woman gained any sort of competitive advantage, the thing the rule was meant to prevent?
And what possible competitive advantage did Dyche gain? He didn’t beat anyone who was in front of him leaving White Mountain and most of the people behind him stayed behind because they had to be rescued? Is it possible that instead of being handed any sort of penalty, Dyche should simply have been thanked for saving Irod from having to organize yet another rescue?
Such good points here, thank you for recognizing the reputations of these women and the strength they have shown. I would like to add that while Mitch was only 11 minutes behind Michelle leaving Koyuk, she gained distance on him and when the storm conditions became unsafe she was closer to the shelter cabin than to Koyuk. They both made the decision to leave Koyuk. Mitch is being roundly praised by other mushers (who filed complaints against the women) in Facebook posts and commenters for turning around and going back to the checkpoint. It is unfortunate and wrong that because Michelle was faster and closer to the cabin than to the checkpoint, her judgement is being questioned while Mitch’s is not.
Great article. Only correction is that Mille actually finished 5, not 6th, last year.
Thank you, and you’re right. Someone had a brain fart. It’s being fixed in a minute.
I am very disappointed to see this and hope they will do the right thing and change the rule. The small Alaskan Husky is not the same dog that started the Iditarod. In the beginning, the dogs were freight haulers and much larger with a full winter coat of hair. The rules should be changed to help the dogs keep healthy.
It was historical to house dogs even well furred huskies in barns and roadhouses along the Iditarod trail. A good dog can have a closer bond and importance than a human to respected mushers like seppala ect . The fact that Iditarod penalized these highly respected women dog drivers of the north in an effort to make them embarrassed and comply is reprehensible. Who among them has more experience in harsh weather than polar explorer mille porslid ? Or even Michele phillups of the Yukon? I dare say none of the mushers and certainly none of the officials. Joar has is milles protege, scwartze comes from sheltered willow , seavey is from the warm country of Seward and has a checkered reputation, hall is a pup and they backstab to gain advantage without recognition the disaster that could have unfolded bringing and end to thrir beloved race ? The officials not carrying a wit for years of honorable safe decisions by these women who put their lives and souls into dogs and the sport for no gain except age and arthritis. This decision is despicable and a black mark that honored men like jerry austin and herbie nayukpuk would not have allowed. People that understood the daily dangers of elemental nature. These women had one chance to get it right and they did true by their loyal dogs. Honor effort and courage in the face of potential humiliation. Great women are these. It’s beyond me how these competitors could take pride in stepping ahead in placement of their trail mates . Shame . So be it the great race called Iditarod has fallen far when the spirit of jerry Austin and sportsmanship is set aside to push a punishment and gain placement and money. I can only blame sleep deprivation. Surely these strong chivelrous men will recognize their misdeed . Perry – yes the time of attla . It was different. In the past ive followed it closely. Times were different. Emmits dogs used houses at ruby , planes carried teams and snowmobiles broke trail for individuals or carried their dogs . A lawless time nearly as lawless as the early sweepstakes where teams were said to ride in horse careaige and gamblers from the states effected the outcome through nefarious means . Sad that great champion seavey stooped this low . The Iditarod rules expect humane treatment and punish any musher who’s inaction is contibutes to such . Thus these women did right by rules . Good on them . Fearless and strong. Worthy of the competition.
Perhaps these “men” were afraid of facing these women on even terms and had to resort to back room efforts. Afraid of being bested at their own game . So a gang of selfish theives they became.No?
It definitely brings to mind robert service and how he spoke of the north driving men mad . A bit of entertainment to end a dark winter Eh ? I think Swenson and susan were more charitable during races. They honored each other behind the scenes. Susan gave rick a headlight bulb so he could forge through a storm with an element of safety and light to go in and win his fifth title while susan retreated but had a part in him winning. Genuine concern was amongst the titans of old for the understood the law of the trail.
The “men” you speak of and condemn as bad sports actually delivered dog food to Mille and Michelle at the cabin only to discover they were in violation of the fair game rules. Law of the trail indeed. Hoping this comment makes it through Medred censures.
Dave: The only comments that have been restricted here are some made by PETA which had nothing to do with this incident in particular.
The dogs do come first. Good for them.
The rule had its origin with the very first Iditarod. George Attla, arriving in his home country of Galena with a team diminished to less than half his original sixteen, and, as he stated in his KYAK radio interview, “run way down by all the hard work,” housed them indoors for two days and three nights recruiting them. Ready access to that level of shelter was an option unique to residents. There was nothing prohibitive about it within our simple, single page of mimeographed rules. Nor was there any rule against George and Bobby Vent adding a snowmachine and driver apiece from among their neighbors to putt along with them the rest of the way to Nome, hauling all but their listed required gear.
Cabin sheltering in this year’s case was not exclusive. Unless I am missing something, all had the same option. Of course, stacking that many teams atop one another in the small space might have been a bit cozy – – –
I think that these two mushers ‘did the right thing’ in protecting themselves, their teams, and the sport in their decision to shelter in those dangerous conditions. This behaviour should be encouraged, not discouraged.