Jeff King, one of the greatest mushers in the history of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, dropped out of the competition late Sunday after some of his dogs developed what appeared to be serious stomach problems about 12 miles outside of Unalakleet. The dogs then stopped, curled up in the snow and refused to budge.
By early evening, King and his 13 animals were being transported by snowmachines and sleds to the checkpoint on Norton Sound.
"They really hit a wall," King said. "And there's no place to fix it out here."
The team lay down in an open area exposed to the wind, even though some sheltering trees were not far away. "It was not my choice" where to stop, King said.
"I'm not interested in having it not being fun for me or the dogs," King added in explaining why he pulled out. "If I have to scratch from one now and then, so be it."
King is not the first musher to have a team quit because of illness, fatigue or simple disinterest. DeeDee Jonrowe from Willow, a two-time runner up, had a team quit in strong headwinds on the Yukon River. Ellen Halverson, a psychiatrist from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, had a team quit just outside of McGrath, only about a third of the way into the race, because they're heads just weren't in it. Five-time champ Rick Swenson, the winningest musher in Iditarod history, had a tired team quit at the Safety checkpoint when he thought he was on the verge of beating the late-Susan Butcher in a closely contested Iditarod.
Swenson did manage to get his team going after a good, long rest, but other mushers -- like King -- have sometimes decided to ask for help in getting their dogs to safety.
King, 55, had returned to the Iditarod this year after a one-year retirement. He was in the thick of the hunt for most of the race. As the frontrunning teams began moving down the Yukon River, King was posting excellent speeds and appeared to be poised to make a run at then race leader Aily Zirkle from Fairbanks. Then everything fell apart.
Iditarod re-entry after retirement has not been kind to past champions. Four-time champ Doug Swingley retired, like King, and then tried to come back only to run into all sorts of problems. He twice scratched. In his first race back after retirement, he frostbite his corneas. In another, he crashed his sled going into Puntilla Lake and suffered race-ending injuries. Swingley is now permanently retired.
King has never scratched from an Iditarod before, and he has known little but Iditarod success over the past two decades. Since 1992, he's ended the race out of the Iditarod top-10 only twice, and those were both respectable 12th place finishes.
King was not the only musher encountering serious trouble along the trail Sunday. Another contender saw his race come to an abrupt after he accidentally sliced open his hand. Jake Berkowitz was withdrawn by race officials about about 2 p.m. because of a knife wound.
"Berkowitz severely injured his hand while using a knife between Kaltag and Unalakleet. (Iditarod Race Marshal) Mark Nordman determined that the injury was severe enough to warrant the decision," Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon reported in the release.
Berkowitz was in sixth place at the time he was withdrawn.
Two rookie mushers also pulled out of the race because their teams were shrinking. The had been forced to drop dogs due to fatigue or illness were down to small teams. Pat Moon of Chicago scratched in Ruby with just seven dogs left in his team and nearly half of the trail yet to cover. Josh Cadzow of Fort Yukon scratched in Kaltag with just nine dogs remaining. Cadzow told race officials that those nine were no longer enjoying the trip.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com