UPDATE (May 12, 2022): The Iditarod Trail Committee today revealed it has modified the penalities imposed on mushers Michelle Phillips and Mille Porsild, restored them to their positions in the finishing order at the end of the race in Nome in March, and instead fined them $1,000 each in line with the penalty first imposed on another musher who took his dogs into a cabin during a Bering Sea storm.
The official announcement of the change, something Phillips and Porsild had been aware of for more than a week, came on Facebook.
“The (Iditarod) Board respects the judgment call made by Ms. Porsild and Ms. Phillips to shelter their dog teams indoors during the severe weather conditions on the evening of March 14, 2022. For their safety and welfare of their respective teams, the mushers made the only choice available from their perspective,” the statement said.
“The Board has reviewed the facts in light of the Official Rules as currently drafted and decided to reverse the penalties, reinstate Ms. Porsild’s and Ms. Phillips’ race standings and award them the purse winnings corresponding to (every mushers’) original standing: 14th place Mille Porsild, 15th place Matt Hall, 16th place Mitch Seavey, 17th place Michelle Phillips, and 18th place Lev Shvarts.”
The statement went on to suggest the Iditarod Rules Committee consider rewriting rules governing competitive advantage, outside assistance and sheltering so as to avoid conflict between them.
“The ITC believes that nothing is more important than the health and welfare of the dogs and understands a musher’s decision to shelter their dog teams due to extreme weather. The spirit and embodiment of the Iditarod is based on a relationship of the love, trust, and respect that exists between a musher and dog team,” the statement said. “(But) the spirit of equal competition and determination to endure the harshest of weather conditions and challenges must be honored.”
The Board offered the Rules Committee no guidance on walking the fine line between dog care and competition but conceded that “there is a very limited capacity in designated, remote, public-shelter cabins for housing multiple teams at one time, which could also give an unfair competitive advantage in a ‘first come, first serve’ scenario. The ITC Rules Committee (originally) enacted these three rules to level the playing field and safeguard a fair competition allowing all mushing teams to compete under equal conditions.”
Most of the structures in question are primitive, one-room buildings originally designed to shelter small groups of people in bitterly cold and/or windy weather. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has identified about 20 such structures along the trail, a few of which it maintains and some of which are maintained by others.
The BLM’s Rohn Public Shelter Cabin in the heart of the Alaska Range – a busy place during the Iditarod – is among the largest and nicest of these shelters; it measures about 15-feet by 16-feet and has room for four bunks, a small table and a woodstove.
A half-dozen people inside is a crowd. A couple of dog teams would fill it.
Possibly no one could have suffered through a worse Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this year than 48-year-old Mille Porsild from Willow, who has had a rather ambivalent relationship with the self-proclaimed “Last Great Race.”
This year Porsild’s race ended in a controversy over mollycoddling dogs, a rush to the Nome courthouse to file for a restraining order against former boyfriend and 2018 champ Joar Leifseth Ulsom with whom she had some sort of confrontation on the trail, and a dash to the airport to connect with flights back home to Denmark where her mother is reported to be dying of cancer.
Most reading this probably already know about the controversy that led Iditarod officials to push Porsild’s 14th place arrival in Nome back to 17th amid claims that she and Michelle Phillips from Tagish, Yukon Territory, Canada had cheated by sheltering their dogs in a cabin along the Bering Sea coast to protect them from a raging blizzard.
First reported here, that story was picked up by the Anchorage Daily News which had a reporter on the trail who apparently missed much of what was going on, and has since become a national news story that looks worse for Iditarod than Porsild, but doesn’t look great for either.
“Iditarod Punishes 3 Mushers for Sheltering Dogs in Windstorm” is how U.S. News and World Report headlined an Associated Press story in which Iditarod Race Marshall Mark Nordman accused the women of gaining an advantage by holing up a shack along the Kwik River during the storm.
Nordman’s claim is debatable. The women had a four- to eight-hour advantage on the men behind them when they left the village of Koyuk. The first man in the chase, three-time Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey, 61, from Sterling, didn’t get far out of the village before he decided he should turn back.
The second one, 46-year-old Ramey Smyth from Big Lake, however, kept going, passed the women as they camped out in the cabin, and pushed on to the village of Elim. By that point, he’d secured a lead of about two hours that he never gave up.
