Iditarod mushers won't be allowed to carry dogs in trailers pulled behind their sleds in the 2017 race, after the race's board of directors approved rule changes last month.
The changes have struck a nerve with some top mushers, who say that for years they have safely and effectively used trailers to rest dogs as the team travels down the trail, allowing them to preserve their animals' energy and control team speed.
"The biggest issue is that it's not trying to solve any current problem," four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey said in an interview Tuesday about the new rules.
Seavey won the 2016 Iditarod in record time, strategically using a trailer behind his sled to carry dogs during stretches of the race. The second-place finisher, his father Mitch, also used a trailer. Seavey said they both believe it's the safest way to haul tired or injured dogs.
'Most humane way'
Trailers can look like large, covered dog cages on sled runners. Mushers and board members said this week that while trailers are still relatively new and only used by a small handful of mushers, they continue to grow in popularity on the Iditarod trail.
"The reason that we're using a trailer is because we do believe it is the safest and most humane way to carry a dog," Seavey said. "We see the healthiest dogs that we have ever seen in the final miles of the Iditarod. We're doing this because we think it's the best for our specific team."
However, the Iditarod board of directors disagreed. The nine-member board voted Oct. 28 to tweak the wording of the race rules to require that dogs only be hauled in the front sled while also requiring that mushers carry all mandatory items, including an ax and cold weather sleeping bag, in their front sleds. Previously, the gear could be carried anywhere and dogs had to be on the towline or hauled in "the sled."
Board member Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who's started 20 Iditarods, said racers can still use trailers to haul supplies including dog food and straw, just not dogs. Gebhardt, who's entered in the 2017 race, said the board was concerned trailers might detach from sleds on treacherous portions of the trail, scattering dogs and the mandatory supplies — which mushers must carry under race rules or face disqualification. Gebhardt said he has never actually heard of a trailer detaching or of a dog injured because it was carried in a trailer.
"You don't necessarily wait for something bad to happen to somebody before you make a law or a change to things," Gebhardt said in an interview Tuesday. "You don't wait until a dog dies someplace and then say, 'Oh, we need to change that.' "
Gebhardt likened carrying a trailer to riding a bicycle down an unwieldy path, carrying a baby carriage behind you.
"Are you looking at the baby carriage? Or are you looking up ahead?" he said.
Gebhardt said he owns a trailer, but does not use it when racing. He's concerned a well-rested lead dog could force the rest of the team to run too fast.
But Dallas Seavey called the rule change unprecedented — banning a style of racing used by only a handful of mushers without evidence that trailers were unsafe. He said he was concerned how the rule came about, as it was proposed during an Iditarod board of directors meeting and did not originate in the Iditarod Rules Committee.
According to minutes from the April 2016 board of directors meeting, Gebhardt said in his report from the rules committee, which he chairs, that some mushers didn't like the appearance of dogs being hauled in trailers, but trailers were "the safest way to carry dogs" and provided the ability to carry more supplies. He said the committee found more positives than negatives with the trailers and elected not to change the rule.
Aaron Burmeister, a veteran musher and member of the board of directors, said in an interview Wednesday that the board had discussed its concerns with trailers at numerous meetings over the past few years. Their main concern was safety, he said, and they wanted to do what was in the best interest of the dogs. Burmeister said he used a trailer during his last Iditarod, in 2015, to mostly carry straw and food for long runs.
However, he said, "I did haul a dog in it a couple of times, but it wasn't very comforting."
Used by about a dozen mushers
Burmeister said while there are Iditarod mushers who can use trailers well, the race is starting to see an influx in the number of mushers hooking the carriers to the back of their sleds to carry dogs, and that trend raised safety concerns with the board. He estimated 10 to 15 mushers use trailers.
Hooking a 3-to-5-foot trailer to the back of a racing sled is a technique spearheaded by four-time Iditarod champion and mushing innovator Jeff King. King said in an interview Tuesday that he probably started using a trailer to carry dogs in 2008 or 2009. He was looking for a way to better distribute weight.
"I wanted to get the musher's weight in the center of the ski — calling the sled runner the ski," he said. "It wasn't with the intention of carrying a dog, but it is so incredibly effective and makes the sled so much more maneuverable by putting some weight behind you."
King said that without a trailer, he didn't think he would have made it safely through a particularly tough and snowless portion of the Dalzell Gorge in the 2014 Iditarod. "That same day, mushers left and right were crashing into trees," he said.
He said his nearly 5-foot-long trailer also helped in the 2016 Iditarod when a snowmachiner plowed into his dog team in the middle of the night on the Yukon River as he traveled to the village of Nulato. King said he was able to put three of his injured dogs into the trailer, and carry them to the checkpoint. Having a trailer helped more than a cell phone ever would, he said, referring to another controversial rule passed by the Iditarod board of directors this year that allows two-way communication devices, including cell and satellite phones, in the 2017 race.
"At the same time, they want me to be free to carry a cell phone in case I want to call AAA. What did help was having a trailer. It wouldn't have helped to carry a cell phone," King said.
King said two dogs fit comfortably in his trailer, but in an emergency it could carry more. He said some of his sled dogs "will run back there and dive in there like your golden retriever heads to the couch." He said he has never heard of a sled dog injured while riding in a trailer.
Both Seavey and King said they were dismayed that the board did not reach out to mushers who use trailers for input on the rule change.
Stu Nelson, chief Iditarod veterinarian, said by phone Wednesday that he was not aware of any dogs injured in trailers during the race. He declined to comment on whether utilizing trailers to carry dogs was safe, saying that he did not have historical information to make a determination.
"I wasn't part of the decision-making process," Nelson said. "It's not my job to second guess."
Need to see your dogs?
Iditarod board of directors president Andy Baker said in an interview Wednesday that the board "just decided that the dogs have to be where you need to see them."
"If the dogs are behind you, you can't see them. Something could happen," he said. "It was really simply for those reasons."
Baker said that not all new rules come out of the rules committee.
For Seavey, the rule change means he will have to rework his strategy for the 2017 race after training since summer around a plan to use a trailer. He's concerned that the board has set a precedent so that any rule can be changed that drastically impacts a style of racing that had been legal.
"So what's next?" he said.