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Dropped Iditarod dog suffocated under snow

Casey Grove

Iditarod officials say a dropped sled dog suffocated early Friday in a snowdrift piled up by strong wind in Unalakleet, a village on the western Alaska coast and a checkpoint in the 1,000-mile race.

Fairbanks musher Paige Drobny left the dog, 4-year-old Dorado, at the checkpoint Monday on her way to a 34th-place finish in Nome about 260 miles down the trail. Race officials say poor weather in the days that followed made it difficult to move dropped dogs out of Unalakleet. After a night of blowing snow late Thursday and early Friday, a volunteer uncovered the dead dog at daybreak.

An examination of the body showed the cause of death was "asphyxiation as the result of being buried by snow in severe wind conditions," the Iditarod Trail Committee said in a written statement Saturday. Drobny's husband, Cody Strathe, told the Daily News via Facebook that mushers would be pushing for changes to how volunteers care for dropped dogs.

Dorado was a lively dog "who gave everything he had for us, we'll honor him by doing the same for him," Strathe said.

Drobny thought the 55-pound Dorado seemed stiff running to Unalakleet, so she decided to leave him there on Monday, according to a blog post on Squid Acres' website. The site says Dorado ran another 1,000-mile race, the Fairbanks-to-Whitehorse Yukon Quest, with Drobny in 2012. A bio for the dog on Squid Acres' website describes Dorado as "a shy but happy guy" who ran in the main part of the team or as a wheel dog, closest to the sled.

"He makes us laugh because he is a pogo stick at hookup and hops down the trail for the first 100 yards of a run," the website says.

Veterinarians in Unalakleet deemed Dorado healthy and volunteers took him to the dropped-dog lot on the northwest part of the community, near the airport on the Norton Sound coast, said Stuart Nelson, the Iditarod's head veterinarian, reached by phone from Nome on Saturday. The veterinarians would have checked Dorado at mealtimes, and the dog continued to show no signs of having medical problems, Nelson said.

"They can drop a dog for any reason," Nelson said. "The point is, this dog was healthy prior to this incident."

As teams reach the wind-blasted coast at Unalakleet, the trail and weather conditions change, making it a common checkpoint for mushers to drop dogs having trouble or that might balk at an unfamiliar run up the coast. This year, the trail along the Yukon River was trenched with overflow and challenged the teams midway through the race.

A quick storm stopped an airplane from landing in Unalakleet on Thursday that would have flown away with many of the dropped dogs, Nelson said. Instead, there were at least 135 dogs in the lot that night, and volunteers, veterinarians and villagers scrambled to protect them from the wind and blowing snow, he said. About 100 dogs stayed the night inside two airport storage buildings, and the volunteers put roughly 35, including Dorado, in a spot behind the buildings they thought would be protected from the wind, Nelson said.

Nelson said the dog's death was not the result of negligence, as some have claimed.

"This was a fight on everybody's part to make a bad situation right, as much as possible. It was a fluke that the storm came up very suddenly," Nelson said. "People worked very hard for a good outcome."

According to reports Nelson heard from the volunteers in Unalakleet, the blowing snow buried about a half-dozen dogs in snowdrifts by Friday morning. Dorado was dead -- the first death of a dog in the Iditarod since 2009 -- but none of the other dogs they uncovered showed medical problems, Nelson said.

"Dogs that are in the coastal areas, they live like that all the time. This dog probably wasn't used to being in those kind of conditions," Nelson said. "It would be very unusual that a dog wouldn't be able to just curl up, let the snow blow over, and weather the storm just fine. You look at Iditarod history, teams have been caught out there in storms, and that's what happens. For some reason, it didn't work for this dog. Maybe being from the Interior, (it was) not used to high winds."

In Nelson's 18 years as head veterinarian on the race, he said he only remembers one other time a dog died while awaiting transport out of a checkpoint. That dog escaped from a lot and suffered fatal hypothermia when it ran into open water, he said.

Nelson said he expected animal rights activists to criticize the race, as they are apt to do when a dog dies. But the veterinarian said he knew the volunteers worked hard to protect Dorado and the other dogs in a difficult situation, he said.

"It hit hard and fast and went longer than it was predicted to. It was absolutely extenuating circumstances," Nelson said. "The whole thing is just sad. It's very, very sad. I thought we were close to four years in a row without losing a dog."

Drobny said Friday via Facebook she was "deeply saddened." The musher did not respond to interview requests Friday or by Saturday afternoon.

It's so far unclear if the Iditarod Trial Committee is considering any changes for the care of dropped dogs. Race marshal Mark Nordman did not return phone, email or text messages seeking comment Saturday.

"We have had a very good system that has worked very well for years and years," Nelson, the veterinarian, said. "Of course we're going to review the circumstances. But, like I said, the canceled flights are the reason these dogs were still there. And we can't control the weather."

Strathe, Drobny's husband and fellow Squid Acres musher, said it was a "sad scene" among the mushers in Nome.

"Nothing can be done now to change this, we are still collecting the facts and will be putting pressure on ITC to make recommended changes before the next race occurs," Strathe said. "We have a tremendous amount of support amongst this year's mushers, and we just hope that this horrible accident can help future sled dog events."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com