UNITED STATES NEWS

Alaska’s Iditarod dogs get neon visibility harnesses after 5 were fatally hit while training

Mar 1, 2024, 10:27 PM | Updated: Mar 2, 2024, 5:00 pm

Musher Dutch Johnson, a kennel manager at The August Foundation for Alaska Racing Dogs, runs a dog ...

Musher Dutch Johnson, a kennel manager at The August Foundation for Alaska Racing Dogs, runs a dog team on Dee Lake in Chugiak, Alaska, Jan. 23, 2024. The lead dogs are illuminated for safety. Alaska’s wild spaces are getting more crowded and dangerous for Alaska’s four-legged athletes training for the Iditarod, an annual sled dog race that celebrates the official state sport. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News via AP)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The Iditarod, the annual sled dog race celebrating Alaska’s official state sport, got underway Saturday with a new focus on safety after five dogs died and eight were injured in collisions with snowmobiles while training on shared, multi-use trails.

For the first time, mushers who line up for the competitive start Sunday will have the chance to snag light-up, neon harnesses or necklaces for their dogs before they begin the dayslong race that takes the dog-and-human sled teams about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) over Alaska’s unforgiving terrain. The original plan was to hand them out Saturday at the race’s ceremonial start in Anchorage, but organizers did not receive approval from competition officials.

The 38 mushers will trace a course across two mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and along the ice-covered Bering Sea. In about 10 days, they will come off the ice and onto Main Street in the old Gold Rush town of Nome for the last push to the finish line.

Mushers always have contended with Alaska’s deep winter darkness and whiteout conditions. But the recent dog deaths even while training have put a focus on making the four-legged athletes easier to see at all times. Mushers typically wear a bright headlamp for visibility, but that doesn’t protect lead dogs running about 60 feet (18 meters) in front of the sled.

“I can’t make snowmachiners act responsibly, it’s just not going to happen,” said Dutch Johnson, manager of the August Foundation kennel, which finds homes for retired racing sled dogs. “But I can help make dogs more visible.”

Two dogs were killed and seven injured in November on a team belonging to five-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey on a remote Alaska highway used as a training trail in the winter. It has recently become more popular with snowmobilers, bikers and other users, making it more dangerous for dogs.

Seavey said in a social media post that the snowmobile was heading in the opposite direction at about 65 mph (105 kph) when it slammed into the lead dogs on the team. The snowmobile driver was later cited for negligent driving.

In December, musher Mike Parker was running dogs for veteran Iditarod competitor Jim Lanier on the Denali Highway when a snowmobile driven by a professional rider struck the dog team. Three dogs died and another was injured. The driver, Erik Johnson, was testing snowmobiles for his employer, Minnesota-based manufacturer Polaris, and both were cited for reckless driving.

Julie St. Louis, the co-founder and director for the August Foundation, is close to the Lanier family and knew the dogs involved. When brainstorming with Johnson, they decided to use the nonprofit foundation to help outfit the dogs with harnesses and necklaces.

“It was one way we could step up and do something that was still within our mission, because we’re all about keeping the dogs safe,” she said.

The August Foundation has since secured an $8,500 grant from the Polaris Foundation and raised another $2,500 to buy 400 light-up harnesses, which were handed out to mushers at sled dog races in Fairbanks and Bethel earlier this winter.

The harnesses burn with bright neon-like colors that help illuminate the dogs in the darkness of the Alaska winter and pierce the clouds of snow sometimes kicked up by snowmachines, what Alaskans call snowmobiles.

They are now accepting donations to outfit as many dog teams as possible. Providing each team with four harnesses or lighted necklaces and one illuminated vest for the musher costs $120. A separate effort, called Light Up the Lead Dogs, is raising money to buy lighted collars for dogs.

In each of the accidents, Johnson said the snowmobile that hit the dogs was riding behind another snowmobile, which obscured visibility by kicking up snow.

“What I’ve witnessed with these harnesses is they make a halo effect in that dust,” Johnson said. “So they do give you some warning of where the lead dogs are.”

Jeri Rodriquez, the vice president of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club, said the multiuser trails are getting busier and all users need to do all they can to be seen.

Johnson will hand out the lighted harnesses Sunday at the competitive start in Willow, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Anchorage. Saturday’s event was a fan-friendly affair, where mushers took auction winners riding in their sleds over about 11 miles (18 kilometers) of city streets and trails.

The dog deaths are the latest pressure point for the Iditarod, which began in 1973 and has taken hits in recent years from the pandemic, climate change, the loss of sponsors and the retirement of several big-name mushing champions with few to take their place.

The ranks of mushers participating this year dwindled even more last month as accusations of violence against women by two top mushers embroiled the Iditarod. Both were initially disqualified officially for violating the race’s conduct rules. One was reinstated later but wound up scratching because he had leased his dogs to other mushers and could not reassemble his team in time.

Three former champions remain in the race: 2019 champion Pete Kaiser, defending winner Ryan Redington and Seavey, who is looking for a record-breaking sixth championship.

United States News

Associated Press

Kevin Bacon dances back to “Footloose” high school

PAYSON, Utah (AP) — Actor Kevin Bacon on Saturday returned to the Utah high school where the cult classic movie “Footloose” was filmed more than 40 years. Bacon danced his way to a stage on a Payson High School athletic field Saturday to greet students before what likely was the final prom held at the […]

14 hours ago

Associated Press

Arkansas teen held on murder charge after fatal shooting outside party after high school prom

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas teen is in custody on a first-degree murder charge in connection with the fatal shooting of a high school senior outside a party early Sunday following a high school prom. Donterious Stephens, 19, of Helena, turned himself in to authorities Sunday afternoon in the shooting death of Lorenzo […]

15 hours ago

Associated Press

Terry Anderson, AP reporter held captive for years, has died

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Terry Anderson, the globe-trotting Associated Press correspondent who became one of America’s longest-held hostages after he was snatched from a street in war-torn Lebanon in 1985 and held for nearly seven years, has died at 76. Anderson, who chronicled his abduction and torturous imprisonment by Islamic militants in his best-selling 1993 […]

15 hours ago

Associated Press

Suspect in killing of Idaho sheriff’s deputy fatally shot by police, authorities say

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho sheriff’s deputy died after being shot by a driver during a traffic stop, and a man believed to be the shooting suspect was later fatally shot by police, authorities said Sunday. Deputy Tobin Bolter was shot as he approached the driver’s window at about 9 p.m. Saturday in Boise, […]

16 hours ago

Associated Press

Woman, 18, dies after being shot at Delaware State University; campus closed

DOVER, Del. (AP) — An 18-year-old woman died after she was shot on the campus of Delaware State University on Sunday, authorities said. Dover police said officers responded at about 1:40 a.m. to a report of shots on the campus. Police said an 18-year-old Wilmington woman who was not a registered student was found with […]

19 hours ago

Associated Press

North Carolina medical marijuana sales begin at Cherokee store

CHEROKEE, N.C. (AP) — Medical marijuana can now be legally purchased in North Carolina with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opening its long-planned dispensary this weekend on tribal land. Hundreds of people, many with approved medical patient cards to purchase items, celebrated the historic opening of the Great Smoky Cannabis Co. on Saturday within […]

21 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

...

Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.

...

DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

Alaska’s Iditarod dogs get neon visibility harnesses after 5 were fatally hit while training