Smyth has been notably silent on whether he thought the Kwik River campout was cheating or not. Seavey, on his Facebook page, has suggested the women should have been disqualified, which would be more in keeping with the rules than what the Iditarod did.
It punished the women with time penalties in Nome although the Iditarod rule book says the last place time penalties can be imposed is in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint. The Iditarod had plenty of time to take action there if it thought a penalty warranted.
Many in Elim, the village checkpoint between Koyuk and White Mountain, knew about the stay at the Kwik River, and all Iditarod teams are required to make an eight-hour stop at White Mountain.
Phillips, who was penalized minutes while Porsild was penalized hours, said it’s hard to believe the Iditarod didn’t know by White Mountain what had happened on the Kwik.
Why time penalties, if any, weren’t imposed there, and why Porsild, Phillips and Riley Dyche, another musher who took dogs into a shelter, were given different penalties has not been explained by Iditarod.
Some have questioned whether Porsild might have been slapped harder because of what happened along the trail when she was acting as a “photographer” covering the race of her then kennel partner and boyfriend Ulsom in 2018.
There are mushers who believe the rules she helped bend at that time to provide Ulsom a competitive advantage were far bigger than any she might have violated this year, but that is both getting ahead of and behind this story.
Both big hopes and big aspirations accompanied Porsild to the starting line for the 50th running of Iditarod.
With three-time Iditarod runner-up Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers solidly retired and Montana’s Jessie Royer, third in both 2019 and 2020 out of action, Porsild looked poised to carry the flag for her gender in the state where it was more than three decades back proclaimed “Alaska – The Lands Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod.”
Libby Riddles, then from Teller, became the first woman to win Iditarod in 1985, and the late Susan Butcher shortly after took over as the race’s dominant musher for the rest of that decade and into the early 1990s. From 1985 to her retirement in 1994, Butcher won four times, finished runner-up twice and was never out of the top-10.
She was in those years such a force that in 1988 the UPI reported the unveiling of a new Iditarod T-shirt in Nome promoting Alaska as the “Land of beautiful dogs and fast women.’ Apparently, (because) another popular T-shirt, ‘Alaska — Where men are men and women win the Iditarod,’ was becoming a cliche.”
Butcher was also the last woman to win. That was in 1990. Zirkle came close three times in recent years, but she seemed almost to be cursed. In 2014, she led the race to Safety, the last Iditarod checkpoint only about 20 miles outside of Nome.
There she holed up because of a storm, much as Porsild and Phillips holed up this year. Young Dallas Seavey, Mitch’s son, passed her while she was in the Safety Roadhouse and went on to claim his second Iditarod victory.
Zirkle did almost catch him on the outskirts of the city. She finished only 2 minutes and 22 seconds back, but in second nonetheless. She’d finish third two years later at the beginning of a slide toward retirement with Royer picking up the mantle for female mushers.
Royer was third in 2019 and 2020, and then Porsild burst onto the scene in 2021 after netting rookie of the year owners with a 15th place finish before that nasty go with Covid-19.
Having helped coach Ulsom to victory in 2018 and having finished fifth in 2021 with Ulsom in eighth after their ugly split, Porsild had reasons for high expectations this year, and her race looked to be going great early.
She ran a conservative pace to the halfway point at Cripple, where she was 13th and then started to move her team up. By the time the race reached the Yukon River at Ruby, she was eighth. One hundred thirty-five miles downriver where the race jumps onto the Katlag Portage to start the 85-mile run to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea, she was fourth.
Then the wheels started falling off. Who knows why. Long-distance performance, whether for canines or humans, is largely about peaking. Take the start line undertrained or overtrained, and there are almost certain to be problems on down the trail.
By the time the race hit the coast, Porsild was eighth. She dropped two dogs there. There’s an old adage in mushing that says a team can only go as fast as the slowest dog.
Porsild’s team gained some speed, but it was clear her dogs were still slowing down. She was ninth into Shaktoolik and then 12th into Koyuk where she dropped two more dogs. By then, it was obvious a top-10 finish was off the table, and she’d be nursing the dogs to Nome.
