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.
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.