Alaska News

Musher of sled dogs killed by snowmachine describes ‘head-on collision’

Three sled dogs died Monday and another was injured when a snowmachine struck a dog team on the Denali Highway, authorities said.

The incident marked the second time in the past month that a snowmachine and dog sled have collided on the road in Interior Alaska, killing and injuring dogs. The highway is an increasingly popular destination among winter users, including snowmachiners and dog teams.

No people were hurt in the most recent incident around 5:30 p.m. Monday roughly two miles east of Cantwell, Alaska State Troopers said. The snowmachine driver stopped after the collision and troopers said they had spoken with that person.

The dogs involved belonged to veteran musher Jim Lanier of Chugiak, though at the time of the incident were being driven by Mike Parker, who has trained with Lanier’s kennel for two years.

“This was an unspeakable tragedy. Myself, Jim, our families and the mushing community are mourning the loss of these wonderful animals,” Parker said in a statement he provided Tuesday.

Over the weekend, the dog team participated in the Alpine Creek Excursion Sled Dog Race, a 64-mile competition from Cantwell to a lodge near the middle of the 135-mile Denali Highway. Parker said what he described as a “head-on collision” happened when he was mushing back toward Cantwell just a few miles from the team’s parked dog truck.

“This snowmachine was in a group of riders that had passed us going both ways many, many times over the weekend prior to the incident,” he wrote.


The snowmachine hit four of the dogs running at the front of the team, the statement said. “One dog died upon impact and another shortly thereafter. With some assistance from another musher who arrived on the scene with his team, we loaded the dead, dying and injured dogs into sleds and mushed to the truck.”

Parker identified the two dogs killed in the collision as a 4-year-old male named John Lennon and a 7-year-old female named Buttercup. The first dog died immediately, he said, and Buttercup “died in my arms on the trail.”

From there, along with another musher who arrived with his team, Parker drove south toward veterinary care in Wasilla. A 3-year-old female named Solo died on the way there. A fourth injured dog survived with significant injuries.

“Words cannot describe how important and meaningful these animals are to me and the Laniers. From a sled dog perspective, they were all fantastic leaders that have competed in Iditarod, won the Kobuk 440, and shined in countless other races,” Parker said. “As companions, they were sweet gentle and full of personality.”

Parker said the surviving dog, a 7-year-old named KitKat, is expected to recover.

Troopers said Tuesday that there were no immediate arrests or citations, but alcohol did not appear to be involved. An investigation continues.

Last month, two dogs died and seven were injured on the Denali Highway in another collision that involved a snowmachine striking a team belonging to Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey. A Healy man on the snowmachine involved in that incident was cited for negligent driving, troopers have said.

“It’s just tragic, again,” said Mark Nordman, race marshal for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, who spoke with Lanier shortly after the incident to help coordinate transport to veterinary care.

The Denali Highway is owned by the state and not maintained during winter, when it is used primarily by recreational snowmachiners, hunters and dog mushers. While many of the speed limit signs posted along the route indicate 45 mph, that standard is for dry pavement.

Guidance from the transportation department for snowmachiners cites Alaska statutes that, “No person may drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent considering the traffic, roadway, and weather conditions.”

Several mushers interviewed for this story said snowmachines routinely travel at high speeds along the road during the winter.

Iditarod champion Jeff King, who lives in the area and has “spent thousands of miles running dogs on the Denali Highway”, was not present when Monday’s collision occurred but said it sounded similar to experiences he’s had mushing along the road.

“It is speed that is an issue for the snowmobilers. That is what their sin has been. The dog mushers need better visibility,” King said by phone Tuesday.

During the 2016 Iditarod, an inebriated snowmachine driver plowed into his team on the Yukon River, killing one dog and injuring others.

Snowmachiners need to slow down as they approach a sled, he said. Often, he noted, when mushers come to a stop as a snowmachine approaches head-on, the dogs will fan out, sometimes moving out of line and toward the approaching hazard.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m disgusted that anyone is going so f---ing fast that they don’t see the dogs when they see a sled,” King said.

Snowmachine and musher traffic has increased along the Denali Highway over the years, King said, which has been a “double-edged sword.” More people mean more opportunities for rescue if travelers become stranded, but also increase the risk of collision.


“Every snowmachine should be treated as a threat … a musher needs to know: you hear a snowmachine, you take evasive action,” King said.

He gave several examples: using hand gestures, wearing flashing headlamps and making sure mushers and dogs have high-visibility lights.

“It is a two-way road, and I encourage mushers and snowmobilers to approach this problem and put an end to this, because it is an unbelievable tragedy,” King said. “It’s not a war or anything.”

Not all mushers are just passing through along the highway. Cody Strathe is among a handful that keep their kennel and live on the road. He said even though his property is by a blind corner, he regularly sees snowmachiners driving far over 65 mph down the trail.

“We’re definitely on edge, running dogs out on the highway,” Strathe said.

He and his partner, fellow musher Paige Drobny, have put in additional training trails off the highway and rely on them more when the road gets busy.

“The thing that we think is important,” Strathe said, “is driving at a safe speed for the conditions, so that you can actually be in control.”

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Contact her at