Experienced and competent mushers know that it is stupid to push dogs any harder than they want to go at this point. You can’t win, and you’re likely to leave a bad impression in their heads for the next year’s Iditarod.
Given all of this, there was a pretty good reason for Porsild to stop and hole up at the Kwik River cabin. Whether the situation was grim as she and Phillips have portrayed it is impossible to say without having been there.
But again, there is Smyth who was behind a veteran team familiar with the coast. They left Koyuk behind Porsild and Phillips, pushed through to Elim and reported no major problems – other than the weather being crap – along the way.
What happened after Symth went by is unknown because neither Ulsom nor Porsild are talking, but the two got into some sort of confrontation along the trail that was nasty enough to leave Porsild shaken.
Tim White, a Minnesota musher well known to many in the dog-driving business and a former neighbor and friend of Porsild’s when she lived in that state, describes her as a “Viking” and finds it hard to believe that much of anything would rattle her.
But others who asked not to be named and were around her at Elim this year said it was obvious she was pretty upset about whatever happened, and she did go to the Nome courthouse to file for that protective order shortly after crossing the Iditarod finish line.
Whether Iditarod investigated the incident is another unknown among many unknowns.
The race rules are a little unclear about dogs in shelters, suggesting it’s OK if they are inside for “treatment,” whatever that means.
But the rules are very clear on behavior. “Rule 22 – Sportsmanship,” says:
“All mushers must use civil conduct and act in a sportsmanlike manner throughout the
the race. Abusive treatment of anyone is prohibited.”
Friends of Ulsom describe him as a very mild-manner guy and have a hard time imagining he would be abusive toward anyone, but the Porsild-Ulsom split has been difficult. After they broke up, Ulsom’s new girlfriend and now wife, a Susitna Valley veterinarian, filed for a protective order against Porsild.
The woman claimed Porsild was stalking her. A judge granted a short-term order but then lifted it. This fall one of Porsild’s favorite dogs disappeared from her dog lot and, along with enlisting friends and a helicopter to help in the search for the animal, she offered a $1,000, “no questions asked” reward for the return of Fenix.
Ulsom subsequently let her know he had the dog, and Porsild posted this on her Facebook page:
“I paid the $1000 award and got her back. Thank you to Sivo Racing Kennel. They called to let me know they had her and I just need pay them to get her back. Needless to say, the relief was palpable, as if a weight was lifted from my chest. The thousand dollars reward will doubtlessly help ease the burden of maintaining their racing kennel while simultaneously raising a newborn baby.
“I am so thankful to the universe to have her back in my arms.”
Whether Fenix had anything to do with what happened between Porsild and Ulsom on the trail between Koyuk and Elim this year is unknown. Ulsom did go on to beat his ex into Nome, sans any time penalty, and there he reportedly filed a protest against her use of the cabin to shelter her dogs.
Things were not always this way between the two, which might well have worked to Porsild’s disadvantage. One of the mushers on the trail in 2018 described the situation that year in this way:
“Mille traveled hand in hand with Joar, watching his dogs when he slept, waking him up on time and discussing things in Norwegian. She also oversaw the management of his crew when they moved, or didn’t, to damage the trail behind Joar and directed them when to break trail for Joar.
“Her cover story at the time was that she was just there as a photographer. They totally f—ed the races of several other mushers. (One of them) had to occasionally help them get their snowmachines unstuck so he could get by.
“This is why there is now a snowmobile rule.”
It is part of “Rule 31 – Outside Assistance,” which arose after Butcher’s husband, Dave Monson, showed up at almost every checkpoint along the trail to help coach her to her first Iditarod victory. The main provision says “no planned help is allowed throughout the race.”
The rule has been partially undercut by an “electronic device” rule added a couple of years ago that says “a musher may carry and use any two-way communication device(s),
including, but not necessarily limited to, a cell and/or satellite telephone.”
This year’s race winner, Brent Sass from Eureka, has talked about being in two-way communication during the race with a helper monitoring where other mushers were on the trail and offering advice on race strategy.
Such help might provide the best of “outside assistance” in a competition where the brain fog of sleep deprivation is one of the biggest problems racers face.
But then in the Iditarod there are rules, and then there are rules, and then there are differing interpretations of the rules.