Sunday, December 8, 2013

December 8, 2013

Meaning has always seemed a shifting thing—mercurial & relative, given entirely to circumstance. I used to think of meaning as a sort of static wellspring, a thing you encounter after a long journey prompted in its name, a grail, an El Dorado. Something pre-original that waits indifferently for your arrival.

At this time yesterday, the sun had faded well below the range, & in the soft & muted vestigial light I could just discern ridgelines north & south, the swale of the valley where the river cuts across miles of tundra. On either side of the trail, caribou & moose prints, wolf scat with hare fur in it, weaving animal tracks running criss-cross & vermicular across a land too looming & too vast to ever comprehend. The dogs on the line running into that quiet dark, & we on the runners behind them, following suit. & the light fading until full dark enveloped us.  

What the dogs always teach are the fundamental lessons of humility & love. These are not lessons you have a choice to heed—they are mandates, & rightly so. You open unto the dogs, give to them the largest fraction of yourself that you can give, cognizant that with each footfall, with each glance back, they are giving you everything. When you fail them, your heart feels it so keenly that the words you would use in remediation desiccate & fall out of your mouth powder-dry, brittle & broken. Your syllabary is divested, entirely, & you are left only with your heart talking to their hearts, pleading & hoping, nothing more. I have known so many things in life capable of beautiful articulation. I have heard sentences that stunned me, read pages that left me in tears, spent years in the study & pursuit of those things-- but the duel capacity for love & loyalty that comes from a dog, like the vastness of the landscape through which they cut a trail, cannot be described adequately.

I think about that though, about how we drive into that darkness & there tethered all as one how we are worlds & worlds of being, each & all. I think about the vastness of the world & then I take from it the sunlight, & then I think about this place & I take from it all signs of civilized life, & in that yawning dark I put myself & a dog team, & scribed in our wake, lines drawn out over miles & miles of snow, is meaning. The kind of meaning I coveted years ago but never knew.

& so it is a shifting thing, a work, a practice to maintain. I fail it, I regain it, I feel it ebb & flow. & like any utterance, the hieroglyph we leave behind of sled runners & paw prints tells a tale that too will fade & alter & ultimately disappear. But we carve it out & know its breath. Its blood is our blood, its heartbeat our own. We with our headlamps darting the tiniest sliver of light over the dogs’ backs, & all around us, the oildark night.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

October 27, 2013

Back now from a trip to the Lower 48 to see family before winter sets in, & returned home to find that Kristin’s grandmother passed away just after the entire family gathered & then dissipated. But how curious a thing, to think that whereas a funeral tends to gather & congregate mourners all under the cold pallor of death, in this case, everyone came together to celebrate life in advance of its cessation. She was cogent, alert, conversational, with a warm & smiling countenance during our visit. The family raised their glasses to her birthday & six others besides, a graduation, an anniversary—to the accomplishments & milestones of lives well lived. & maybe the silence upon our departure was like the deep sigh when the last guest steps out into the night & the door closes on a warm home. Maybe it was like the last glance out the window at the canopy of stars swelling & pulsing overhead before letting close your heavy lids. In any case, there by her side, her husband of 65 years, still madly enamored of her. One can prepare oneself, maybe, for a passing, but what lingers along with those severed ties is what tends to grip the heart.


& against that backdrop, I can’t begin to express the deep & abiding love for our home & family that we feel surging in us. From the laughter & conversation with all of our human family we flew home exhausted to the simple joy of our canine one. & even as the winds gust to 80 miles an hour, what calm in Norton’s bear hug or Willa’s panicked kisses. What joy in Patsy’s eager eyes & Littlehead’s swift leaps, or in Ox’s whining protests when we pet the others, in Hoss’s mouthy turns or Zigzag’s nose taps. I would think the world a different place entire if I could not turn from the hollow sadness of human loss into the pure love of our dogs’ company. Too, I’d think it bereft of its foundation if I did not have Kristin beside me at every step. It’s bewildering to think of how much life & love is permitted to exist simply because her grandmother did so first. What an extraordinary gift to the world.


