The two top-finishing women in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were penalized during the race for sheltering their dogs inside a cabin during a ferocious windstorm — a move they say likely saved their dogs’ lives but caused their demotions in the final standings.
The penalties levied against veterans Mille Porsild of Denmark and Yukon musher Michelle Phillips were not widely publicized nor explained by race officials. That, in turn, has caused confusion and consternation, generating plenty of online criticism that a move ensuring dog safety diminished their accomplishments and earnings from the race purse.
In the final accounting, Porsild’s finishing position went from 14th to 17th, and Phillips moved from 17th to 18th. Those demotions equate to $3,450 less in prize money for Porsild and $1,000 less for Phillips.
According to race marshal Mark Nordman, who made the decision, the indoor rest constituted a competitive advantage over the three teams that trailed Porsild and Phillips into Nome.
“No doubt that Michelle and Mille did the right thing for their dogs,” said Nordman. “But it also affected the competition for racers going forward.”
Three of the four mushers who filed formal complaints alleging that Porsild and Phillips violated a race rule ultimately benefited from the adjustment.
In a separate incident, musher Riley Dyche of Fairbanks also brought his team indoors during harsh weather — a violation of race rules — and later failed to adequately inform organizers. He faced no change in his finishing position but must pay a fine of $1,000.
Sheltering on the Kwik
In a lengthy email Porsild sent to Nordman after she finished her race, she explained events that led her to violate race rules and bring her sled dogs inside.
“I lined out my team to be sheltered on the west side of the cabin but quickly assessed that it did not provide adequate protection for the dogs to safely survive the winds,” she wrote.
Porsild said she left the Koyuk checkpoint planning to mush straight through Elim to White Mountain. But a ferocious windstorm hit, obscuring the trail and markers. The area she was in is a wind funnel, with no protection from the elements. As she approached the Kwik River, about midway between Koyuk and Elim, Porsild came upon a shelter cabin and tried to park her team out of the wind behind the structure. But conditions kept getting worse.
“I realized that the cabin frame was not providing adequate protection for my dogs and the wind continued to increase,” Porsild wrote. “Based on my experience in wind I estimate it was sustaining at 40 mph at this time with stronger gusting.”
Fearing for their safety, Porsild brought her animals into the cabin, something she said she did not realize was a violation of the Iditarod’s Rule 37, which states in part, ”Dogs may not be brought into shelters except for race veterinarians’ medical examination or treatment.”
That, however, is seen by some mushers and race observers as being in potential conflict with the subsection that immediately follows in the rules: “There will be no cruel or inhumane treatment of dogs. Cruel or inhumane treatment involves any action or inaction, which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog.”
“There was no doubt to me that my dogs sitting unprotected in these conditions could lead to death or deaths of dog(s),” Porsild wrote.
Before competing in the Iditarod, Porsild had a career working with sled dogs on long-distance mushing expeditions in the far north. She won rookie of the year in her first Iditarod in 2020 and placed fifth in the 2021 race.
Less than an hour after arriving at the Kwik cabin, fellow racer Michelle Phillips burst through the door holding her lead dogs and asking if they could come inside, according to Porsild. Both had made the same determinations about the risk of the weather conditions and, in spite of their race plans, hunkered down to ride out the storm.
“With no natural wind breaks or materials available to shelter them I made what I felt was the best choice for my dog’s welfare in that extreme situation,” Phillips wrote on Facebook. “I unhooked my dogs and put them in the shelter where they could rest and recover safe from the hostile conditions outside. The wind continued to howl and shake the building all night.”
Phillips did not respond to an email requesting an interview. Porsild left Nome not long after arriving, having received news of a family emergency. She sent a written account of events over email from the hospital in Denmark, where her mother is on oxygen after a prolonged struggle with lung cancer.
On the morning of March 15, after the storm subsided, five mushers who had been waiting out the weather farther back along the trail passed the Porsild and Phillips as they readied their teams.
Four of those five — Matt Hall of Two Rivers, Mitch Seavey of Seward, Lev Shvarts of Willow and Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Willow — ultimately filed formal complaints about the rule violation at the Kwik shelter cabin. As a result of the penalty, Hall and Seavey were each moved a spot up in race standings, though Porsild finished ahead of them. Shvarts moved up two spots, though both Porsild and Phillips arrived to Nome first.
24 hours and 32 dogs
Riley Dyche’s circumstances were a little bit different but no less extreme.
