My heart goes out to Nash, Jeff King's sled dog killed by a rogue snowmachiner on the Iditarod Trail. I know what it's like to have a dog killed by a snowmachiner.
Seven years ago Jack, a Lab/boxer mix, and I were skijoring on one of the trails that lead to the Caribou Hills. Sadie, our little beagle mix, was running loose with us. A local snowmachine club funded by grants that boasted of multiple uses maintained the trail. Of course, trail use gravitates to the most energy-intensive user.
I loved Jack, and Jack loved me and my wife. In the evening after a day of skiing or hiking, Jack liked to lie on top of me on the couch while I read. That beautiful early spring day promised to end like that.
There were no cars in the trailhead parking lot, so I foolishly thought we didn't have much to worry about other than spring bears. We were two or three miles into our ski, far enough to have established a nice rhythm, man and dog in tune with each other and the landscape. Sadie was scooting around, happy she didn't have to pull and glad to be part of it.
We started up a low hill and, too late, I heard the whine of snowmachines. The first machine flew over the hill airborne going at least 80 mph. I saw the skis and the spinning track above me and my heart sank. He flew about 50 feet and landed on Jack and knocked me down as he went on by. The next machine flew over the hill and went over the top of me. The third machine landed and skidded to a stop in front of us.
For what seemed like a long time, Jack and I lay in the snow looking into each other's eyes trying to make sense of what had just happened. Then blood began oozing from Jack's mouth and he closed his eyes and died. I think I screamed.
The Nulato man who killed Nash and ran into both King's and Aliy Zirkle's teams claims to have blacked out from drinking all night. That, of course, is hard to believe. You can't operate a snowmachine at a reported 100 mph while blacked out. He repeatedly harassed Zirkle and King and their teams for two hours. What his motive was will likely come out in his trial.
But it is possible he had no motive other than to thrill himself to death by racing a powerful machine over a natural landscape with no moral restraint to guide his miserable life — just like the guys who killed Jack.
Today, ironically, mechanized travel, often at high speeds, is a regular practice in wildlife refuges and other public lands. Drinking and driving is all too common among all ethnicities. Harassment of wildlife is a sport among some and unintentional for others. I've been several ski days into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and seen a moose run for cover as a speeding snowmachine approached a frozen lake. The driver had no clue he was stressing a moose with little to eat at minus 15 degrees.
Native Alaska has a long tradition of living by strict values when out in what the Western world calls "wilderness." I've seen it. A young guy hot-rods on a snowmachine and an elder flags him down and lectures him on his responsibility to assure the safety of people, dogs and himself. Apparently the guy who killed Nash didn't get the message.
In non-Native Alaska, short-termers (those living here a generation or less) have brought with them the idea that the wilderness is a place free from restraint: "I just wanna ride my sled; I just wanna be free." Wilderness, in fact, is a place where the utmost in self-control and good judgment must be practiced. Wilderness is a place to have a strong moral compass, and that does not include hot-rodding snowmachines.
Snowmachine companies bear significant culpability. A short trip across the Internet indicates company advertisements depicting snowmachines as fast and sexy. Why does anyone need a 100 mph machine with a big motor between his or her legs unless it is to compensate for some form of inadequacy? We'd be a lot safer if people got therapy instead.
There are good uses for snowmachines: village travel, hunting or woodcutting among them. I've spent many hundreds of hours on a snowmachine grooming ski trails. Driving recklessly, killing dogs and being stupid are not on the list of approved activities.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.
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