All it took was one chunk of driftwood to shatter the 2013 Iron Dog hopes of two-time champion Tyler Huntington in a bone-crushing snowmachine crash in Northwest Alaska on Monday.
Riding in the wind and the track-wash of Iron Dog partner Evan Booth during a coastal training run, the 27-year-old racer never saw the obstruction just north of the remote village of Shaktoolik. He hit it while traveling an estimated 80-to-90 mph and went flying, shattering his pelvis.
What followed was a struggle to survive that ended with Huntington in surgery at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Tuesday. He was recovering there Wednesday after more than seven hours under the knife. His wife, Lisa, who was at his bedside, said the prognosis for recovery is good, but it is likely to take months for Tyler to heal.
"He's not up to talking right now,'' she added, understandable given what he had been through the previous three days.
Shaktoolik is a notoriously windswept village of about 250 people on a spit of sand hard along the Bering Sea. The nearest community of any size is Nome, population 3,700, about 130 roadless miles to the west. Anchorage, the state's largest city, is more than 400 air miles southeast.
After Huntington's crash, Booth had to first make sure his partner was medically stable, then go to Shaktoolik to get help from villagers. They towed a dogsled to the scene of the crash, put Huntington onto a stretcher loaded into the dog sled to begin a long journey to hospital. He was towed into the village behind the snowmachine and then evacuated by airplane to Anchorage.
About the time that was happening, Huntington's old Iron Dog racing partner, Chris Olds from Eagle River, and Olds' new Iron Dog teammate, Mike Morgan from Anchorage, were heading through the village of Koyuk not far to the north of Shaktoolik after a Bering Sea training ride of their own. Arnie Nassuk of Koyuk snapped a photo of them as they zoomed through and posted it to the Iron Dog race's Facebook page, which led Iron Dog organizers to pick it up and note on their webpage: "Tough Training -- Iron Dog's infamous tag line continues to live up to the hype of being the toughest snowmobile race on earth."
Training for the Feb. 15 race has been particularly rugged this year because of a snow drought across much of the state. The 2,000-mile Iron Dog travels from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks in a week's time, with racers regularly hitting speeds similar to what Huntington attained during his ill-fated training run.
Huntington's injuries -- including the broken pelvis -- underline how tough the race is, while his survival illustrates the value of a race rule requiring competitors to compete as teams. The logic behind that is simple. A partner is vital for providing first aid and, if necessary, going for help along a race course through near total wilderness.
On their own
Between Big Lake and Nome, the race route follows the historic Iditarod Trail. There are few roads -- none of them connected to anything and most only a few miles long -- and only about a dozen villages along the 1,000-mile trail. The countryside is no more peopled on the second half of the race from Nome back to Fairbanks, first along the Iditarod Trail and then the frozen Yukon River. Racers are on their own and need each other, as Huntington and Booth clearly demonstrated.
Huntington's injuries, though serious, are not the worst associated with the Iron Dog. Former three-time champ Bob Gilman from Wasilla suffered life-threatening injuries in competition during the early 2000s and retired afterward. Idahoan Darrick Johnson crashed out of last year's race with five broken ribs and serious internal injuries. His hometown newspaper, The Couer d' Alene Press, reported he had "a lacerated liver and a punctured kidney."
He spent days in the critical care unit at the Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage before he could go home. It was unclear what, if anything, Johnson hit to cause his crash. With Huntington, it was obvious. Booth told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner he saw the driftwood on the beach about three miles north of Shaktoolik and assumed Huntington would see it, too. He didn't.
"It was just a typical pile of driftwood left behind from a tidal surge, a bunch of logs laid down any-old way," Booth told News-Miner reporter Tim Mowry. "It was just one of those deals."
The rest of Mowry's story, with considerably more detail about the effort made to save Huntington, can be found here.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com