When Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Hugh Neff was found on the ice outside of the Bering Sea village of Golovin late in this year's race, he was sitting in the bag on his dogsled with his sleeping bag down around his knees and the cotton undergarments beneath his parka frozen stiff.
"It was like was he was frozen down in a coffin," said Dave Branholm, the former dog musher who rescued Neff.
Branholm is a veteran of five Iditarod races between 1993 and 1997. He was alone on the trail on a snowmachine this year to watch the race. Like some others, Branholm prefers to travel this way to avoid babysitting companions. His aid was enlisted by race officials in White Mountain after Neff failed to show up there on schedule and a global satellite tracking device showed his team parked on the ice of Golovin Lagoon, a bad place to camp.
Neff's rescue has since become an issue of some controversy, with Neff claiming he nearly died; his girlfriend, Nicole Faille, faulting the Iditarod for not rescuing him soon enough; and Sebastian Schnuelle, a reporter for Iditarod.com, taking Neff to task for getting into trouble in the first place.
The latter has led some on various Facebook forums dealing with the Iditarod to accuse Schnuelle of "cyberbullying" Neff, while details of what actually happened out on Golovin Lagoon remain sketchy.
"It should have been a positive story," said Branholm. "I was just glad I could help out."
'Bawling like a baby'
A neighbor of four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser of Big Lake, a resort community north of Anchorage, Branholm was staying at the school in the Iditarod's penultimate checkpoint when he was drafted at 5 a.m. to go check on Neff.
Neff's satellite tracker provided a general idea of where the musher was to be found, but in wind and blowing snow, Branholm said, it was not easy finding him. Wind had pushed the musher's sled off the normal race route, and it ended up parked behind some broken, uplifted ice where it was hard to see.
"(Neff) said he'd heard snowmachines going back and forth all night," Branholm recalled, "and it drove him crazy."
Neff's rescuer found Neff an old-fashioned way. Branholm kept stopping on the ice and spinning brodies, the headlight on his snowmachine slashing through the darkness as the sled spun. It eventually caught the glint of some reflective material on Neff's sled.
"He was in pretty tough shape when I got to him," Branholm said. "He was glad to see me. I had to pull him out of that sled ... He started bawling like a baby."
Branholm's conclusion about what happened to put Neff in such a predicament is starkly simple: "He screwed up." In a telephone interview with Alaska Dispatch, Branholm offered that not as an accusation, but as an observation. "I saw a lot of mistakes out there in a lot of teams just watching this year's race," he said. "They're getting too complacent after all this (warm) weather. They all have these little sleds they can't climb in."
Years ago, the standard Iditarod sled had a 6-foot basket. On that old-fashioned 6-footer, a musher could zip himself into a sled bag that was much like a cocoon. But the so-called "sit-down sled" effectively cut the sled bag in half. The sleds remain the same length, but the front portion, with the sled bag, now only accounts for 4 feet or so.
Branholm did note that the several Norwegian mushers in the race took note of this and carried insulated bivouac sacks in case of an emergency. He suggested the Iditarod might consider making those required equipment for mushers using sit-down sleds in future races.
'Horrible' glare ice
Conditions along the coast during this year's race should not have been life-threatening. They fell within the parameters of what would be considered "normal" for the Bering Sea coast in March. Winds to 35 mph are not uncommon. Neither are the temperatures of minus 5 to nearly 10 degrees on the night and day in question.
All that was abnormal was the glare ice on Golovin Bay and Golovin Lagoon. Branholm described the conditions as "horrible" for travel with a dog team and a dogsled. Many mushers, he said, had to walk their teams across much of the ice or -- in the case of injured musher Aaron Burmeister from Nome -- limp them across to where there was snow in the swamps at the head of the bay.
The smart -- or lucky -- mushers had spiked shoes on their feet. Young Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom, 27, strapped on one cleated snowshoe, hooked the snowshoe to the runner of his dogsled, and used it like an ice-grabbing skeg, enabling him to ride and steer the sled across the glare ice behind his team, said Branholm, who had never seen that done before.
Clearly, he said, the Norwegian had some experience with glare ice that others in this year's Iditarod lacked. The ice, Branholm added, was so slippery dogs were regularly falling down or getting knocked off their feet in the gusty winds.
Neff's problems began when he couldn't keep up with several teams just in front him as they came off Golovin Bay, went through the village of Golovin, and exited onto Golovin Lagoon. When the teams in front pulled away, it appears that Neff's dogs decided they didn't want to keep marching.
A reporter for KTUU said Neff described "hurricane-force winds" unlike anything he'd seen in previous long-distance races, but the winds were actually less than half hurricane force.
Efforts to get Neff to talk to Alaska Dispatch about what happened have proven futile. He sent a text message to "suggest you might want to look into the racing history of the famous German writer" (that would be Schnuelle) "and his 'impeccable racing history.' When it comes to Mother Nature, we are all at her mercy. But there are reasons for some to try and destroy others' careers/reputations."
A query as to details about his sleeping bag, brought only this:
"It's the bag I've had for my whole career. I'm racing this weekend, everything will be explained soon enough. Have a good weekend."
Branholm said it appeared Neff soaked his undergarments with sweat trying to tow his dog team across the ice. Then, instead of getting out of those wet clothes -- always a daunting task in bad weather -- he pulled his parka over them as they began to freeze underneath, then got in his half-fitting sled bag.
"That was a mistake," Branholm said. Once in the short sled in half-frozen clothes, Neff couldn't get into his sleeping bag.
"It was rough on him," Branholm said, "but the dogs came through fine."
Once Branholm got Neff out of the sled, "I ripped his sleeping bag off him and put five dogs down on it," he said. Branholm then zipped the other three into the sled bag so they'd all stay warm until someone arrived to get them, loaded Neff on his snowmachine, and took off as fast as he could for White Mountain, about 10 miles down the trail.
Officials there said they made Neff drink hot fluids and watched him shiver until he finally recovered. That description would fit someone suffering from mild to moderate hypothermia. More severe hypothermia, the kind that is truly life-threatening, requires physical re-warming.
Branholm said he's just glad Neff is OK, and that he was able to help out. "It was an awfully strange race this year," he said.
CORRECTION: This story was corrected on March 21 to reflect that Iditarod rules do not dictate sled length.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing