ANCHORAGE - Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officials are being criticized by some back-of-packers, including a rookie musher who was removed from the race because he wasn't traveling fast enough.
Rob Loveman has protested his withdrawal. He said it was unfair and that back-of-the-packers are being pressured to keep moving. And he said the pressure to keep moving may have contributed to the death of a dog in musher Lou Packer's team.
Packer, also a rookie, had two dogs die in a blizzard. He's not happy, either. He's had his lawyer send letters to those who suggest a more capable musher might have avoided the dog deaths. He points the blame at the Iditarod Trail Committee.
"Jeff King didn't have to worry about being withdrawn if he turned his team around," Loveman said. "Lou Packer did. Given the arbitrary way the noncompetitive withdrawal is carried out, (mushers like Packer) would be far less inclined to return once they saw how bad conditions really were."
Race marshal Mark Nordman said no musher would be kicked out of the race for making a decision that was in the best interests of his dogs. Loveman's dogs, Nordman said, were in great shape when the rookie driver was ousted.
"He was just having a hard time staying awake and just trying to keep up with his dogs," Nordman said.
By the time the race marshal pulled Loveman, a 52-year-old Montanan, he had slipped to the very back of the pack and faced the long, desolate and difficult 90-mile trail to the ghost town of Iditarod alone with his team.
Out in front of him on the trail, 47-year-old Kurt Reich from Divide, Colo., was already in trouble. Another rookie, he eventually had to be rescued from a cabin by Iditarod officials who found him seriously hypothermic.
Weather conditions during the race were brutal this year. Temperatures plunged to 50 degrees below zero in the area north of McGrath and winds swirled deep, soft snow into ground blizzards. Nordman said it has been years since Iditarod mushers encountered such sustained extremes.
Packer's two dogs died when he got pinned down on the trail in bad weather. His attorney, Ward Mendes from Fairbanks, is now questioning whether the Iditarod did enough to support him and other back-of-the-packers.
In a letter to race veteran Diana Moroney, a longtime volunteer and Iditarod Air Force pilot this year, Mendes blames the Iditarod Trail Committee for failing to adequately monitor the progress of tail-end mushers, arguing that this is why Packer, Blake Matray from Fairbanks and Kim Darst from New Jersey ended up in trouble.
"When the ITC observed that these three mushers had not moved for 12 hours," Mendes wrote, "somebody should have immediately checked on these mushers. If there is any blame to be pointed at in this situation as to who made 'many errors' it should lie squarely on the feet of the ITC."
Nordman said the race works hard to help rookies prepare for what they will be getting into, but race officials can't hold everyone's hand while they are on the trail.
Someone with a little experience and some intelligence about the condition of the trail ahead might have advised Packer, Matray and Darst to hold in the Iditarod checkpoint and await better weather, he said.