The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which for years put up with the antics of Cat in the Hat-musher Hugh Neff, has now banned him, but won’t say why.
Neff says he got a letter from the race turning down his entry in next March’s event, but telling him he could try again in the future. The letter says he was rejected because of his performance this year, but provides no hint as to what was wrong with that performance or what he should do to qualify to race in the future.
“Pretty amazing how reality TV mushers can do as they please while others are easily annihilated,” Neff said in a text exchange this week. “I’m not the one who had a dog die this year because of my actions, or a few years ago at Alpine Lodge.”
The first reference is to musher Jesse Holmes, a star in the not-so-real reality TV series “Life Below Zero,” who started the year by declaring war on moose along the Denali Highway and ended it by turning his dog team loose in Wasilla to attack and kill a 15-pound, pet Havanese.
Between those events, Holmes finished third in the Iditarod.
Neff’s second reference is unclear. There were no dog deaths in the Iditarod this year, although a musher training for the race did have a dog killed in training when it was hit by a car. The third reference is this year’s Iditarod champ Brent Sass, who during the winter of 2015-16 parked his dog team outside a Denali Highway lodge and left them there unattended.
While Sass was in the lodge, several of the dogs – none of which were staked out – chewed their way out of their harnesses and attacked a Sass lead dog named Basin. Another musher arriving at the lodge broke up the dog fight, but by then Basin had been so badly mauled that he died.
Sass later made a big deal of the emotional turmoil he was suffering in the wake of Basin’s death, but seriously whitewashed the deadly attack.
He told an Alaska Public Radio reporter he “wasn’t sure what happened to the 5-year-old dog. ‘I left the dogs camping like I always do and when we came back down to the dogs, something had definitely happened. He’d gotten sick and was not in a good way. It went downhill fast.’
“‘“We did as much as we could. We gave him fluids and warmed him up and put him in a cabin. We did all we could to try and get him warmed up. But we couldn’t (save him).'”
After Sass’s team quit on him in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race the next year, Sass compounded the original fable by suggesting that two dogs that collapsed were Basin offspring that may have inherited genetic weaknesses from their father.
The reality was the dogs faltered for the usual reason dogs, like horses or people engaged in long-distance endurance events, collapse. They’d been asked to do more than they were trained to do. Or in other words, they went too fast too far too long, or some combination of the three.
This problem of letting the dogs exceed their redline happened to Sass’s team again in the 2016 Iditarod, where he once more brought up Basin’s name and emotionally suggested things would have gone better if Basin hadn’t mysteriously died.
The response of the Alaska media, ignorant of exactly how Basin did die, was to sympathize with Sass. The Anchorage Daily News reported that Sass’s mushing career “plagued with a series of mishaps absorbed another Sunday.” The newspaper did not mention the other mishaps, such as the two Sass dogs that had died in Quest races before Basin’s untimely end.
The sympathizing got to be such that veteran musher Sebastian Schnuelle, then reporting for Iditarod.com, was moved to observe that he really did “not understand how any musher, who has to be hauled off the trail with two dogs in the sled bag, is being praised. Some go as far as calling Brent a champion for doing that. Seriously?
“It used to be an embarrassment when you had to be picked off the tail. Where is this sport headed? What perception do the fans really have?”
Against this backdrop, and given Neff’s own experiences in the past and the experiences of other Iditarod mushers, it might be understood why Neff is confused as to what he did wrong this year or should do differently if he wants to be allowed into the Iditarod in future years.
Neff was long one of the Iditarod’s “rabbits,” dog drivers that allow their teams to go out at a pace faster than can be sustained only to falter somewhere along the trail as the rabbit did in the old fable of “The Hare & the Tortoise.”
This sort of behavior was once common in many long-distance endurance sports, and still is in some. Fans of the Tour de France or bike racing, in general, know that the riders in the breakaway – the Tour’s rabbits – seldom win. And recognizing the importance of pacing, professional marathon competitions have in the past actually employed rabbits, paying runners who were good but not good enough to win to act as pacemakers for the top runners for half of the race or more before they ran out of gas and had to drop out or pull over and coast to the finish line at an easier pace.
