It's taken me this long to be able to face writing about it.
I knew there was a huge gap in blog entries, so I felt I should fill in the holes for anyone who didn't know the whole story; it feels to me like everyone knew about what happened, but I do still come across those who don't.
Copper Basin? Nope.
Early January I was supposed to have 2 teams entered into the Copper Basin 300, but the week prior to it I decided to pull the teams. We were behind schedule a bit in training due to the holidays, flight delays at Christmas, and both Lara and I being gone for a week each. I didn't feel the dogs were ready for 300 miles just quite yet.
We still wanted to do a decent length camping trip with the dogs so we made plans with some other local mushers to do a trip up the Susitna River to Yentna and Skwentna, the first 2 checkpoints on Iditarod, the following weekend.
That camping trip went really well: 150 miles in 2 days, mostly river running. I was running Noddy in lead with Astrid for much of it. Noddy had been really doing amazing in lead this season, a total natural like his mother. Even at only 2 years of age he had leader skills that blew my mind.
Both Astrid and Noddy like to 'hug' the side of the trail that they're on but this didn't tend to cause any issues on the narrow trails we generally train on in Willow. On these wider river trails, however, first Astrid would pull everyone over to the left side and then a few seconds later Noddy would pull everyone over to the right. This went on and on for the entire run - we looked like a drunk driver serpentining back and forth across the lanes, trying to get home after a bender. It was both amusing and frustrating at once; I made a mental note not to run this pair together on the river runs on Iditarod.
We arrived home at 5 am on a Monday, feeling pretty good about the trip and the team in general. I felt they were now ready to tackle the Willow 300 in just over a week and a half. I decided to give them 2 days off to rest up before the next run.
So our next run was on Wednesday. Normally Lara and I would run teams together, but that morning Lara remembered she had a NH Mushers Association board meeting she needed to attend via zoom so she helped me hook up my team of dogs around 11 am and said she'd take the 2nd team out after she was done with the call. I had Astrid & Chatka in lead, Noddy and Felicity in swing, then Kona and Flint, with Caleb, Toothless, Bailey and Willow behind them.
It had snowed a few inches overnight but skies had cleared up and I figured if the trails hadn't been broken out yet it'd be good training for the team to break trail through some fresh snow. Despite that, when we got out onto the main trail that runs parallel to the Parks I could see a snowmachiner had already been out so we had tracks to follow.
About a mile from the dog yard there is a fork in the trail where the trail to the left continues to parallel the Parks highway and to the right the trail goes down a very steep fast hill. I had only gone down that a few times so far and knew it was nearly impossibly to control the speed of the team down that hill. The snow machine had taken that trail to the right; the left trail remained unbroken out. I had two dogs on the team returning from injuries - Felicity and Kona - and the last thing I wanted was to have them running full speed out of control only 1 mile into a run, so I told the leaders to go haw at the fork.
They started to take the haw trail but, discovering it was deep snow due to snowplows having thrown snow over the side of the banks onto the trail, the leaders jumped over onto the gee trail where the snow machine had gone.
"Astrid, HAW!" I called.
Now, whether she decided to take me literally and instead of just hawing over a bit turned the team into a full 90 degree left hand turn or whether she simply saw an easier route in the form of the plowed road, I'll never know. Hell, I'm not even sure whether it was Astrid that made the decision or Chatka. They say it's common to lose bits and pieces of memory before and after a traumatic event and I can assure you that is the case, as while some memories of this day are crystal clear, others are clouded or completely gone.
Regardless of who made the decision or why, the leaders swung the team off the trail, jumped the snowbank and went onto the Parks Highway.
We've trained on this trail since we got to Alaska in August, and even with larger teams in fall with no snowbanks as barriers, the dogs had never done this before. On a few occasions when they started to get too close to the road for one reason or another they were reprimanded strongly. Two such reprimands was enough to teach them to stay away from the road. I was well aware of the dangers of traffic and training near it; the leaders always wore orange bandanas or blinking lights to make them visible from afar.
When they jumped into the road I instantly yelled at the leaders to gee back onto the trail, while trying to ascertain if I could sink a hook well enough to go grab them. The snow was very soft in that spot and my fear was the fresh team would pull the hooks instantly and the entire team would be off running down the Parks, so I needed to be certain the hooks would hold first.
