The Last Not So Great Race

Posted: Friday, March 20, 2009

The death of Grasshopper and Dizzy, two dogs in the team of Lou Packer, 55, of Wasilla, represent a failure of epic proportion, of which the Iditarod itself should bear the brunt of the blame.

For those not familiar with the circumstances of the horrible end these dogs met, let me briefly recap. After leaving the checkpoint of Iditarod, Packer began climbing hills when the wind kicked up on a big bald. The raw temperature was at around minus 10 to minus 15 degrees, not particularly bad by itself, but when combined with winds of roughly 20 miles per hours, the windchill would have been around minus 40.

About this time, Packer lost the trail, and by his own words, according to newspaper reports, said "I decided, 'OK, we're going to stop here.' It's not the best place to take a break and feed the dogs.''

Not the best place in the world to stop? High up with no trees for cover, it was maybe one of the worst places in the world to stop. Especially since, by his own admission, Packer said he had climbed out of woods, so turning around could have put him and his team in a far better place to rest and feed his dogs.

A better idea yet would have been to not even leave the checkpoint if he knew, as he should have since weather reports are provided, that their was predicted to be such dangerous elements ahead. Others, like Jeff King, Martin Buser and Rick Swenson tucked in where they were -- some for nearly 24 hours -- when the wind started to become dangerous. Does anyone think these past champions were too scared to push on? More likely they were too smart -- from experience -- to risk facing the full teeth of the winter tempest. Packer's decision wasn't admirable athleticism; it was reckless endangerment.

Adding to this situation of the cold, Packer could barely get a cooker going on top of the hill due to the wind at this high, exposed location. He said he managed to feed the dogs twice over a roughly 24 hour period, but in temperatures that cold, and with the dogs burning calories and loosing moisture at the rate they would have from both exercise and shivering to produce heat, Packer very likely need to be feeding them roughly every one to two hours, every three at the least.

As a result of all these factors, Grasshopper and Dizzy died, and according to Packer -- who although not a veterinarian, is a doctor -- they died of exposure. They literally froze to death. Packer said he had coats for them, but in the circumstances already described, insulating coats alone would not have been enough, even if they weren't frozen from the terrible trail conditions, as they likely may have been.

And Packer's case was not unusual, it just had a worse ending than a few other luckier mushers and dogs. This year alone two others mushers -- Kim Darst and Blake Matray -- had to be rescued from a race, the very hallmark of which is self-reliance in an inhospitable winter landscape. Then there is the Nancy Yoshida incident. After a crash so severe that she could not repair her sled, Yoshida set several dogs free expecting them to follow her, after what was likely a frightening ordeal for them too. Not surprisingly (at least to most dog owners), one of the dogs ran away and was on the lamb for nearly two days before it was finally found.

All of this may leave some wondering, why then if these mushers made so many mistakes, is the Iditarod to blame, particularly for the deaths of Grasshopper and Dizzy? The answer: because as a race organization the size and caliber of the Iditarod, it is their job to screen out rookies like Packer and these others, who in all reality don't even know how much they still don't know about long distance dog racing.

Sure, Iditarod has a prerequisite in place that mushers must qualify for the race by completing 500 racing miles in other events. However, some rookies will look around for the least technical races and those with the mildest temperatures, so they can meet these qualifications. The result is people are "qualified" to be in the Iditarod, but not really "prepared" for such a major event.

Also, does 500 racing miles make anyone really qualified for what is undeniably the most famous sled dog race in the world? To believe so makes about as much sense as thinking that someone who earned their learner's permit is qualified to race in NASCAR. But, these "qualified" rookies were willing to fork over the $4,000 entry fee to be there.

"It's all about the dogs" is a nice race cliche, but it's certainly not a primary goal. The Iditarod (Trail Committee), with its $2 million annual budget, is above all else a corporate entity, which like all corporate entities, has the primary goal of making as much money as it can. If there are any doubts about this claim, visit the Iditarod Web site. On their homepage people will see adds to purchase the Iditarod Insider service, ways to order Iditarod videos, and methods for visiting Iditarod auctions. By comparison, look at the page, or better yet, click around the site and see how long it takes to find any information related to dog husbandry, health and care.

Or, look for information on the death of Packer's dogs. It can be found not under an obvious headline, but rather in a few sentences at the bottom of a press release titled "Lou Packer Scratches." And sadly, despite Packer's own admission, the sentences read "Gross necropsies have been performed on both Dizzy and Grasshopper by a board certified pathologist. In both cases the cause of death could not be determined by visual examination of all organ systems."

Nothing could be determined, or nothing could be admitted? Iditarod veterinarians seem unable to find a cause of death far too often.

If the Iditarod wants to continue being The Last Great Race, and attracting not just mushers and wannabes, but also corporate sponsors and dog loving fans, they need to re-evaluate their priorities. If this were any other sporting event where three participants died (in addition to Packer's two dogs, another belonging to Jeff Holt died earlier in the race), would this not be a bigger deal?

In Iditarod, all the dog's lives are on the line, and sure they love to pull, but they don't understand the consequences that can result from risks associated with the race. The mushers -- their human caretakers -- should. And the race organization -- the mushers' and dogs' caretakers -- should make certain of it.

This column is the opinion of Clarion reporter Joseph Robertia. He can be reached at

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