The Iditarod used to be famous for its rabbits, but they have largely faded away in recent years as the competition has increased and the trail has changed from wilderness challenge to more of a race track. The teams that now go out fast usually stay in front to the finish.
Neff was behind one of those teams last year when the Iditarod arbitrarily decided he was going too fast and told him he could voluntarily quit, and come back again this year, or get tossed out of the race. The condition of his dog team at the time has been much debated.
The dogs in the team belonged to veteran mushers Anna Bondarenko and husband Jim Lanier, who had finally retired from the sport at the age of 80. Many had thought for years Lanier had a top-level team compromised by the age and inherent physical decline of the driver.
Neff, who lost a battle with Quest officials who refused to venture out on the trail to help him with a sick dog that died during the 2018 race, had been wandering in the mushing wilderness for a couple years after the Quest temporarily banned him and the Iditarod announced it was recognizing the Quest ban.
By this year, however, that was all history, and Neff joined the Bondarenko-Laniers to spend the fall of 2021 and the early winter of 2022 training up a team of their “Northern Whites” for the Iditarod. Those who saw the dogs on Alaska trails before the race said the team looked to be first-rate, and behind such a team, Neff did what he’d always done.
He took off down the trail like a rabbit. When Neff finally called for a halt halfway into the race to provide the dogs the Iditarod’s one required, 24-hour mandatory rest, he and his team were in fifth place behind race leaders Dallas Seavey, the only Iditarod musher ever officially and publicly linked to doped dogs, and Sass, another rabbit who famously ran his team out of gas at White Mountain, the penultimate Iditarod checkpoint in 2016.
Veterinarians at the halfway checkpoint of Cripple noted in Neff’s vet book that he had one dog with a low body condition score, meaning it was basically getting too skinny, but allowed the team to make the 70-mile run to the next checkpoint at the village of Ruby on the Yukon river.
There was no objective sign of Neff’s team faltering along the way.
Iditarod records record his team was the third fastest of the top-10 teams into Ruby, and one of only three teams to best an average speed of over 6 mph on that tough leg of the trail. His team was a mph faster than that of Holmes, the driver behind the third team into Ruby, and made the 70-mile run almost two hours faster than Sass, who was by then the race leader and would go on to win in Nome.
Other mushers said Neff’s dogs looked skinny, but most Iditarod dogs, like Kenyan marathon runners, do. And Bondarenko and Lanier have insisted there was nothing wrong with the dogs. But Iditarod race marshall Mark Nordman saw it differently and told Neff he had two choices: quit or be disqualified.
Neff chose to quit, and Iditarod issued a characteristically vague media statement claiming that “in conjunction with Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman, Neff made the decision to scratch due to their concern for his race team.”
The race said nothing about the past history between Nordman and Neff.
Aptly nicknamed “Huge Mess,” Neff for various Iditarod problems ranging from his own frostbite to dog team mutinies, Mess was doing his rabbit routine in 2016 when his team revolted on Golovin Bay along the Bering Sea Coast about 100 miles short of the Iditarod’s finish line. It was there the dogs decided they’d had enough of battling blowing snow and glare ice and staged a sitdown strike.
Neff was not prepared for this. Like many an Iditarod musher on the final coast run to Nome, he’d switched out his long trail sled for a shorter, lighter racing sled and cut his gear to a minimum to reduce the load the dogs would need to pull.
Aware those decisions and the stalled dog team had put him in a predicament, he decided to push the rescue button on a tracking device now carried by all mushers. Neff would then spend a long, cold, 10 hours huddling in a tiny sled bag half into a sleeping bag waiting for help to arrive.
