The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race covers 1,000 miles of breathtakingly beautiful, and often hazardous, Alaska wilderness. And, as in any wild place, the unexpected occurs.
Musher Al Crane and his team had an encounter with a moose in the 1977 Iditarod, and Crane also injured himself with a meat ax. Crane and team still finished 15th. It was Crane’s first and last Iditarod.
Four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher and her team were attacked by a pregnant moose in the 1985 Iditarod; two dogs were killed and six were injured.
A dog that was being cared for at a checkpoint in the 2013 Iditarod died after it was reportedly suffocated by a snowdrift.
The 2016 incident influenced a rule change in this year’s Iditarod so that mushers can get help in an emergency (race officials didn’t know about the snowmobile encounter until King and Zirkle reached the next checkpoint). Mushers may now carry a cell phone, emergency locator transmitter, satellite tracking device and GPS.
Until now, carrying any device with Wi-Fi capability was not allowed, to prevent a musher from summoning assistance or obtaining information that might give him or her an advantage. That rule was strictly enforced; Brent Sass, an Iditarod veteran and Yukon Quest champion, was disqualified from the 2015 Iditarod because the iPod he carried so he could listen to music on the trail had Wi-Fi capability.
While the change to Rule 35 is designed to give mushers a tool to use in the event of an emergency, the change was not universally accepted. Some mushers, including four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey, believe communication devices should be allowed for use in emergencies but should be regulated so their presence doesn’t affect the integrity of the race.
Seavey’s online petition regarding Rule 35 garnered 1,100 signatures, including those of past champions Rick Mackey (1983), Libby Riddles (1985), and Mitch Seavey (2004, 2013); and rookies of the year Cim Smyth (1996), Jessica Hendricks (2003), and Nicolas Petit (2011).
Rule 35 as adopted by the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors: “A musher may carry and use any two-way communication device(s), including, but not necessarily limited to, a cell and/or satellite telephone. Use of such devices may not be used for any media purposes during the course of the race unless expressly approved in advance by ITC. A musher may also carry an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), a Spot™, or other similar satellite-tracking device. However, activation of any help or emergency signal, including accidental activation, may make a musher ineligible to continue and may result in an automatic withdrawal from the race. Use of a GPS is also permitted.”
Seavey and other mushers lobbied the Iditarod Trail Committee to “adjust this rule to make it more effective of a safety asset for the Iditarod while not compromising the integrity and history and nature of the race by having outside communication, being able to call home, get coaching, etc.,” the champion said in the first in a series of videos he made and posted regarding the rule.
As he pointed out, Rule 35 does not allow two-way communication devices to be used for coaching, or to find out what the trail is like ahead or where other mushers are. “But there’s no way to tell if [a communication device] is being used that way,” he said.
The Iditarod Official Finishers Club, an organization of mushers who have completed the race, proposed Rule 35 be rewritten to allow the use of two-way communication devices only in an emergency; provide a method for determining whether a musher has used a two-way communication device for purposes other than an emergency (mushers recommended communication devices be stowed in a container and secured with a tamper-proof seal, to be checked by race officials at checkpoints); allow, but don’t require, mushers to carry a two-way communication device (Seavey said he doesn’t intend to carry one); and create a 24-hour hotline to field emergency calls from mushers.
“The purpose of rule 35 is to address safety concerns on the trail,” the mushers’ organization wrote. “However, allowing unrestricted two-way communication creates a situation in which there is no realistic way for coaching to be policed. Discussions on this issue within the mushing community have produced several practical solutions that allow for mushers to carry two-way communication devices without jeopardizing the enforcement of the ‘no coaching rule.’”
Some Iditarod veterans were steadfast in their position against allowing two-way communication in the race.
“I am strongly opposed to the use of any type of two-way communication devices,” wrote Hans Gatt, a veteran of 13 Iditarods and a five-time top 10 finisher.
Nic Petit, the 2011 Iditarod rookie of the year who has three top-10 finishes in five races, wrote, “Iditarod is the one place where technology doesn’t affect the outcome. Let’s keep it that way.”
Iditarod fans also weighed in on Rule 35.
“Providing mushers with a way of communicating with race officials in case of an emergency is an excellent idea,” wrote Kimberly Jarvis of Merritt Island, Florida.
“The temperatures during the Iditarod are very cold and an injured musher could get frostbite or worse waiting for the next musher to come along. However, allowing unlimited communication with anyone is not a good idea. There is no way of enforcing the ‘no outside assistance (coaching)’ clause and unlimited communication with anyone could give a musher an unfair advantage over their competitors.”
Meanwhile, the Iditarod Trail Committee announced October 28 that Rule 35 as written would stand.
“The safety of the race’s competing mushers and their dog teams are and continue to be the top priority of the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors. This rule change involved more than the usual amount of discussion and deliberation over the last eight months, which included a tremendous amount of input from the competitors in this event. We believe that this rule change will result in a safer race and will not alter the excellence in competition of the 2017 Iditarod and beyond.”
The 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins at 10 a.m. March 4 in Anchorage. Seventy-five mushers and teams are registered, including five champions (John Baker, Jeff King, Martin Buser, Dallas Seavey, and Mitch Seavey). Alaska Native mushers in the race: John Baker, Richie Diehl, Pete Kaiser, Robert Redington, and Ryan Redington.