Karin Hendrickson, a four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finisher, remained hospitalized on Wednesday after being struck by a vehicle while on a training run along the Parks Highway. None of her 14 dogs were seriously injured in the accident, though it is unlikely she will compete in the 2015 Iditarod.
Hendrickson appears to have broken her back, though whether she will need surgery or not was unclear Wednesday afternoon, according to friend and longtime co-worker Lori Aldrich. Despite deep bruising in one of Hendrickson's legs, it was not broken, according to Aldrich. Beyond her back, the 44-year-old Willow musher appeared to have no other serious injuries.
"Hopefully she'll be improving soon," said Aldrich, who visited Hendrickson at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage on Wednesday morning.
Around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Alaska State Troopers responded to a report of a car colliding with an ATV at Mile 91 of the Parks Highway north of Willow. According to the trooper dispatch, Mabel Quilliam, 68, of Talkeetna, lost control of her Mazda Tribute SUV and slipped off the road, striking Hendrickson, 44, who was training her dog team on an ATV just off the road heading south.
Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters did not know how fast Quilliam was driving when she went off the roadway. She noted that road conditions "weren't the best" and that no drugs or alcohol are suspected in the crash.
Mushers in the Willow area responded quickly to news of Hendrickson's accident.
The main line connecting all the dogs to the ATV snapped during the collision, according to Caswell musher Tracey Schaeffer. That sent the team of 14 dogs running unattended down a trail next to the highway.
Schaeffer said she got a call Tuesday night from Hendrickson that was short and almost unintelligible. But Schaeffer said she managed to hear the words "accident," "loose dogs" and "go get my dogs."
Schaeffer quickly mobilized to help round the dogs up, including assistance from two-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey.
Most of the dogs stayed connected to the main line, but a few became undone. Schaeffer said it was tricky to try to collect the sled dogs, which were still energized by their run. With the help of several other mushers and Hendrickson's handler, they were able to round up all the dogs, which escaped the accident with only a few minor injuries.
Talkeetna musher Kathleen Holden responded with her husband, Iditarod veteran Jerry Sousa, after emergency responders contacted them Tuesday night to help collect the dogs.
Holden said the area of the crash is located on a stretch of highway known for being a bad corner, especially in icy conditions.
Sousa said he talked to Hendrickson at the scene, who was alert and attentive. He said her primary concerns were about what would happen to her dogs. Holden said Hendrickson immediately handed Holden her hat and head lamp so she would have an easier time finding her sled dogs.
"Karin was amazingly stoic," Holden said. "Her thoughts were all about her dogs."
Hendrickson works for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's pesticide control program and ran her sixth Iditarod in 2014, according to her biography on the race's website. She had been entered to race in the 2015 Iditarod as well.
Iditarod Race Marshall Mark Nordman said when he visited Hendrickson on Wednesday morning, just hours after the accident, her mood was "typical positive Karin." She told him she was relieved to hear her dogs were OK, but disappointed that she won't be running the Iditarod next year in order to regroup from the accident.
Nordman said the area of the accident was a place where Hendrickson frequently trained. He said mushers, who move slower than most other forms of transportation on local trails, are generally on the lookout for possible collisions, whether on remote trails used by snowmachines or close to roads with potential crossings. He said it's not unheard for mushers and their teams to have collisions, but it's not the norm.
"(For Karin) it was just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Nordman said.
Seavey, who lives in Willow, said he's put thousands of training miles on his dogs by running alongside the highway. He said the trail shifts from being far from the road to being near it, but even then he still considers it to be safe. Seavey said with underpasses and creeks dotting the road, he has never had to cross it.
Sousa said it appears Hendrickson had taken safety precautions, including having an orange safety flag on her ATV.
"She is very conscious of the risk she's taking," Sousa said. "The trail is where the trail is at, there's really nowhere else to train with a full-time job."
Aldrich said when she visited the musher in the hospital Wednesday morning, Hendrickson was in pain but "lifted up" by the tremendous outpouring of support she had received.
Aldrich called Hendrickson the "toughest Alaska chick" she knows. She thought the recovery portion -- where she will feel better, but still need help managing dog chores -- would likely be challenging for the very active Hendrickson.
"I don't think (the accident) will keep her down for long," Aldrich said.