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Iditarod musher attacked by his own knife becomes laughing stock

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

OPINION: When Iditarod dog drive Mitch Seavey was attacked by his own knife in 2011 and injured enough to be forced out of the race, he was upset. He did what people do in America these days when they are upset. He filed a lawsuit against the store that sold him the knife and the company that manufactured the knife.

No one paid any attention. The suit was stupid.

Then an Anchorage newspaper picked up the story in May of this year. Now the 52-year-old Seavey, the 2004 winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, is being mocked all over the 49th state and in goodly parts of the rest of the country.

Design flaw?

At dinner the other night, a former leader of the Alaska Legislature described the Seavey suit as part of what is wrong with the country. If judges would toss out this sort of frivolous crap, the now retired politician observed, the civil court system wouldn't be bogged down the way it is today.

Frivolous crap?

Well, yes, as some online commentators appeared to quickly figure out as the Seavey story rippled across the internet. The Seavey case, you see, hinges on the idea the lock-back Kershaw knife he was using had a design flaw that caused the lock to fail which caused the blade to collapse on Seavey's hand, nearly severing a finger. But there are a whole lot of problems with Seavey's argument, starting with the one quickly noted by a participant on thehighroad.org, a popular forum for shooters and other firearms owners.

"Sounds like the 'musher' Seavy (sic) oughta invest in a line cutter, a fixed blade or carry a live Boy Scout to safely perform his cutting for him," posted someone with the handle ApacheCoTodd. "I...would guess from this poorly (written) - though sadly standardly poor - article, that he was using it to hook towards him as a line cutter rather than hook away as a gut hook is intended. I'm sure the knife, the manufacturer and unfortunately, the retailer sold it as a gut-hook folder."

The "gut-hook" feature, as it is called, is incorporated into the blade to make it easier for hunters to eviscerate big-game animals without cutting into the intestines, spilling intestinal fluid and ruining the meat of the animal. The "gut-hook" feature is not designed for cutting the twine holding together bales of straw.

Folding knives fold

Others were quick to pick up on the significance of this. "It's a gut hook, not a cord cutter. Hence, I read that as he was using the knife in a manner for which it was/is not intended, implied, nor advertised to be used," posted ugaarguy on the same forum.

He's right, and there is problem No. 1 for Seavey. He was using the tool -- in this case a knife -- to do a job for which it was not designed. It would be sort of like using a bobby pin to clean the wax out of your ear and then suing the manufacturer when you injure your ear drum.

As someone calling themselves Shnick posted on another forum devoted to bush craft, "I feel bad for the guy, but when you expect certain conditions you don't buy a folder. I own several folders and each one has talents and limitations. I do not however own a gut hook knife ...These guys are using it as a cordage cutter, not it's original intended use. He probably didn't have it locked in the first place ... Gloves, mittens, driving snow, it could happen."

And therein is problem number two. Everyone -- or at least everyone who has spent much time in the outdoors, especially in Alaska -- knows that folding knives fold, and that when using a lockback folder, YOU SHOULD TREAT IT AS IF IT HAS NO LOCK. Seavey ignored this rule. He treated his folding knife like it was a fixed-blade knife, and it attacked him for the oversight.

He says it was because the release for unlocking the knife is poorly placed on the handle. Because it was poorly placed, he believes, he accidentally hit it, the blade released and -- viola! -- he was in pain and bleeding all over his dog straw. There are two problems there --the first being that Seavey bought the knife and should have noticed when he bought it where the lock mechanism is located.

If he opened the knife, and then figured out how to release the lock mechanism so he could close it and put it back in his pocket, he knew the location of this safety device. Knowing this and later hitting the release "accidentally" looks a lot more like operator error than a design flaw.

If, of course, he hit the release. Its quite possible the knife was never locked. Here's what an authority on knives warns about lock-blade folders:

Lock reliability involves how likely the lock will lock under various conditions and whether it might inadvertently open. Lockbacks tend to be somewhat less sensitive to dirt and fluid contamination than linerlocks, but both are susceptible. In a lockback, a bigger danger is that accumulations of lint and dirt in the locking tang can prevent the lock from fully engaging. Linerlocks rely upon very tight tolerances. Liquids seem to be their biggest problem, from a contamination standpoint, but dirt can also cause problems, especially over time as things wear and tolerances loosen up. However, the linerlock's most frequent failure mode seems to be failure to engage fully simply due to the user's failure to open the blade with enough force. In many designs, slow opening doesn't allow the lock to engage the tang with full effect and it more easily slips as a result.

