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Iditarod

Out for the year, injured Iditarod musher recounts head-on crash

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  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 27, 2014

When an SUV slammed into musher Karin Hendrickson's four-wheeler Tuesday evening, she was thrown into the air and her dogs ran from the scene of the accident. She landed in a ditch about 20 feet away, then began making phone calls.

"I just started trying to get ahold of local mushers to say, 'My dogs are loose and they're hurt and someone needs to come and get them because I can't,'" she said Thursday from her hospital bed at Providence Alaska Medical Center.

Hendrickson, a four-time Iditarod finisher, suffered three broken vertebrae and badly bruised legs. Local mushers and volunteers found all 14 of her dogs -- all escaping serious injury.

Though, when 44-year-old Hendrickson looks back at the crash, she said, "Nobody should have survived a wreck like that."

On the night of the accident, she returned home from her office in Wasilla where she works for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and immediately hooked up her dog team. The temperature hovered in the mid-20s and snow fell in spurts near her home, about 20 miles north of Willow.

"It was overcast, but it was essentially good visibility," she said. "It was dark. About a half-inch of snow (on the ground) and about a half-inch of ice under that, but the highways were pretty much dry."

Hendrickson rode a four-wheeler with 14 dogs hooked to the front. They traveled a trail that parallels the Parks Highway and varies in distance from the road. She has never had problems there before, she said.

At about 14 miles into their 20-mile run, the trail weaved closer to the highway. Hendrickson estimated they were between 4 and 6 feet from the road and heading south.

"So we're running along and I realized this truck was coming toward us and it didn't look like it would make the corner," she said. "They weren't really skidding, they just weren't quite turning."

Around Mile 91 of the highway, Mabel Quilliam, 68 of Talkeetna, lost control of her Mazda Tribute SUV, slipped off the road and hit Hendrickson's four-wheeler, according to Alaska State Troopers, who received a report of the crash around 7:30 p.m.

Hendrickson said the SUV rammed head-on into her four-wheeler.

"I could see it coming and there wasn't a dang thing I could do about it," she said.

Hendrickson and the four-wheeler flew up. She landed on her feet and then fell onto her back, she said.

"I was conscious of the fact that there was a four-wheeler tumbling out there too, but I couldn't tell where it was, and I knew my dogs were out there somewhere and I couldn't tell where they were," she said.

She landed in a ditch, and could hear vehicles stopping on the highway and people shouting. She knew that, for her, help would come, but she didn't know about the dogs. She called Caswell musher Tracey Schaeffer who mobilized a group to help round up Hendrickson's team.

On Thursday, the dogs were all accounted for at Hendrickson's Blue on Black Kennels. A handler was caring for them.

At the hospital, photographs of Hendrickson's dogs covered a portion of a wall close to her bed. A stuffed husky sat on the windowsill near a bag of dog treats that a friend had delivered. Messages were scrawled across a "Get Well" banner and flower arrangements crowded a counter.

Hendrickson said she expected to stay in the hospital for at least the next three to five days. She will have to wear a brace and will not participate in the 2015 Iditarod as planned, though she does hope to get back on the trails with her dogs next year.

"Definitely no racing this year," she said. "That's pretty hard for me."

In 2003, a year after Hendrickson traveled to Alaska to volunteer at the Iditarod with her mother, she permanently moved to the state -- selling all her belongings and quitting her job to become a handler.

By 2008, she had started to form a dog team of her own. Now, mushing consumes most of her non-working waking hours. She cares for 32 dogs at her kennel and she runs the dogs every day except Monday and Friday, which she reserves for laundry and grocery shopping.

Not mushing will be the hardest part of recovery, Hendrickson said.

"Mushing is really everything for me. It's how I define myself, how I think of who I am," she said. "I have a lot of energy and I stay really busy. Mushing takes all that energy. It takes everything you've got. If I didn't have mushing, I don't know what I would do."

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