Veteran musher Dave Branholm who eventually went out on a snowmachine to find Neff and the team would later describe the musher looking like “he was frozen down in a coffin.” And by then, Neff’s then-girlfriend was already accusing the Iditarod of leaving Neff out on the ice to die.
Neff only piled on when he reached Nome by claiming he thought he was a dead man, and the finger pointed at Nordman, who claimed the Iditarod never got Neff’s S-O-S and suggested Neff had accidentally turned off his signaling device. And never mind that a satellite tracking system had shown Neff’s sled stalled for hours out in the middle of Golovin Bay, where no one stops for long let alone decides to camp.
On that occassion – neither Neff nor Iditarod – made any mention of the danger the dogs were put in at the time, either, and no actions were taken against Neff for pushing the team until it quit. But then that is what has historically happened in the Iditarod.
A lot of teams have quit over the years, some of them driven by big-name mushers. And some teams have been abandoned by mushers looking to save themselves.
When things got too tough for Scott Janssen, Alaska’s “Mushing Mortician,” in 2015, he abandoned his team on the ice near the village of Koyuk to take a ride to safety when rescuers on snowmachines arrived to check on his stalled team. Luckily for the dogs, the late Lance Mackey, a four-time Iditarod champ, found the team, tied Janssen’s dogs to his own, and took them all to Koyuk.
No penalties were imposed against Janssen, who was back racing again the next year. He only made it halfway that year before quitting. After that, he took a year off, and then came back in 2018.
That year he stopped to help Lanier, whose team had stalled along the trail at the base of the Topkok Hills not far outside of Nome, and both dog teams and both mushers had to be rescued. After that, the Iditarod told Lanier it was time to retire, and the Alaska Legislature honored Janssen as a “hero.”
Little attention was given to any danger the dogs were put in in that situation even though at least two dogs have frozen to death during past Iditarods and at least one more has come close. And the actual heroes in the affair – the group of snowmachiners who went into the storm to rescue Janssen, Lanier and both dog teams – got almost no mention.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun, the late poet Robert Service observed, and equally strange things done in the long winter dark. Lanier did become the first musher to be publicly booted from the race for apparently being too old to tend a team, and now comes Neff.
Prior to the latest sanctioning of Neff, the race has never taken any action against mushers for putting dogs at risk by driving them too hard or leaving them left exposed to environmental dangers. And to be clear here, the problem in these situations is not with “making” the dogs run too hard, per se, but in letting them run too hard.
Sled dogs, and many other dogs, live to run and can rather easily over-exert themselves. When they do this day after day in the Iditarod, they can get into a downhill spiral that leads to physiological deterioration which can result in collapse or even death.
Neff’s team might have been heading in this direction when he was forced out of the race last year, but they weren’t close to that point. Many a musher has observed that five-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey finished the 2016 race, his fourth win, with only six dogs in harness, and they looked far worse than Neff’s team did in Ruby, though none want their names attached to these observations.
They said they fear retaliation from race officials. The race in 2016 imposed a gag order on Iditarod competitors, warning them they could be booted from the event for speaking unfavorably about it.
The Iditarod says this is because the race is all about the dogs. Neff said that is bull.
“They don’t care,” he messaged. “(They) never called to see how the dogs were. The head vet never looked at the dogs the whole race.”
As for the racing fitness of the dogs the Iditarod suggested he and Nordman decided should quit because they were already too worn out in Ruby, Neff added, “that within a few days of being screwed over, Jim started receiving phone calls by other ‘elite’ contenders asking about leasing his dogs that I am not allowed to compete with.
“The dogs that won the Kobuk 440 (three weeks after the Iditarod finish) and were in second place in Iditarod when their musher was removed. What a world.”
Run north of the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue at the start of April, the Kobuk 440 is the last big race of the Alaska mushing season. Richie Diehl, the sixth-place finisher in the 2022 Iditarod, finished second to Neff in the Kobuk this year. Diehl had reached Ruby an hour and a half behind Neff in this year’s Iditarod.
No questions were raised about his going too fast.