You probably have seen something about a member of one of the Iditarod Race in Alaska being hit and killed by a snowmobiler during the race. But what you probably didn’t hear is that it wasn’t an accident according to investigators. Police says that one dog was killed and several others were injured by someone who appears to have intentionally launched a snowmobile attack on competitors in the historic Dog sled race in Alaska.
Police said that it appears that Iditarod veteran Aliy Zirkle was the first to report an attack on her team. Zirkle told authorities that a snowmobiler had buzzed her camp and “repeatedly attempted to harm her and her team,” the Iditarod Trail Committee says, a spokesperson added that one of Zirkle’s dogs had received a non-life-threatening injury. Zirkle was not able to report the attack until she arrived in Nulato, Alaska, in the the early morning hours. At that time, both race officials and law enforcement were notified.
Then a few hours later, it was reported that former four time winner of the race, Jeff King was also attacked in a similar manner. King was running behind Ms. Zirkle’s team at the time of the attack, Kings dogs suffered a much more severe attack than did Ms. Zirkles team, the snowmobile drive allegedly ran into the team outside the town of Nulato seriously injuring several of the animals and killing Nash, a 3-year-old male. Later a distraught Jeff King told reporters that his sled has lights and reflectors, “It really felt like reckless bravado and playing chicken,” King said.
Authorities says that neither King nor Zirkle were injured in the attacks and that they have identified a suspect. Race officials say they are working with police and that an investigation into the incident is already underway.
“Regrettably, this incident very much alters the race of the two mushers competing for a win,” the Trail Committee writes. “However, both are going to continue on their way toward Nome.”
Officials said that after a four-hour rest, Zirkle left Nulato — leaving one dog behind —in third place. King was still at the checkpoint as of 1 p.m. Eastern. Reporter Emily Schwing says on Twitter that King explained, “I’m not gonna let this schmuck take any more of the fun away.”
Alaska State Troopers have released a statement which says in part that Arnold Demoski, 26, of Nulato has been arrested for the alleged attacks on the Mushers and their teams. Police say he is being charged with multiple counts including: two counts of assault in the third degree, one count of reckless endangerment, one count of reckless driving and six counts of criminal mischief in the fifth degree.
The race is carried out every year, in part to commemorate and celebrate the Sled Dog and the part they have played in the history of Alaska. The course is based on a famous lifesaving relay that happened in 1925, when a daring sled dog relay through the savage Alaskan winter delivered life-saving medicine to the remote village of Nome. Although the furious dash involved 20 drivers and more than 150 dogs, the “Great Race of Mercy” made a superstar out of one particular canine—Balto.
The children of Nome were dying in January 1925. Infected with diphtheria, they wheezed and gasped for air, and every day brought a new case of the lethal respiratory disease. Nome’s lone physician, Dr. Curtis Welch, feared an epidemic that could put the entire village of 1,400 at risk. He ordered a quarantine but knew that only an antitoxin serum could ward off the fast-spreading disease.
But the nearest batch of the life-serum was more than 1,000 miles away in Anchorage. Nome’s ice-choked harbor made sea transport impossible, and open-cockpit airplanes could not fly in Alaska’s subzero temperatures. With the nearest train station nearly 700 miles away in Nenana, canine power offered Nome its best hope for a speedy delivery.
On the night of January 27, 1925, a train whistle pierced Nenana’s stillness as it arrived with the precious cargo—a 20-pound package of serum wrapped in protective fur. Musher “Wild Bill” Shannon tied the parcel to his sled. As he gave the signal, the paws of Shannon’s nine malamutes pounded the snow-packed trail on the first steps of a 674-mile “Great Race of Mercy” through rugged wilderness, across frozen waterways and over treeless tundra.
With Temperatures plummeting to 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit the race against death was on. With moonlight and even the northern lights illuminating the dark Alaskan winter days, the relay raced at an average speed of six miles per hour. While each leg averaged 30 miles, the country’s most famous musher, Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala, departed Shaktoolik on January 31 on an epic 91-mile leg. Having already rushed 170 miles from Nome to intercept the relay, Seppala decided on a risky shortcut over the frozen Norton Sound in the teeth of a gale that dropped wind chills to 85 degrees below zero. Seppala’s lead dog, 12-year-old Siberian Husky Togo, had logged tens of thousands of miles, but none as important as these. Togo and his 19 fellow dogs struggled for traction on Norton Sound’s glassy skin, and the fierce winds threatened to break apart the ice and send the team adrift to sea. The team made it safely to the coastline only hours before the ice cracked.
As Kaasen set off on the next leg of the run, into a blizzard, the pelting snow grew so fierce that his squinting eyes could not see any of his team, let alone his trusted lead dog, Balto. On loan from Seppala’s kennel, Balto relied on scent, rather than sight, to lead the 13-dog team over the beaten trail as ice began to crust the long hairs of his brown coat. Suddenly, a massive gust upwards of 80 miles per hour flipped the sled and launched the antidote into a snow bank. Panic coursed through Kaasen’s frostbitten body as he tore off his mitts and rummaged through the snow with his numb hands before locating the serum.
Kaasen arrived in Port Safety in the early morning hours of February 2, but when the next team was not ready to leave, the driver decided to forge on to Nome himself. After covering 53 miles, Balto was the first sign of Nome’s salvation as the sled dogs yipped and yapped down Front Street at 5:30 A.M. to deliver the valuable package to Dr. Welch.
The relay had taken five-and-a-half days, cutting the previous speed record nearly in half. Four dogs died from exposure, giving their lives so that others could live. Three weeks after injecting the residents of Nome, Dr. Crosby lifted the quarantine. And so was born the foundation of the most challenging dog race in the world.
Reporter Emily Schwing and NPR contributed to this report.
©2016 R. L. Grimes