Before I could even get a hook in the team swung further into the road. Now I had half the team on the Parks. I looked up the road - you could see for at least 1/4-1/2 mile in both directions there - and saw a truck speeding towards us on the same side of the road the dogs were on.
All of this, of course, was happening in real time, not at the speed you are reading this. We're talking seconds. I knew there was no way I could sink a hook and somehow run through the deep snowbank, onto the road, grab and pull the team out of there before the truck would be on them. So I did the only thing I could think of to do and started waving my arms frantically at the driver to alert the person to stop or swerve.
You know how in life there are always those scary moments where your breath catches and you think "Ohhhhh sh*t!" but then at the last minute it doesn't happen? Like something runs out in front of your vehicle and you think you're going to hit it but your brakes grab and you stop centimeters away. Or you start to trip as you're going down the stairs, but you catch yourself and don't fall all the way down them. There seem to be so many incidents like that over a lifetime, and after awhile you start to trust that something out there will always 'save you'.
As I saw that truck coming down the road, I truly believed he would spot me waving frantically and swerve or stop at the last minute. But instead I watched as he hit my dogs at full speed (55-60 mph). The force of the hit broke the cable gang-line on impact, and the front half of my team disappeared down the road with the truck.
I fell to my knees screaming.
I saw the truck finally come to a halt a ways down the road. I saw a dog take off running, so I knew at least one was still alive. I saw the other half of my team still partly in the road. Kona was at the very front of the group still in front of me, laying on the ground, not getting up - alive but not moving. I looked back up the road and saw another vehicle coming and started waving frantically at that person too, afraid they would hit the dogs still in the road. But unlike the driver of the truck that hit us this person not only saw me but also managed to stop in plenty of time. The driver of that vehicle helped me get the rest of the team off the road.
Honestly, the rest of what happened after that is somewhat of a blur, as I myself was in shock. I called Lara to come with the truck; I called 911; I posted a quick message on our local musher Facebook group asking for help and a dog truck to get us to the emergency vet. The closest e-vet was an hour away and at this point my only thought was to get the surviving dogs to the vet as soon as possible. I feared for life-threatening internal injuries. I also needed people to go in search of the dog I'd seen take off.
Lara arrived, soon after followed by quite a few local mushers: Su, Mille, Miriam, Josh. Everyone helped load up 7 of the dogs into Su's dog truck to take them to Tier 1 Veterinary Hospital in Wasilla. Two dogs were missing after having gotten loose from the lines: Felicity and Flint. I sent Lara off to start looking for them. Noddy, as most of you already know, was the one fatality from the accident. It felt like a miracle that more weren't killed.
Kona was the worst injured - in shock, with a broken pelvis, and a lacerated paw and ear. They weren't able to do anything to treat him until they got him out of shock but he was the biggest concern. Most of the others had minor bruising or soreness, but miraculously no other major injuries. The worst of that lot was Astrid with a swollen and bruised shoulder, but X-rays showed no broken bones or damage.
Meanwhile back in Willow, search parties were out looking for Felicity and Flint. At around 4 pm I got a call that Flint had been found, so I got in touch with Lara to go meet up with the person who had him and bring him down to Tier 1. When he got there it was obvious he was pretty badly injured, which made it miraculous that he had been running around for 4+ hours. He had deep lacerations on both front legs and his tail was crushed/broken. He too was in shock at that point. The vets said his tail was beyond saving. Both Kona and Flint had to spend the night in the hospital.
By 8 pm the rest of the team was released and ready to go home. By the time we got back to the house, set up crates for a bunch of the dogs who needed to be kept inside initially, and got everyone settled it was 11 pm. We then left again to go out and set up some borrowed live traps for Felicity in the area where she had last been spotted.
It took 2 days before Felicity finally came home on her own - she showed up at the front door one morning around 7 am. She had a bad laceration on her wrist, which was so swollen that the vets feared it was broken; thankfully it wasn't, but the damage was pretty severe nevertheless.
The days following the accident are a blur of pain, sadness, nightmares. Endless taking care of dogs, dosing out a multitude of medications to Kona, Felicity and Flint 3x a day for weeks. Vet visits every 2-3 days for bandage changes. All I could focus on was nursing dogs. I was supposed to be packing and prepping for the Willow 300 in just a few days, but I could barely get my mind to focus on work. Running a dog sled race when I had so many seriously injured dogs was just not something I could think about. Yet without that 300 miler, I wasn't fully qualified for Iditarod.
