AD Main Menu

Like it or not, SOS button gives Iditarod mushers a safety net

Kevin Klott
Bob Hallinen

Scott Janssen cried as he sized up his situation one last time: numb fingers, wet snowsuit, broken bone, woozy head, far from help.

Janssen pressed his emergency locator button and ended his journey to Nome, way before the finish line. A search and rescue team eventually located the 52-year-old mortician, whisked him off the Iditarod trail and flew him to an Anchorage hospital.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Janssen said by phone from his home in Anchorage, where he's recovering from a broken foot. "I cried when I did it. I'm a tough guy, but when I pushed that button, it meant that I was no longer a musher in the 2014 Iditarod."

Since the 2009 race, Iditarod officials have required each musher to travel the 1,000-mile trail with a Global Positioning System device. At first the purpose of the GPS was to make the race more fan friendly for people following the race online. But this year, thanks to a GPS device called SPOT, the game has changed.

This year all mushers are equipped with SPOT, which can send messages in places where there is no cellphone coverage. It has been on the market for years, but as far as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race goes, it's the first time mushers have been required to carry this type of safety net.

Out on the trail, mushers have been calling it "hitting the button," said Two Rivers musher Sonny Lindner, who voiced his opinion about it while serving his 24-hour layover in Ruby.

"As far as I'm concerned, it could be in that blue (trash) bag right over there," the 18-time Iditarod finisher said. "But I guess it's good for people watching."

Also good for mushers when they run into trouble and need assistance, right?

Lindner wasn't so sure. He's old school.

"There's enough teams going by, if something happened, usually somebody's going to stop and help or tell somebody to help," he said.

A black and orange device small enough to fit inside a dog bootie, SPOT made a timely Iditarod debut. Trail conditions from Rainy Pass, down the Dalzell Gorge and through Farewell Burn, were horrendous -- a GoPro video of Jeff King driving his team through the Dalzell serves as proof.

Janssen is one of five mushers who have used SPOT for assistance this year, according to Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley. Jake Berkowitz, Gus Guenther, Cindy Abbott and Lev Shvarts did as well.

According to his Facebook page, Berkowitz pushed the help button because his sled was broken beyond repair out on Farewell Burn. The help button sends out messages for non-life threatening assistance. The other four sent an S.O.S.

Guenther pressed the S.O.S. button on his SPOT after crashing his sled and breaking his fibula seven miles outside of Rohn. Soon after that, a fat-tire biker came by and asked if he needed help.

"He told me when you press that S.O.S. button, search and rescue comes," Guenther said. "I just wanted to tell (Iditarod officials) that I can't continue and that I'm OK."

The biker had a device that could send text messages via satellite. Guenther texted his girlfriend and asked her to call Iditarod headquarters and relay that message. When word reached Rohn, a checkpoint volunteer hopped on a snowmachine, found Guenther, hooked his team up to the snowmachine, guided them along the snowless trail back to the checkpoint, then came back for Guenther.

"That was probably the greatest disappointment of my life," Guenther said of scratching. "But I didn't have a choice. I couldn't keep going."

In Ruby, Lindner was asked if he would ever press the emergency locator button in the case of an emergency.

"It would be the last thing that I do," he said.

Guenther told himself the same thing during the pre-race mushers meeting when competitors were taught the basics of SPOT.

"I never thought I'd be in that situation just because of the way I run my dogs," he said. "I have to say I'm glad I had it, but I was totally prepared. I had plenty of dog food. I could have made a fire. It wasn't that cold. I didn't need it, but it definitely saved me some hours sitting out there."

Jeff King of Denali Park offered his perspective while in Ruby.

"I don't see a downside unless it somehow psychologically lures somebody into doing something they wouldn't have done, knowing they have that," the four-time Iditarod champion said. "I can't imagine doing such a thing."

Neither could Janssen, until he slipped on some ice and broke his foot about 20 miles outside of Rohn.

On the ground in his wet clothes, trying to keep his broken foot stable, Janssen called out for help. Jamaican musher Newton Marshall heard him and stopped. Janssen didn't want to inconvenience him or anyone else traveling the trail, so he asked Marshall to fetch his SPOT, which was pinned to the inside of his sled bag and nestled inside a dog bootie.

Janssen knew that if he pressed that button, his race was finished, according to Rule 35, which says the "activation of any help or emergency signal, including accidental activation, will make a musher ineligible to continue and will result in an automatic withdrawal from the race."

"We were told explicitly, 'You push that button and you're out of the race. And somebody's coming to get you and there's liable to be a big bill,' '' King said.

Janssen, who was airlifted off the trail by Alaska Air National Guardsmen in a Pave Hawk helicopter, expected to receive a bill from the U.S. government, but learned later there would be no charge.

"The cost of the mission is entirely funded within the National Guard operating budget, and is considered extremely valuable combat readiness training," saidAlaska Guard spokeswoman Kalei Rupp.

Guenther said the SPOT speeds up communication along the trail. A year ago, he would have had to verbally pass the help message to a passing musher, who would have relay it to officials hours later at the next checkpoint. Then again, a year ago the Farewell Burn had snow.

"If there had been snow on the trail, I might have been able to take them across the Burn, at least to a shelter cabin," Guenther said. "But that trail was hard enough with two good legs let alone one that was potentially broken."

Miles Checkpoint to next

Unalakleet

40

Shaktoolik

50

Koyuk

48

Elim

28

Golovin

18

White

55

Safety

22

Watch finish live

Live coverage of the Iditarod finish will air on GCI cable channel 1 and on KTVA Channel 11. The race typically ends sometime Tuesday.


By KEVIN KLOTT
Daily News correspondent