The Iditarod Trail Committee says it’s changing protocols for how it transports dropped sled dogs after one died Friday while in the organization’s care. An early necropsy on the dog showed it had overheated, dying of hyperthermia while on board a plane. Alaska Public Media spoke to the dog’s musher in Kaltag.
Scott Smith is lighting a crumpled pile of straw to get a fire going in his cooker. His team is spread out on straw in the warm sunshine as he talks about Smoke, the young dog that died. Even though Smith had dropped the dog at an early checkpoint in Manley Hot Springs, it was days later, when he arrived in Huslia, that he was asked to contact race marshal Mark Nordman.
“I went into Huslia the other morning, and I was told we need to call Mark Nordman, and I spoke with Mark for a few minutes, but there wasn’t much in the way of details. Horrible day. Horrible, horrible, horrible day. I mean, just hearing that news, and I started to get sick on top of that, I was dealing with sick dogs.”
We stop talking for a second to let an airplane pass overhead.
“I mean, I’ve never lost a dog in any race, and obviously, this had nothing to do with me, but yeah, super low point in my career to ever lose an animal, and, ya know, Smoke was a nice little dog, man. A nice big little dog. He was only a yearling but, I mean, he’s a horse. Frankly, I put him in this race to give him some experience, I didn’t think he’d finish, I just wanted to get him as far as I could and expose him to it. I think it would have helped him mentally. Yeah, I miss him. Obviously a lot of time to ponder about it. And it’s a shame.”
Dog deaths during the Iditarod are not uncommon, though it is extremely rare for them to occur while an animal is being looked after once off the trail. Smoke was dropped because of a wrist injury. He was moved to Galena, and on a plane with 74 other dropped dogs en route to Anchorage, all part of the Iditarod’s protocols for getting injured dogs safely off the trail. After discovering Smoke had died from overheating, the Trail Committee sent out a statement saying they’d been unaware dogs could get hyperthermic in a cool aircraft. To keep it from happening again, they’ll no longer transport dropped dogs in coats, and will keep airplane cabins chillier and better ventilated.
Smith says he doesn’t blame anyone for what happened.
“It’s just one of those things. Accidents occur every day, both in the animal kingdom and the human world. And I just think that was probably the case, here. I mean, I don’t have a big kennel; I’m really a small kennel and small outfit. And I like it that way. I like keeping it really personal. So, ya know, all my dogs are my family, and it’s a really tight-knit group of animals. Smoke was pretty new to the fold, but it was no different.”
In spite of what’s happened, Smith is glad to be where he is: with his dogs on a warm day by the Yukon River, ready to race with them all the way to the finish.