Family means so many things, but in every iteration, every nuanced definition, every species, it is antidote to loss & salve to absence. It is the heart’s proof that we endure.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I want to thank everyone for the supportive, constructive comments on the previous post & more importantly for the collective will to effect positive changes to the way things look moving forward. I have every respect for the ITC, for the volunteers, the veterinarians, mushers & dogs involved in the race, & it is out of that respect & love for the sport & the Iditarod that I hope we can all agree upon changes. I hope it’s also clear that I encourage & support every opinion to be voiced through this & any adversity, regardless of whether or not I’m in agreement. We all assume the burden of these things individually, even when the brunt of them is not our own, & we process them in ways that are often incompatible or contrary. Even still, I believe that every person inclined toward utterance in the wake of Dorado’s death wants the same thing: the prevention of repeating that tragedy in the future. & I think everyone can agree that nothing is more effective in generating that than a spirit of cooperation, positivity & support. 

I’m certain that the ITC is working on solutions as I write this, & I’m encouraged to know that the Board possesses a greater wealth of experience both on the runners & in the administrative battlefields of the sport than I could ever hope to attain. I am nobody of importance in the sport of mushing, but nor do I think one needs be in order to offer solutions. I have not run Iditarod, not yet. I am still wedded to the dream, though, & whether or not that dream moves forward—for myself as, I assume, for many others—will depend on how this mistake is addressed & what solutions are put forward.

I made mention in the last post of revisions to the race rules that would increase transparency & amplify the gravity of the work the volunteers perform on the trail. & I reiterate here that with the proper prefatory organization, this event would never have transpired. The race rules for the Iditarod are written from a rhetorical stance presupposing the musher as exclusive audience. If there is another document not available to the public that outlines the responsibilities, mandates & consequences of failure for those in the role of race officials, volunteers & ITC members, then perhaps all of this is redundant. If not, I think it may be a boon to the organization to include language throughout the race rules that speaks in specific terms to a shared responsibility between all involved parties. If consequences exist for mushers, the same consequences need to exist for anyone handling a dog. If there is a failure on an organizational level, it needs to be anticipated & resolved swiftly. Consistency, regardless of camp.

With a race as with most anything in life, circumstances shift, exigencies arise, accidents happen & even the most well-orchestrated guidelines fall short from time to time. In this case, though, sharing the expectations for all parties involved would mitigate a great deal of speculation. Accordingly, these are some of the amendments to the germaine race rules that I would propose:

*Proposed changes in italics

Rule 37 -- Dog Care:
• Dogs must be maintained in good condition. All water and food must be ingested voluntarily.
• Dogs may not be brought into shelters except for race veterinarians' medical examination or treatment. Dogs must be returned outside as soon as such examination or treatment is completed unless the dog is dropped from the race.
• There will be no cruel or inhumane treatment of dogs. Cruel or inhumane treatment involves any action or inaction on behalf of any person involved with the race, which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog.
• If a dropped dog is in critical condition or a life threatening condition, the musher may be held up to eight (8) hours for investigation.
All mushers, veterinarians, ITC members and volunteers handling dogs at any point in the race will be held to State of Alaska animal cruelty statutes:
Sec. 03.55.100 Minimum standards of care for animals.
(a) The minimum standards of care for animals include
(1) food and water sufficient to maintain each animal in good health;
(2) an environment compatible with protecting and maintaining the good health and safety of the animal; and
(3) reasonable medical care at times and to the extent available and necessary to maintain the animal in good health.

Rule 45 -- Dropped Dogs: All dogs that are dropped from the Race must be left at a designated checkpoint with a completed and signed dropped dog form. Any dropped dog must be left with four (4) pounds of dog food and a reliable chain or cable (16” to 18” in length) with a swivel snap and collar. Dropped dogs may be moved form the originating checkpoint to the closest dog collection area at Anchorage, McGrath, Unalakleet or Nome. Dogs may be shipped from the collection areas to a location designated by the musher at the musher’s expense.
• Dogs dropped in ANCHORAGE, Nome and the re-start are the musher’s responsibility.
• Dogs dropped in ALL OTHER CHECKPOINTS will be transported by the ITC.
Dogs left unclaimed at Eagle River Correctional Center after four days after their arrival will incur boarding charges at the current rate, payable by the musher.
• Dropped dogs shall be under supervision for the entirety of their stay with confirmed hourly welfare checks that are recorded in a log
• Welfare checks on dropped dogs will be scheduled to specific race staff under the supervision of the checkpoint veterinarian
• A record of said welfare checks shall be provided to any musher or race official upon request
• Race staff responsible for the care of dropped dogs shall have received training specific to their task, including proper care and handling of dogs during inclement conditions
• As long as dropped dogs remain in a checkpoint, at least one race staff will have no other collateral duties assigned to him/her other than the provision of welfare checks to dropped dogs
• A checkpoint veterinarian shall be available for consultation at all times

Outside of amendments to race rules, I also wonder if it might be helpful to think on a number of other possibilities. Has there ever been a musher liaison, for instance, that attends volunteer trainings & “proofs” them? Has it ever been a consideration to pay the dog-care-specific checkpoint staff? In order to drum up that money, what about reducing the prize to, say, last year’s model of a Dodge Ram & using the remainder to ensure dog safety & staff accountability at checkpoints? Throwing a fundraiser specific to that task? Certainly, one would imagine that there are sponsors who will lose face if this doesn’t get addressed, so one wonders if it might be an attractive feather in the cap of a sponsor to contribute to initiating increased vigilance.

In terms of establishing availability of structures to house dropped dogs in the event of blizzards spinning beyond human control, is it conceivable that the ITC could provide a temporary mobile camp for dropped dogs at the major dropped dog hubs? I envision mobile garages, wall tents, base camps & the like, which could go up quickly, serve a valuable function & then leave no trace upon disassembly. Dawson City during the Quest is a fine example of the feasibility of such a thing. Any dog, no matter the severity of injury, improves much more quickly with warmth & shelter. It would also make it easier for the race staff watching the dogs to be away from everything else (weather included) & to pay stricter attention to their duties without all of the distractions of a checkpoint as close at hand.

I would imagine that standardizing checkpoint regulations across the board for all distance races would go a long way toward alleviating any organizational idiosyncrasies. I'm not certain what role the ISDRA could play in that, or if the formation of a new non-profit that could supply standardized educational programs to volunteers & work with race directors might be an option. Holding all races to one standard could prove a difficult wrestling match initially, but I suspect it would clarify operational direction on a number of levels too.

Again, I have confidence that the ITC has thought along similar lines, now & in the past. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t put forth any specific solutions & merely stood by wringing my hands, even if they are rambling & scattershot.

The Iditarod has a storied history with its roots in the dreams of mushers to preserve & celebrate travel with a dog team. Some of the finest dogs & people one could imagine have run its trails. The ITC has been a distinct part of a tradition that does honor & service to the dogs that we all admire & love. I hope that it does right by them this time around, too. Dogs First.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dogs First

On the trail to our cabin, the wind shifts & sculpts the landscape at whim, hurling blankets of sustained 30 mph gusts across the tundra & depositing snow in undulating moguls that cover over our precious tracks. We see gales of up to 75 mph fairly routinely. I have skied home ten feet behind my wife on many occasions & been unable to discern her tracks. Say a word & the wind will carry it aloft & away. Drop a liner glove or a hat & you wait until spring to retrieve it.

In the places I’ve lived prior to Alaska, I’ve known snow to behave in any number of ways. Here, for whatever diaphanous splendor it may reveal in the structure of the flake, it is always, always dry. When it drifts, the sugary weight of it transforms into the consistency of concrete. People use chainsaws to dig out trail.