So let's see. To prevail in this case, Seavey has to show the lock was fully engaged before the knife folded. How do you prove that? And he has to show the knife was clean, because otherwise the lock might not fully engage. The latter is what has a lot of Alaska mushers guffawing.

Snow, ice, dirt, gunk

Seavey cut himself while at the remote checkpoint of Ophir almost midway through the 2011 Iditarod. As other mushers can attest, everyone's gear is pretty well dirtied up by that point.

The Iditarod is run on a trail of white snow, but there's always seems be plenty of grit around. Mushers handle bales of straw, which tend to be dirty. They operate in a world full of dog feces. And they get wet from water in open creeks or from melting snow. Ice and snow always seem to get into everything.

Could there have been a chunk of ice or snow in Seavey's knife that prevented the lock from fully engaging? Well, if you subpoened a bunch of mushers and put them on the witness stand, it's doubtful one of them would deny that possibility. Of course it's possible. It's why anyone carrying a folding pocket knife should treat it as if it is a folding knife even if it has a lock. It is why some Iditarod mushers avoid folders in favor of fixed-blade knifes.

You can cut yourself with the latter, too, but it's not going to fold on your hand no matter what you do to it. If you cut your hand with a fixed-blade knife, it is clearly just an embarrassing accident, which is just about what everyone in the mushing community thinks this is: Mitch Seavey's embarrassing accident.

Only he decided to make a federal case out of it.

His attorney says Seavey's embarrassing accident cost him victory in The Last Great Race across the Alaska wilderness, and with the loss of victory went as mush as $100,000 in prize money and potential sponsor revenue. That conclusion has caused a lot more guffawing, not to mention a lot of "say what?"

Seavey was the fourth musher into Ophir in 2011. Would he have won? Who the hell knows, but a race handicapper would conclude the odds weighed heavily against him. Seavey won the Iditarod once in 2004. It was his 11th Iditarod. Every multiple Iditarod winner -- Rick Swenson, Susan Butcher, Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Martin Buser, Doug Swingley, and Robert Sorlie -- won their first race within a decade, usually within just a few years, of their rookie season, and then repeated the feat within a few years. Seavey was third the year after his victory, and never seriously challenged for victory in the six races that followed. 

Youth movement

No offense to Seavey, but there were already people calling him a "one-race wonder" by the start of this decade. He was 10th in the 2010 Iditarod, the year before he sliced open his finger and was forced to drop out. In the history of Iditarod, there aren't a lot of teams that bounced from 10th to first in one year. Seavey likely is destined to go down in Iditaord history as a one-time champ like Emmitt Peters, Joe Runyan, Libby Riddles and Joe May -- great mushers all.

Seavey is now 52. If he wins again, he will become oldest musher to ever win the Iditarod. Father Time is really against him. He did well, extremely well, to finish seventh this year. Every team in front of him was led by someone younger, including the winning team driven by Seavey's 25-year-old son, Dallas. One of the other dog drivers in front of Mitch was even younger than Dallas. Three more were almost young enough to be Mitch's sons.

Youth is taking over the Iditarod. Dallas might well join the likes of Swenson, Butcher, Mackey, King, Buser, et al. in the ranks of multiple winners, and what's his dad likely to be most remembered for now?

A dumb-ass lawsuit.

Twenty years from now, people are going to look back on the Iditarod and remember Mitch not for winning in 2004, or for all the years of working so hard to come close, but for deciding a stupid accident wasn't his fault but the fault of Sportsman's Warehouse and the Kershaw knife company for selling him a knife hellbent on attacking him. Even if Kershaw decides to settle with him just make this suit go away in the cheapest way possible, which is how these cases often end, the damage is done.

Mitch has given a lot of people something to talk about, and little of the talk is good.

"Wotta bunch of crap. From both Seavey & the ambulance chaser," posted "Bear in Fairbanks" on yet another forum. "I just lost any respect I had for him."

Craig Medred's views are his own. Contact him at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com