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Missing dog jeopardizes a rookie run

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published March 12, 2010

McGRATH -- No sadder sight can be found in this Kuskokwim River community than Justin Savidis wandering into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race checkpoint to check for word on "Whitey."

It is now more than 48 hours since the dog slipped its harness and collar after the Willow musher's team tangled on the trail between Nikolai and here. Busy trying to untangle dogs, Savidis said, he didn't know at first who was loose and just started yelling dog names. Whitey didn't respond to any of them.

"He just looked at me and turned a corner (on the trail)," Savidis said, "and then he was off on a fun run."

Fun for Whitey. A nightmare for the man behind the sled.

Savidis couldn't do much but chase after the dog and hope to catch him. That didn't work. Whitey ducked off the trail somewhere, so the musher continued on to McGrath to organize a search. Since then, there have been people on snowmobiles, on foot and in airplanes out looking for Whitey. Even the Alaska State Troopers pitched in with an aircraft to help for a while.

"There's a lot of great people looking for him," Savidis said. "I'm worried."

Early reports of Whitey sightings along the 55-mile trail to the east trickled in with some of the last mushers to reach this regional hub for the Interior, but there have been no reports from the trail of late.

"Last night someone said they saw him around town," Savidis said. He is optimistic that is true. He was thinking about driving the rest of his team around town "to see if that would draw him out."

"Do you think people would be OK with that kind of thing?" he asked local residents gathered in the checkpoint. Given the circumstances, they said they didn't think anyone would mind, but cautioned Savidis to be careful and watch out for traffic.

"It's bad to lose one dog," someone observed. "It would be worse to lose two."

Savidis thinks someone in town might have adopted Whitey. It would be easy to do. "He's an awfully friendly dog," said the musher, who has been prowling the streets of a community that sprawls over way more space than its population of 400 would indicate.

When Savidis isn't searching for Whitey, he's busy tending to the rest of the team. He never takes off his bulky snowsuit or stays long in the checkpoint. He ducks in occasionally to eat or check with Iditarod officials to find out if there is any word on Whitey, and then he is off again into the 20-degree-below-zero cold.

The way things look now, Savidis' race will likely end here. Even if he wanted to leave, Iditarod rules don't allow him to continue without a full team; mushers can drop sick, injured or tired dogs along the trail, but only in the care of checkpoint veterinarians and dog handlers. So Savidis, a rookie who moved north from Idaho in 2004, is stuck, and the clock on his Iditarod is ticking.

A new rule this year set time limits for back-of-the-pack mushers to clear some checkpoints along the 1,000-mile trail to Nome. According to the rule, "a team that has not reached McGrath within 72 hours of the (race) leader" will be disqualified as uncompetitive. How that rule might be applied to Savidis, who got there well within the time limit but has been stuck for more than two days, is unclear. The clock tracking race leader Jeff King's arrival will hit 72 hours at about 8 p.m. tonight.

If Whitey doesn't appear by then, Savidis will be in limbo with his status largely up to race marshal Mark Nordman. By 8 p.m., Savidis will be about six hours behind the other trailing mushers, and Iditarod officials are generally reluctant to let mushers set off so far behind and alone on the long, tough, 200-mile trek to Takotna, the next checkpoint down the trail, and from there through the ghost town of Ophir and past the desolate tent encampment called Cripple to Ruby on the Yukon River.

And even if Savidis is allowed to leave, he faces a new deadline at Galena on the Yukon River. According to race rules, mushers must now reach that checkpoint within 96 hours of the leaders. Some of the mushers ahead of him are already worried about whether they will make it in time. Race leaders Jeff King from Denali Park and Lance Mackey from Fairbanks are already on the their way out of Ruby and headed for Galena.

Craig Medred's Iditarod coverage for Alaska Dispatch focuses on the "back of the pack" mushers trying to reach Nome. His coverage will document the real life struggles of ordinary people when they cash in everything to chase their dream of becoming an Iditarod dog musher. The stories are a prelude to the forthcoming book, "Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations along Alaska's Iditarod Trail." Click to pre-order a copy.