An Iditarod sled dog that escaped from a checkpoint in Ruby midrace remains missing more than three weeks later.
The dog belonging to rookie musher Sébastien Dos Santos Borges of Chazey-Bons, France, slipped out of his coat and collar around noon March 13, according to Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race representatives.
Extensive search efforts in the weeks since — which have included Air Force helicopter flyovers, snowmachine trips and fundraising by Iditarod fans and volunteers, as well as help from local communities and Alaska musher Nicolas Petit — have turned up possible signs and sightings of Leon.
Still, those involved in the search say they still have hope the dog can be found.
Early this week, race officials said in a statement that the Iditarod “continues to track any leads regarding the location of Leon” and noted there had been recent sightings of dog tracks between Nikolai and McGrath.
Leon is a 3-year-old husky with yellow-gold fur, brown eyes and dark brown ears. His musher was taken off the trail and scratched near the end of the race during a powerful storm in the White Mountain area five days after Leon escaped.
Flyers are offering a $1,000 reward to whoever finds him. They describe Leon as very shy and encourage people not to chase him, but to take a photo and email the location to FindLeon@Iditarod.com — and leave out food for him.
“We got a couple new leads. And they’re credible leads, so they have to be explored,” said Katie Lloyd, Petit’s business partner.
Lloyd helped organize an “Operation Find Leon” fundraiser on Facebook that raised more than $8,000 from race fans toward search efforts and continues to provide updates on the search. She said she received overwhelming support from hundreds of Iditarod fans who continue to closely follow updates.
“I think this just proves how many people watching the Iditarod really watch it for the dogs, because the fans have not stopped talking about this. And they have not given up hope on this,” she said.
The money they raised was used to fly Petit to Nikolai with the help of a local tour company, Outbound Heli Adventures, which offered its service at a reduced rate. Petit followed the trail south to McGrath and north to Ruby the last weekend of March. Petit even brought along one of his dogs, Susie, to help with the search.
While Petit’s search proved unsuccessful, Lloyd said Wednesday she was “cautiously optimistic” that Leon was still out there — she said she’s heard stories of mushers’ dogs that went missing and were found a month later.
“You don’t want to get your hopes up at this point because it’s hard,” she said. “But these are hardy dogs, and so we just got to hope that it’s him.”
Lloyd said she’d recently received tips about a game cam picture of a dog resembling Leon, fresh dog tracks, and “a local kid claiming he saw a wolf” near Nikolai.
Dog tracks are distinguishable from wolf tracks — wolves have larger prints and tend to go in a straight line, while dog tracks are smaller and typically go in circles, which is how some locals could tell that the tracks they saw were likely a dog’s, she said.
While a snowstorm was likely to make air travel to the area difficult in the coming days, on Wednesday, some volunteers set out by snowmachine to follow up on a tip about dog tracks 6 miles outside of Nikolai, Lloyd said.
How Leon escaped remained unclear. Another 2022 Iditarod dog, Jimbo, escaped from a dropped dog area in Anchorage but was found a day later.
In a statement, Iditarod officials wrote that they “are actively working on updating the Standard Operating Procedures to prevent this from happening in the future and instilling a stronger sense of shared responsibility.”
Race officials did not respond to questions about what those updated procedures might look like.
“Sled dogs are known to run and can cover vast distances. When a report is made, good Samaritans along the Iditarod Trail are contacted to search the area of the report by either snowmachine or plane,” the latest update from race officials said.
Efforts to reach Dos Santos Borges for this story were unsuccessful. But he took to social media on Tuesday to express gratitude for those involved in the search and pain for the continued absence of his dog. In earlier posts, he had expressed frustration about what he described as a lack of transparency and urgency from race officials about the efforts to find Leon, particularly in the days after Leon went missing.
“Still far too much bitterness, misunderstanding and sadness ... but one thing is certain, I will never stop looking for my dog,” he wrote in a post that had been translated from French.