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When mushing turns dangerous -- or even deadly

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published December 2, 2014

PAXSON -- If you drive dogs long enough, something is going to happen just beyond the edge of your control. Call it Finagle's Law of Dynamic Negatives ("Anything that can go wrong, will -- at the worst possible moment.") at work.

Karin Hendrickson experienced this last week. Her team was hit by a car while training in a roadside ditch near Mile 91 of the Parks Highway. A few seconds either way and everyone would have been fine.

Dogs don't work that way. Driving dogs isn't like driving a snowmobile or ATV. With an ATV you can hit the gas or the brakes and get an immediate response. Not dogs.

In my 30-plus years of driving a dog sled, I have had a few accidents. Most were caused by a lack of preparedness or, like Karin's, were an accident in its purest form.

Otter chase

Twenty years ago I was running a six-dog team on Paxson Lake. There was minimal snow and I was about 5 miles from home when an otter came out of an open spring and took off just in front of my team. My initial reaction was to hit the brakes. That didn't stop the team on the glare ice but it slowed them enough for the otter to get a jump. The team turned from the trail, chasing the otter that skittered across the ice to the open water at the Paxson outlet. The water is about 8 feet deep there and the dogs, not being real smart animals while giving chase, did not stop.

We all went in the water. It was nearly 30 below. I was able to get out and cut five of the six dogs loose. I lost one, but overall I was fortunate.

Several other mushers have not been so lucky. Dave Olesen lost an entire team through the ice on Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. Bruce Johnson, winner of the 1986 Yukon Quest, went through thin ice on Little Atlin Lake near Whitehorse in 1993. Bruce and all of the dogs were lost. William Orazietti, an Iditarod veteran like Olesen and Johnson, strayed from the trail in heavy fog during the 1994 Upper Peninsula (Michigan) 200. He went through the ice in Lake Michigan. Orazietti managed to free a couple dogs before succumbing. His is the only human death I'm aware of that occurred during a race.

Injuries and accidents are a part of our state sport. If I had to rank the dangers, No. 1 would be snowmobiles being driven too fast on shared trails. Second would be moose challenging dogs being driven too fast on shared trails. Both are usually avoidable, given very good hindsight.

Mike Callahan once said, "It is easy to avoid the drinking man on a snowmobile; just get on the trail before noon!" Moose, however, are not so easily avoided. I have been stomped a few times during deep snow years in the Paxson area. Over the years I have learned to make myself appear bigger by waving a coat over my head. That works better than a flare or even a pistol.

Moose encounter

Back in my rookie days of driving dogs, I was having some moose problems on trails I used regularly. A friend loaned me a .41 Magnum. Sure enough, a week or so later a cow moose charged me. By the time I got the pistol out and working, she was in the team. I shot her. She had not yet been able to kick a dog, but now she fell on one in the middle of the team. I had a loose German shepard running behind me. He now caught up and jumped into the mix of dogs grabbing at the downed moose. This was too much for the cow, and she jumped up and ran off into the trees.

The only damage was the dog that had gotten crushed. He ended up with a strained back. My nerves took a bit of a beating too. Pride in my marksmanship also was diminished considerably when I returned to the site of the encounter on a snowmobile, only to discover the cow munching willows peaceably a few hundred yards off of the trail. I never did figure out where (or if) I hit her.

I now carry a flag to wave at moose. That has helped a time or two, but isn't foolproof. There is no sure fire way to avoid accidents on a dog team. Ask Karin Hendrikson. Or ask Capt. Edward Murphy who coined Murphy's Law in 1949.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.