Iditarod Dog Deaths Over The Last Decade
I've seen similar lists in different places and with different motivations over the years. Many times that list includes my name, for in 2007 in the village of Grayling my leader Snickers died of a Gastric Ulcer.
This lists might make it seem that those deaths are just an asterisk in an Iditarod career - or a painful, but long-past event. Let me tell you that is not the case.
The 10th anniversary of Snickers' death was last Friday. Sadly, that morning her brother Crunchie had to be put down due to old age. He would have been 16 in June.
He was one of the ones fighting with us in that little community centre late into the night 10 years ago.
Dr. Justine Lee, with minimal supplies, used him as a donor to do a blood transfusion on his sister in the battle for her life. I will never forget how stoically he sat amidst all the stress and commotion going on around him as Dr. Lee drew blood.
All our efforts were for naught though and she passed away in the night, cradled in my hands.
In terms of bad days in my life, that rates right up there with the passing of my father.
I remember walking out to the bank of the Yukon River shortly after she passed and having a talk with her. The moon was out and clouds were drifting across it in the wind. (I had a similar chat with her - and her brother - last Friday night. The sky was eerily almost exactly the same.)
The next morning I scratched from the race and went home. My heart for the race was gone. (Let me just say that most mushers do continue down the trail - and I get that. We all grieve and heal in our own way and, when there is no wrongdoing on the part of the musher leading to the death of their teammate - the race needs to support that.)
For a while I didn't know if my heart for racing and the Iditarod would come back, but it did. In no small part thanks to Snickers - on the banks of the Yukon that night I had promised to take her to Nome 'in a manner she deserved' and that had to be done.
In 2008, I stopped my team on Cape Nome overlooking the Bering Sea coast and the city in the distance. It's a spot that I have traditionally stopped to thank my dogs for the adventure we just had together, and I knew it was where Snickers' ashes needed to be scattered.
I thanked the team and then sat down and had a good chat with Snickers before turning her ashes over to the wind and snow.
The rest of my trip into Nome was graced by the most spectacular sunset I've even witnessed. It about broke my heart and helped settle my soul all that the same time. When I reached Nome, as I walked up to to my leaders in the chute, I stopped to spread the last little bit of her ashes under the burled arch.
"A promise made is a debt unpaid and the trail has it's own stern code." (Robert Service, 'The Cremation of Sam McGee')
|Photo by Jeff Schultz|
In the wake of her death, money was donated to help fund Dr. Mike Davis' studies on gastric ulcers in working sled dogs. His studies gave us protocols that are still used today - and '07 was the last year that a dog on the Iditarod died from a gastric ulcer (and for the record, bomb sniffing dogs for the military have also benefited from this work).
In '12, my last Iditarod finish, I stopped and visited with Snickers on my way into Nome. In the years I have judged, I have asked mushers that I particularly admire to stop and say 'Hi' to her for me. They all have.
I never have asked to work a particular checkpoint on Iditarod, but I have always requested that I NOT work in Grayling. Although the community rallied around me in the wake of Snickers' passing and supported me in ways that were so appreciated and will NEVER be forgotten, the memories are just too raw.
Even working Shageluk in '13 as a judge I was hit by a flood of memories, as it was the last checkpoint she led me out of. I could have told you exactly where we were parked and I stood at the 'out trail' before the first teams arrived, letting the memories wash over me.
I have spoke to other mushers who have lost dogs on the trail over the years. If the talk turns to such things, you can watch their eyes cloud over as they speak and the memories flood back.
So when you look at that list in the paper, don't fail to see that what you are looking at is a list of scarred souls - forever changed by those moments in time.
June 6, 2001 - March 10, 2007