& when the wind & the snow conspire, people here know precisely what to expect & what to do. No matter the temperature, our community knows to check routinely on our dogs, to be sure that their houses aren’t drifted over, to provide ample straw, to show them that we are still there, still faithful, still capable of provisions even in spite of the harshest elements one can imagine.

What a crippling & unconscionable thing, then, to know that days ago, in Unalakleet, one of our friends’ dogs was permitted to perish under the weight of the wind-drift snow by asphyxiation. The image of it is haunting, horrific, absolutely unforgivable, & I will not be able to shake it for some time. I can’t begin to fathom the weight of it on Cody & Paige. Outside of the immediate need to offer sympathy, one battles with two fundamental urges when hearing news like this: the desire to angrily hunt down the culpable party, & the hope to find some justification in the margins of circumstance that would color the situation differently than it appears at first glance. & the problem here is that there is absolutely no excuse to pardon the death of Dorado. Some people want to wax philosophical or conscribe the death to an act of faith. Some want to look at it as learning lesson & move along. The fact remains that persons under the auspice of the ITC neglected to check on the welfare of the dogs, period. He was tied to a fence & not tended to for over five hours during a windstorm. The fence became a windblock, the drifts piled higher, & the dog, a sweet & shy beautifully moving guy who we had had the good fortune to run, was covered over, blanketed, & suffocated. Somewhere indoors, volunteers & veterinarians for the Iditarod Trail Committee stayed warm, made concessions, & forgot 30 dogs, pure & simple. That only one of them perished is something of a small miracle.

Defenses have been made about the spirit of the Iditarod volunteer in general, about the Herculean task of looking after upwards of one hundred dogs, about how this was no one’s fault. It’s true that volunteers are often loving, well-intentioned supporters of the sport. But that doesn’t make them capable, not without education & structure. Conversely, it’s true that veterinarians should know how to maintain basic provisions for the survival of an otherwise healthy dog, but that doesn’t make them do it at four in the morning when it’s needed most.

Was this, then, a failure of the ITC or its ability to properly educate & train its volunteers? An instance of organizational negligence? Call it what you will. When a checkpoint overlooks dogs for five & a half hours during a coastal windstorm, I tend to wonder at its protocol. I tend toward wanting to see the documentation assigning the particular roles at each checkpoint, the part in writing that says that dogs will not be left unattended for more than thirty minutes, the part that displays in no uncertain terms whose responsibility it is at any given minute of the day to check in on the dogs. The part that impresses the gravity of the work upon the volunteer performing it. Mushers pay sometimes up to $30,000 to run Iditarod & they are held to the standards of the State of Alaska’s animal cruelty laws. Under those same laws, the checkpoint volunteers would be class C felons if properly adjudicated. 

It is tempting to rant vitriolic & to organize a witch hunt, but that is neither productive nor a proper way to honor Dorado. & so we have put ourselves to thinking how to shape this into something generative. We need to change the way the checkpoints are run. ITC needs to revise its rules to include specific terminology on the responsibilities of those overseeing dropped dogs, & to make those responsibilities known to mushers, fans, veterinarians & volunteers alike upfront. We are drafting proposed changes to the rules that we will share with our mushing community in hopes of garnering support & submit the changes for ITC’s consideration. Dogs need to be under constant visual supervision, especially during inclement weather. On the clearest of bluebird days, I could tell you thirteen things that could go wrong with a dropped dog. Triage system aside, even the healthiest dog on the line needs to be observed. ITC will doubtless review their own protocol to ensure changes are made. Let’s all use this as an opportunity for the mushers, the vets, the volunteers & the ITC to engage in an ongoing dialogue about how best to support the dogs.

It is of the utmost importance that the private details of this tragedy remain with Cody & Paige, I know. But it is also paramount that we use our anger rationally, or perhaps use our reason angrily, toward effecting the kinds of changes that would prevent this from happening again; that we focus on being constructive; & that we all put our support behind the Squids’ dictum that we put Dogs First.