UNALAKLEET — About 11 miles before reaching this Bering Sea community, snowmachiner Dave Branholm was puzzled to find a team stopped along the Iditarod Trail, so he pulled over his snowmachine to check things out.
About 30 minutes earlier, Nicolas Petit, the driver of the team and a top contender in this year's Iditarod, had pressed his emergency locator button to officially withdraw from the race.
Branholm asked Petit what happened — a question asked by race followers ever since the Girdwood musher scratched at 6:45 p.m. Saturday.
"He was so tired, he wasn't thinking straight is what happened," said Branholm, a three-time Iditarod finisher. "The dogs looked fine."
A sixth-place finisher last year, Petit was putting together another solid race. At one point along the 80-mile stretch from Kaltag to Unalakleet, he was in third place behind Aliy Zirkle and Martin Buser.
Branholm said he passed beds of straw that a musher had laid down for dogs to rest, and then about eight miles later encountered Petit's team, stopped and unwilling to go any farther. Branholm speculated that Petit may have roused his dogs too soon after bedding them down.
Petit, a 34-year-old carpenter, was in Unalakleet on Sunday waiting for a flight to Anchorage. He said Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman told him he is not allowed to speak to the media.
All Petit was willing to say was that his dogs were dealing with a "dietary issue," and that's why he scratched. He said he heard mumblings in Unalakleet that something was wrong with him, but at the airport he said he fed his dogs a new kind of food on the trail and some of them had "issues" with it.
"The dogs looked great, but if the musher thinks there's an issue, people should respect that," Petit said. "I don't have kids. They (the dogs) are my kids."
Petit ended the interview there.
Norman said Sunday that he didn't tell Petit not to talk to the media. He thinks Petit may have misunderstood a conversation they had shortly after Petit reach Unalakleet.
"It's a total misunderstanding," Norman said. "He came in and he said, 'There's media down there,' and I told him, 'You're up here now, you have the night off, take care of your dogs. You don't need to go talk to anyone.' ''
Nordman said his intent was to let Petit know he was under no obligation to speak with reporters.
After leaving Nulato early Saturday morning after resting for 3.5 hours, Petit blew through the next checkpoint in Kaltag. A move like that usually includes a stop at the Tripod Flats or Old Woman along the way, but according to Petit's GPS tracker, he appeared to be go to Unalakleet without stopping.
Lance Mackey made the Nulato-to-Unalakleet run famous in 2010. His dogs ran the 120 miles nonstop in 18 hours, which catapulted the Fairbanks musher from third to first and resulted in his fourth Iditarod championship.
Branholm said that when he encountered Petit, the musher asked him to stay with him until assistance arrived.
"I just felt so bad for him," Branholm said. "The guy's about ready to cry. You darn-near want to cry with him. It's just a shame."
"Nick has come a long way," he added. "Gosh, if I could've got there a little bit earlier, I could have kept him from pushing that button."
A volunteer eventually arrived on a snowmachine and transported Petit to Unalakleet along with his dogs.
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com.
By CASEY GROVE and KEVIN KLOTT