I had also lost a significant amount of my Iditarod team in the accident, particularly leaders. Every dog I was running that day were dogs I had definitely planned on running in Iditarod. They were almost all of my main leaders: Kona, Felicity, Flint, Astrid, Noddy, Chatka. Astrid was out for at least 4 weeks with a sore and swollen shoulder; Flint and Felicity were out for at least the rest of the season, if not forever; Kona's injuries were something he would never come back from, at least not as a competitive race dog. And Noddy... well, Noddy was just gone. Did I even have a front end to bring me to Nome at this point? Not one that I trusted to get me there, no.
So about 4 or 5 days after the accident I officially withdrew from Iditarod. I would return another year, but for now I needed to focus on healing the dogs. And myself.
Turned out to be a wise choice because little did I know that it would take months before the anxiety about running dogs would leave me. It wasn't until I returned to NH that I was able to run dogs without pumping myself full of Xanax first.
Kona's pelvis wound up being broken in 3 places, and the nerves to his tail were almost completely severed. He lost the tip of one ear in the accident as well. I wound up having to fly him back to Boston to see a neurological specialist as well as an orthopedic doctor because we couldn't get in to see one in Alaska; initially they thought they would need to amputate his tail but in the end he was doing well enough that they said it wasn't necessary. He was confined to a crate for 10 weeks while his pelvis bones healed, then went through 2 months of physical therapy. Now, though, he's running around and jumping on houses and you'd barely know he had been so seriously injured just 7 months ago. His healing has been nothing short of miraculous, and I even have a slight bit of hope that he will at least be able to run a few short miles in harness for fun.
Flint was in splints on both legs for 3 weeks and had his tail amputated. He didn't seem bothered in the least by any of his injuries and was the happiest patient ever! He was the first to fully recover from the accident and by spring was able to run with the team for short runs again. It remains to be seen whether the injuries to his legs will haunt him on longer distances, but so far he seems fully healed.
Felicity had the least amount of injury to her but the most pain. Her wrist was still swollen and painful and lacking range of motion 2 months after the accident. She went through about 12 weeks of laser therapy, plus an Assisi loop at home. By mid-July she was still unable to even do a 1 mile walk without being in pain for the next 2 days. As a last resort I started her on Adequan injections in late July. After the 3rd injection we did a 1 mile walk again with success - no pain! After the 6th injection she did a 1.5 mile bikejor run with my friend Megan, and had no issues afterwards. A few days later she did a 4 mile run and still no pain. Now she's back in training with the team this fall but so far we haven't done more than 5.5 miles; still, she's holding up and I'm cautiously hopeful that she can at least be a sleddog for shorter distances, even if she can't handle Iditarod.
I went to watch the start of Iditarod back in March, handling for my friend Martin and helping other teams. I helped another musher pack her checkpoint bags in mid February, and assisted Lev with his team's EKG and bloodwork vet check. On March 5th, helping teams take off on their 1000 mile journey, I made the decision that I didn't want to wait to come back - I was coming back to run the 2023 Iditarod.
My life feels like it was forever changed on January 19th - it's a wound that is deep and still not healed. I've spent the last 7 months trying to deal with the resulting PTSD, and while I've been excited to return to Alaska a part of me also feared returning to the place of the accident and the memories. But what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and the lessons I learned last season will only help our journey this year.
Someone coined the phrase "Sibersong Strong" shortly after the accident, and that's become sort of my motto since then. We can do this!
Thank you to everyone who helped us that day, and in the days and weeks that followed. You have my heartfelt gratitude for all that you did!
Read more about the accident:
- Truck strike kills and injures sled dogs in Willow (Alaska Daily News)
- Musher still in shock after tragic accident on Parks Highway (Alaska News Source)
- NH musher Jaye Foucher's dog killed in crash as team crossed Alaska highway (WCVB)
- NH musher out of Iditarod after crash killed 1 dog, injured 3 (WCAX)
- Sled dog returns home almost 2 days after team was hit by a truck in Alaska while training (Bangor Daily News)