After fatal collisions between mushing teams and snowmachines, Alaska dog groups push for safety gear

Two deadly incidents between snowmachines and dog teams this winter have left the mushing community shaken and searching for answers.

In late November, two dogs died and seven were injured on the Denali Highway in a collision that involved a snowmachine striking one of Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey’s dog teams.

Then in December, three dogs were killed in an accident on the Denali Highway that involved musher Mike Parker with a team of Jim Lanier’s dogs and a member of a Polaris testing team.

Now, two groups have responded to the tragedies by raising both awareness and funds for gear to keep dogs safe and seen on Alaska trails.

The campaigns have already outfitted dozens of dog teams with light-up collars and harnesses with plans to maintain the safety features for future generations of dog teams.

Julie St. Louis had a personal connection to those involved in the tragedies. The cofounder of the August Foundation, St. Louis and friend Jeannine Armour had formed a nonprofit devoted to finding homes for retired sled dogs.

[Retired from racing, sled dogs are finding new homes with help from an Alaska nonprofit]


She knew Lanier, whose dogs were are among the many the foundation has found homes for since it started more than a decade ago. And August Foundation kennel manager Dutch Johnson had trained with dogs from Lanier’s Northern White Kennel in 2022.

“Having known the three pups killed and the others injured since they were born at Northern Whites Kennel — about a mile from where I live now — motivated me quite a bit,” St. Louis wrote in an email response. “It’s one thing to be shocked and saddened by it happening to other teams. It’s a whole other level to have know and loved the dogs personally.”

Johnson, who lives in Chugiak, had trained with Lanier’s dogs for five months in fall and winter in 2022, making the same Denali Highway run with the team before Parker took them on in 2023. The dogs’ deaths hit him hard as well, stinging like the loss of a friend or family member.

“I don’t remember crying that much at a funeral,” he said. “It was horrible.”

Viewing the incident as an extension of the mission with the foundation, St. Louis and Johnson took action. They decided lights were the best chance at giving dogs and dog teams added visibility on dark multi-use trails in winter.

“I thought I could start a trend,” Johnson said. “I give them to enough people that people that don’t have one would buy them, hopefully. And also snowmachiners will learn to recognize a standardized set of lights and know what it is.”

They teamed with Mark Robokoff, owner of AK Bark, who had contacts with suppliers that sold dog equipment with LED lights. He had sold LED harnesses to dog owners in Anchorage and found them to be incredibly effective.

“I was amazed at what a difference it made,” he said. “It was so bright and these disco lights you could see a mile away.”

Robokoff was able to put together a deal with Noxgear, which manufactures Lighthound LED dog harness, for harnesses for the group to purchase. Robokoff said the company agreed to take 20% off the wholesale price, in essence donating $1 for every $4 the group put toward purchases.

“We were able to get those nice $70 harnesses down to a rate that that we could afford to buy them for the mushers using donations,” he said.

Funds for the gear came in part from The Polaris Foundation, which approved a grant for $8,500 for the August Foundation to put toward the purchase.

While that was enough to outfit 55 teams, Johnson said they had raised enough to buy well over 400 harnesses, enough for more than 100 four-dog teams.

“We realize that this isn’t a cure-all,” Johnson said. “A snowmachine rider still needs to recognize they need to slow down and pass very slowly or stop. And it doesn’t help if they’re coming around a blind corner. But they’re generally well received.”

St. Louis said feedback from mushers across the state has been positive but said there are plenty of unreported incidents in rural areas.

“It’s important we spread the gear out as we raise more funds and continue to work with mushers and snowmachiners to find out what works,” she said.

Like St. Louis, Cherie Lovely had a personal connection to the tragedy. She launched Light Up the Lead Dogs in the wake of the incident with Seavey’s team, which was being driven by Josiah Liebe, who works for Seavey’s Talkeetna-based kennel.

Lovely moved to Alaska eight years ago and started working for Seavey’s AK Sled Dog Tours in 2022, handing bookings. The incident hit home personally — she’d become good friends with the mushers at the kennel like Liebe and knew the dogs involved.


“It just broke my heart, you know, not just for the dogs but for him too,” she said. “And I told my husband, ‘We’ve got to figure something out.’ ”

Her research led to a Canadian company that produced light-up collars and customized them with a highly visible green color and text reading “Light ‘Em Up.”

At first she was just buying the collars and giving them to mushers she knew. But she eventually created a fundraising page and received a message from the Alaska Snowmachine Alliance, whom she partnered with on the venture. As a 501c3, they had tax-exempt status and were able to assist with fundraising and nonprofit knowhow. With a bit more work on the organizational front, the effort took off.

“It’s been a huge amount of support,” she said. “I’ve actually been really surprised because you know, I just started out thinking ‘Oh, I’ll help as many as I can.’ And man, the support has been amazing.”

Lovely said she has 230 collars that have been distributed or earmarked for distribution at future events and another 120 on order. Aside from the collars, Lovely produced trail safety cards that would be available at businesses in Alaska that would be frequented by mushers and snow machine operators.

Lovely said there was clearly tension between snowmachine and mushing groups in the wake of the publicized incidents but said keeping trails safe for all users is something both groups have been able to unite behind.

“As we’ve gotten further, I’ve had a lot of positive (interactions) actually from a couple of the snowmachine groups especially the ones that I’m part of on Facebook,” she said. “They’ve been really, really supportive and positive about what’s going on.”

Lovely said she the Seavey dogs that were injured in the incident are healing and she is committed to the project for the long-term. She has public events and fundraisers planned in the future with plans to purchase some high-visibility vests for dogs as well.


St. Louis also said there’s more work to be done and hopes to continue to work with Polaris.

“It’s about the dogs and making sure they are well cared for and adding this safety program is a natural for us to achieve that mission,” she said.

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Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.