Two of the top competitors in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were run down by a snowmobile on a remote section of the Yukon River early Saturday in what Alaska authorities are calling a deliberate attack.
The incident left one dog dead and several more injured, at least one seriously. The mushers themselves were shaken but escaped injury.
A man from the village of Nulato, near the scene of the attacks, was arrested shortly before noon Saturday, Alaska State Troopers said.
Arnold Demoski, 26, was charged with assault, reckless endangerment, reckless driving and criminal mischief.
Four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King, who was running one of the teams involved, said the snowmobile authorities believe Demoski was driving went through his team at high speed outside Nulato.
“He went by at 80, 90 mph, never slowed down. His snow machine cowling flew off, and he was gone,” King told KNOM public radio. “It really felt like reckless bravado and playing chicken.”
The 59-year-old musher, a veteran of 25 races and still a contender despite his age, said he tried to save his most seriously injured dog, a 3-year-old Alaskan Husky named Nash, but couldn’t.
“Several of my dogs were hit. One was killed; one’s leg was broken, appears broken; and one is in serious condition with shock and impact,” King said.
From trooper accounts, it appears the snowmobile first struck the team of Aliy Zirkle, a two-time Iditarod runner-up from Fairbanks, in the dark of night Friday, then sped down the Iditarod trail along the frozen Yukon River and slammed into King’s team.
Zirkle told a race official in Nulato that she thought someone was trying to kill her.
Unlike the encounter with King, which involved only one run through his dog team, troopers reported that the snowmobile first hit Zirkle’s dog sled on the side about five miles below the village of Koyukuk. It then turned around and made several more passes at her sled before driving away.
As Zirkle continued along the trail from Koyukuk toward Nulato, troopers reported, the snow machine came back, “revved up” and pointed at her before leaving the area. It then apparently returned to Nulato.
At the time of the attack, Zirkle was running third in the race on the trail out of Galena with King just behind. She remains in the race and left Nulato still in third-place. King stopped in the village and had fallen to eighth with other teams leaving in front of him. He planned to continue down the trail after seeing to it that his injured dogs were being properly tended.
All Iditarod checkpoints are manned by volunteer veterinarians who were treating the injured animals.
Nulato is a predominately Athabaskan Native community of about 350 people. As with many village communities in the 49th state, it struggles with unemployment and alcohol and drug abuse.
Demoski told Alaska Dispatch News that he was blacked out from drinking at the time of the incident, but insisted it was not a deliberate attack.
“I don’t care if people know if I was drinking and driving,” he said. “I’m really glad [Zirkle] and [King] are OK, and I really feel sorry for Nash.”
He said he hadn’t realized what had happened until Saturday morning, when he awoke, heard about what had happened, and saw his snowmobile damaged.
“I knew it was me right off the bat. I called the [village public safety officer] right off, told him it was me. I told him I’d do whatever they wanted me to do…I feel really bad for what I did.”
Eight years ago, a dog in the Iditarod team of Minnesota musher Blake Freking was killed when hit by a snowmobile on the trail between Koyukuk and Nulato, but that incident was said to be an accident.
There have been other Iditarod dogs injured and killed in collisions with snow machines, but all were accidents. Troopers say an intentional attack would be unprecedented.