On the run from White Mountain to Nome, his team was hammered by the notorious “blow hole,” a wind chute coming out of the Topkok Hills toward the beach.
“It was just wind scoured,” Dyche said by phone as he was driving north past Healy on his way home to Fairbanks on Thursday. “You couldn’t dig a snow cave, there was no big shelter for the dogs.”
He estimates it was blowing around 70 mph when he arrived at a shelter cabin and frantically tried to improvise a windbreak for his dogs, to no avail. A veteran of several thousand-mile races, Dyche said he has “never even had to consider” bringing animals into a cabin during an event before.
“I knew it was a violation of the rules to bring dogs in, but I had tried various things,” Dyche said.
During the next 24 hours he was in the cabin, as wind rattled the structure, he felt he’d made the right decision. Six of the teams behind him scratched after requesting help because of the conditions. Three of those racers — and their teams — were escorted by search and rescue snowmachiners to the same shelter cabin. There were four humans and 32 dogs inside, enough room to stay still but not really move, according to Dyche.
“I just kinda lay and waited,” Dyche said.
Eventually the wind broke, and he gathered his six dogs and raced to Nome. Upon arriving, he thought he explicitly recognized the violation by mentioning in a post-race interview that during his prolonged stay, dogs were piled up indoors. But because the message was not directly conveyed to the race marshal, he ultimately received the thousand-dollar penalty.
“His deal isn’t that he put them in the cabin, it’s that you need to make an official aware when you know you had a rule violation,” Nordman said.
The miscommunication was unfortunate, Dyche said, but he has no hard feelings.
The reason Porsild and Phillips were moved back, according to the race official in charge, is because their long break inside a cabin with a wood stove gave their dogs a recuperative rest that amounted to a competitive advantage over the racers closest to them.
“It was a good rest inside a heated building,” Nordman said in an interview.
“Because there was a situation of getting what’s considered a competitive advantage, they were just moved” behind the chase pack that followed them, he said. “The people that it affected were the people further back there.”
Since the race ended, some observers have argued online that the mushers who left Koyuk during a rising windstorm took a gamble, and bet wrong. Seavey, for example, started to depart, but turned back after deciding conditions were unfavorable. As he waited for the storm to subside, his dogs were outdoors at the checkpoint, not inside a shelter cabin.
Nordman said that in his capacity as race marshal, he had to figure out a penalty for the technical rule violation once complaints were filed, even though he believes Porsild and Phillips did the right thing.
“I have no doubt that they thought it was best for themselves and their teams, and I totally respect that,” he said. “I would have a really hard time with someone who wouldn’t put their dogs first no matter what the ramifications.”
Explicit protocols governing penalties against competitors are covered under Rule 51 of the Iditarod handbook. Though the rules spell out standards for time penalties, financial penalties, withdrawal, disqualification and censure, there is no explicit mention of shifting mushers’ positions as a sanction. However, throughout the rule book, broad latitude is given to the race marshal’s discretion and determinations. An appeals process is outlined in the document, too.
As for Dyche, Nordman said there were no racers close enough — either ahead of or behind him — that the musher’s extended stay inside the Nome Kennel Club’s shelter cabin closer to the finish line would have impacted standings in the wake of all the scratches among his nearest competitors. His penalty was limited to the fine he’ll have to pay ahead of his next Iditarod entry.
Porsild disagrees that her or Phillips’ teams got any benefits from riding out the storm inside a small cabin. She said she departed Koyuk with a well-rested team and likely would have gained positions by the time they ran into the White Mountain checkpoint, but for the intervention of a powerful storm that scrambled her strategy.
“Stopping and having the dogs in the shelter cabin gave Michelle and I no competition edge; on the contrary we both lost the edge we had — especially me and my team,” Porsild wrote to the Daily News from Denmark.
Porsild’s run time from the Kwik cabin to Elim was about the same as it was for Hall, Shvarts and Seavey.
“The dogs did not run any faster or were (not) more capable because they stayed inside the shelter cabin,” Porsild said.
She did not learn of the demotion until days later when Phillips reached out to her, and was unclear about why the penalty seemed to vary among the three mushers who had identical infractions.
Even close observers of the event were not given a clear explanation of why positions seemed to be adjusted as mushers appeared to be called up out of order at the awards banquet in Nome on Sunday.
“This evening as fans are watching the awards ceremony they will learn that my final standing was adjusted,” Phillips wrote on Facebook that day.
She went on to explain the shelter cabin incident and why she stands by her decision.
“This will be my last Iditarod,” she concluded at the end of the post.