New Iditarod two-way communication rules for safety, not advantage

Jeff King arrives in Ruby during the 2016 Iditarod (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/ Alaska Public Media)

During last year’s Iditarod, an intoxicated snowmachiner struck Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle’s teams on a section of the trail heading into Nulato. And the implications of that event are shaping aspects of this year’s race.

Speaking with KNOM’s Emily Schwing just a few hours after the incident on March 12th , King described what happened.

“One of the many snowmachines that were on the river struck my team at high speed,” King said. “It did not hit my sled or me, and I am fine. I was not hurt in any way. But several of my dogs were hit, one was killed, one’s leg was broken–appears broken, and one is in serious condition with shock and impact.”

The snowmachiner, Arnold Demoski, pleaded guilty in a Fairbanks court last December. He was was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay almost $37,000 in restitution.

In the time since, King views the assault as a driving factor in a change to the Iditarod’s rules.

During a recent interview at his Husky Homestead property outside Denali Park, King explained the late night emergency was a big part of why the Iditarod’s Board of Directors voted to allow two-way communication devices on the trail this year.

“They’re trying something new to deal with a potential scenario with readily available equipment,” King said.

The change in regulations falls under rule 35 on electronic devices, laying out that a musher “can carry and use any two-way communication device(s),” including cellphones and satellite phones. But racers aren’t required to take them, unlike mandatory equipment such as an ax and snow-shoes.

“I will not carry a different device, and it won’t change anything for me unless it means I get beat by somebody who’s using it for competitive advantage,” King said. If that happens, he may consider using a communicator as part of his race strategy.

King ran his first Iditarod in 1981, and has won the race four times, along with scores of mid-distance races. Throughout his career he’s adapted in order to gain an edge. And he sees the two-way communication rule as just another developmental step for the iconic race, not a fundamental change to top-tier dog mushing.

That’s a view shared by the Iditarod’s governing body. Even though mushers can now call in an emergency from the trail, their race is still over if they accept any outside help, according to Aaron Burmeister, a board member and Iditarod veteran.

“This is one of those rules that has evolved over time, and I don’t think it’s going to make a big impact on the race, your best team is still going to win the Iditarod,” Burmeister said.

He agrees that the incident last year heading toward Nulato was a tipping point for many who worry about safety along the trail, especially now that total isolation is an option, and no longer a technological fact.

“There (were) several instances, not just Jeff’s, but Aliy’s and another musher as well, that had incidents on that stretch of the trail,” Burmeister said. “Having a two-way communication device that they would have been able to use following their incidents’ certainly would have, they felt, made them more comfortable and not nearly as scared with what took place.”

The board debated requiring mushers to carry devices inside a locked or sealed case, but ultimately decided it’d be too cumbersome. Besides, Burmeister said, if the point is safety then there’s no use creating another barrier to acting fast.

There are still trace’s of the snowmachine assault at King’s kennel. A three-year old, Nash, is gone. Another dog who was struck, Crosby, can’t compete any more. King, though, feels closure over what happened.

“I feel very lucky that I was not seriously hurt or killed and that not more dogs were hurt,” he said. “And I take some satisfaction in believing that Arnold Demoski has sincere remorse, and sincere remorse is a great step in the right direction.”

This year’s Iditarod starts March 4th.

For more news and interviews on all things mushing, subscribe to the Iditapod, a podcast about the Iditarod from Alaska Public Media and KNOM Radio.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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