Jeff King's newfangled sled was the talk of the Iditarod Trail during the 2004 Iditarod race, prompting curious stares from race fans, technical questions from fellow mushers and an occasional wisecrack from the peanut gallery about his Barcalounger On The Snow.
But during the race he learned the hard way that the comfy new sled lacked one crucial element: a seat belt.
The Denali Park musher redesigned the classic long-distance sled by splitting the sled bag in two, which allows him to stand in the middle of the sled rather than on the back. The new design steers more easily, he says, because the weight is centered.
That's just a side benefit, however. The real reason for the redesign, King said, is comfort. The rear compartment makes a good seat. If the musher can sit rather than stand, he saves energy for times when he must push the sled from behind, King said.
When King first tried it out, "My kids said, 'You'll be so comfortable you'll fall off.' Well, guess what," he said.
It happened in the Farewell Burn, a long stretch of deeply indented trail between Rohn and Nikolai that looks like a luge run.
"It's an easy run," King said, and he was sitting down. The dogs were doing fine, he was tired, it was cold and dark, and he was leading the pack.
"All of a sudden, I was doing a face plant, just like a sack of bricks, face first" into the snow.
It took almost no time to come to his senses, but the damage was done. His team was running away without him.
"I stood up and yelled, 'Whoa,' " then realized the futility, he said. He was in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, with the temperature dropping toward minus 20.
"I could see them getting farther away. I'm thinking, 'I'm screwed.' "
Then a thought flashed through his mind. If he could call the leader, the dog might turn the team around. But who was in lead? Texas? Tinkle?
"Gee," he screamed. "Haw! Stop!"
And then it happened. His headlamp reflected the gleam of two eyes. A dog had turned around, perhaps wondering what the ruckus was all about.
"Then there were four eyes," King said. "Then six, 10, and soon I saw 30 eyes staring back at me in the light."
With the team stopped a quarter-mile away, he caught up to them and hugged every dog, he said. "I thought, 'Thank you, Lord; what have I done to deserve this?'
"Then I remembered I had loaned (Rick) Swenson some parts for his (broken) sled. It was good karma," King said.
Before he left the Burn, King's new sled had a seat belt. Never again, he said.
King is one of a handful of long-distance racers who have stopped using necklines on their dogs. The short leashes are designed to keep the dogs close to the gangline and to keep them in line and looking forward. But without necklines, he said, his dogs were able to look around for their missing musher. "If they had necklines, they couldn't do that," he said.
King has had quite a year for lost dogs. In January 2004, a single AWOL dog cost him $10,000.
That story started about five years ago when he hired a young Montana dog handler named Jessie Royer to help out at his Denali Park dog yard.
King happened to be in the Lower 48 when a grizzly bear started hanging around the yard. The nuisance bear got bolder and bolder until Royer shot it.
In thanks, King had the bear's four paws sewn into mittens, and he gave Royer a pair.
King's pair was so warm that he rarely used them. But the forecast for this year's Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race in Bethel was for severe cold, so he brought them along. Good thing, because the temperature got down to minus 30 with winds to 30 mph.
But every time he put on the mitts, King's dogs got jumpy. "With the mitts on, it looked like I stuck my hands into two wolverines," he said later.
King solved the problem by tying the mitts to his handlebow and slipping them off every time he had to feed or handle his team. The dogs calmed down, and by the end of the race King was running second just 15 miles from the finish line. He knew he couldn't catch Ed Iten, but the $15,000 second-place prize was his if he could just stay ahead of Martin Buser.
Then his dog day swung into high gear.
As his team trotted toward Bethel, all the dogs pulled hard except a male named George, who was holding the rest back. King stopped, set his snow hook as deep as possible in the glare ice of the trail and unhooked George from the gangline.
But when he tried to put the dog into his sled, the two bear-paw mitts were flapping in the breeze. George flew out of King's arms. The rest of the team jumped. The snow hook pulled out. The sled took off.
King leapt and managed to stop it. When he looked up, George was on the riverbank, quaking.
King anchored the team, then set out after George. A musher can't finish without accounting for every dog in his team, but George couldn't be cornered or cajoled into coming back. Within minutes, George was wandering around Akiak, and King was trying to find him.
It took four hours.
And when King finally got George back in the sled, Buser had slipped into second place. Charlie Boulding had finished third. Dallas Seavey was fourth and Mitch Seavey was fifth.
King, and George, came in sixth, which paid $5,000.
At the mushers banquet in Bethel after the race, King noted that the race is not always to the swift but to those who have a combination of the best dogs and the fewest unanticipated problems.
He added, "George is now the most expensive dog in my lot."
Reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.