Mushers give mixed reviews to security cameras installed along the Iditarod trail

TAKOTNA — The Iditarod Trail Committee has beefed up security along the trail this year, including installing cameras at some checkpoints such as Takotna, a village of about 75 people.

The three security cameras, attached to a portable tripod, stood in front of a church that mushers use as a temporary bunkhouse. The lenses stared at sled dog teams resting nearby.

Mushers gave the cameras mixed reviews.

"I didn't know that was going to be here until I got here," said Bethel racer Pete Kaiser, referencing the cameras behind his sled dog team. "Obviously it doesn't hurt anything, but it seems like kind of a waste of time and energy that could be put to something more useful."

Swedish musher Mats Pettersson, who stood nearby, said the cameras were "really unnecessary."

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The devices are part of the Iditarod's new security measures, announced in November, soon after race officials revealed sled dogs on four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey's team tested positive for tramadol, a prescription-only painkiller prohibited by the race. The results stemmed from urine samples taken from the dogs in the Nome dog lot after they completed the 2017 Iditarod.

"We have to do a better job of protecting property and of protecting the dogs," Chas St. George, Iditarod Trail Committee chief operations officer, said at the time.

Nearly a year after Seavey's dogs tested positive for tramadol, exactly how the drug got into the dogs' systems remains a mystery. No one has taken responsibility for it.

Iditarod officials have not penalized Seavey because, they said, they don't know who gave the drug to the dogs. Seavey has vehemently denied any involvement and at one point speculated it could have been an act of sabotage.

Seavey dropped out of the 2018 Iditarod in protest of race officials' handling of the test results and is instead competing in the Finnmarkslopet sled dog race in Norway that starts Friday.

In an email Wednesday, the Iditarod Trail Committee said it could not go into specifics about this year's new security measures, including which checkpoints had cameras.

"The Iditarod Trail Committee has added additional security measures at the more popular checkpoints, including security cameras at key checkpoints along the trail and increased race personnel at the checkpoints," the email said.

"In the interest of keeping these security measures effective, the ITC is not providing any additional information regarding the specific locations of the security measures."

It's unclear how much the race spent on the cameras and a spokeswoman did not immediately respond to that question Thursday.

In an earlier interview, St. George said race officials planned to install cameras at checkpoints, such as Iditarod, and at the end of the race, in Nome. This year, mushers also used new red-colored zip ties to close the bags of gear and food that they sent before the race began to communities along the trail.

If mushers found those zip ties broken when they got their bags, they were to notify someone immediately, St. George said.

At Takotna on Wednesday, Willow musher Ramey Smyth said he believes the security is necessary — at least until more information surfaces regarding the positive drug test.

"In this day and age when you have transportation that is relatively easy, you never know who could be messing with the dogs," he said. "So it's best to have the security cameras, that's just the way it is."

Smyth stood next to Ray Redington Jr., of Wasilla. Their dogs lay curled up on beds of straw, like dozens of others. Takotna residents, Iditarod veterinarians, reporters and other visitors walked among the dog teams. Some people took photographs. Some talked to mushers.

The three eyes of the security cameras watched it all.

Redington said the cameras made him "kind of sad."

"Because most everybody here is pretty good," he said. "I was watching it today, everybody is helpful with one another and talking."

Redington reminisced about the early Iditarod races his grandfather and father competed in. They came through villages and stayed in people's homes then, he said, and "did not worry about anything."

He said he feared that added security could eventually restrict access to mushers and their dogs to a point where people could no longer walk among teams.

"I think that would take away from the race," he said.

Defending champion Mitch Seavey, of Sterling, said he liked the security cameras. He described them as "a good step" that might serve as a deterrent. But, he said, it would prove difficult to "convict a bad person" based on the footage recorded on the cameras.

"I could walk down here right now and throw a dozen meatballs to my left and a dozen meatballs to my right and nobody could ever convict me that I gave an illegal substance to anybody, which could happen in the Nome dog lot," he said.

Willow musher Linwood Fiedler said he felt safe on the Iditarod trail, and the security cameras certainly did not make him feel any safer.

"I'm just not that worried about it to be purely honest with you," he said. "I can't imagine someone is going to come to Takotna, Alaska, and sabotage my dog team."

He said the bolstered security felt like a "knee-jerk reaction."

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.