Dog-snowmachine collisions raise trail safety questions

Posted: Wednesday, April 02, 2008

ANCHORAGE - One dog died this year after being hit by a snowmachine on the Iditarod Trail. Another was critically injured in the All Alaska Sweepstakes when Lance Mackey's team was rear-ended by a snowmachine.

Greg Gilbert / Seattle Times
Greg Gilbert / Seattle Times

The incidents have raised questions about the safety of mushers and dogs and snowmachines.

At least one veteran musher, four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Martin Buser, has spent almost 30 years training dog teams on the Iditarod Trail and trails in the Susitna Valley. Buser said he feels safer there now than he did 10 years ago.

The reason is simple, he added: There's less traffic.

Buser said he doesn't think the Mackey accident is representative of a new or growing problem. If anything, he said, the problem has been declining for years as gas costs have discouraged snowmobilers.

"There are simply fewer travelers out there," Buser said.

Bill Merchant of Chickaloon, who organizes the human-powered Iditarod Invitational Race, in March rode the Iditarod Trail to Nome on a mountain bike with his wife and said he was struck by how few people were out moving around the country.

"What we noticed was there was a lot less traffic this year," he said. "We didn't have anything I'd even call a close call (with a snowmobile) at all."

That has not always been the case. A mountain biker in the 1999 Iditasport race was run down by a snowmachine, and that same year, a man walking on a trail near Glennallen lost his leg after being hit by a snowmachine. Twice that winter, Iditarod musher Steve Adkins had teams hit by snowmobiles while training in the Susitna Valley.

The section of the Iditarod Trail between Safety and Nome was busy over the weekend because of the All Alaska Sweepstakes race. Many people snowmobiled out to the Safety Roadhouse, about 20 miles from Nome, to see the racers come through, then sped back to town to catch the finish of the race.

Last month during the Iditarod, the team of musher Jennifer Freking, of Finland, Minn., was hit by a snowmobile on the Yukon River, killing one dog and leaving another permanently injured. A bunch of people on snowmobiles were at the time coming and going from a potlatch in the village of Nulato.

While appeals to snowmobilers to slow down won't hurt, it is the price of gas that is making the real difference, Buser said. In some villages, gas is priced at $7 a gallon.

The change is hard to miss.

"There is quite a lot less traffic than there was in the old days," Buser said.

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