Thursday, March 19, 2009

Details on Dr. Packer's Ordeal

Details of Tragedy on the Iditarod Trail

Dr. Packer's Story can be read on the Alaska Daily News website.

After leaving the checkpoint of Iditarod "things were going fine,'' Packer said. "A few hours later, we climbed up this series of hills.'' Atop the highest of the hills his team was struck by high winds and falling temperatures, and Dr. Packer lost the trail. When to got off his sled he sank up to his chest in snow. He floundered out for a bit trying to find the trail, but between the wind and sun he was unable to see well enough to mush his team.

Rather than blindly founder about, he decided to stop and care for his dogs. The wind was so fierce it blew over his cooker as he tried to melt snow to feed the dogs. The wind nearly blew it over a second time, but he was able to save enough water to prepare his dog food and feed the team.

Packer put coats on his dogs, got them in the lee of the sled and some bushes as best he could, then he emptied out his sled bag, crawled in, got into his sleeping bag and zipped everything shut.

But in the morning the trail was buried beneath the new-blown snow and the wind still blowing, but Packer could now see trail markers heading off to the west. He went to the front of the team and started walking them toward the village of Shageluk, marker by marker.

It did not go well. The team would go a few yards. Some dogs would get tangled. Packer would go back to untangle them. They'd go a few more yards. The same thing would happen. Packer decided to turn them around and try to retreat to the woods he had passed through the day before. He thought it would be easier.

Packer assessed distances, recalculated and decided he and the dogs had a better chance of making the woods ahead than the woods behind, so he turned the team around again. That's when he noticed one of his dogs -- Grasshopper -- struggling. He unhooked the dog from the gangline and put it in the sled and started forward again.

"The sled just kept falling over and he looked really bad, and then he died,'' Packer said.

Packer pressed on. Then Dizzy started to falter.

"I felt his shoulder for hydration, and ice crystals in the skin is what I felt. I think those two guys probably froze to death in the high winds,'' Packer said. "Then Dizzy, he died. It was horrible.''

Both of the dogs had been wearing coats to protect them, and one of the dogs was a thick-coated husky of old, not one of the thin-coated animals that have become common as mushers contend with warm winters. Necropsies conducted by veterinary pathologists have found no obvious causes for the deaths, but hypothermia has not been ruled out.

With Grasshopper and Dizzy dead and packed aboard the sled, Packer feared for losing the whole team and his own life as well. He pressed on until he reached the lee of a small hill, where the wind was only 15 mph compared to 30 to 40 in the open. He used his ax to create some shelter from the gale, got a good fire going and was able to feed his surviving dogs. That's where he was found by a volunteer pilot who was out searching for him and other missing mushers.

Assessment: It's easy to second guess another musher's decision while one is kicked back on the sofa, typing on the computer. In all honesty, I can't think of anything I'd have done differently given the same circumstances. Being a recreational musher and not racing, I might have had a better feel for the weather forecast and chosen to stop at Iditarod, but that place is a ghost town and a team can go through your supply of food very quickly.

With the depth of snow that was described, perhaps I might dig out a snow trench shelter for myself and the dogs, but digging with a snowshoe rather than a "real" shovel is challenging in good weather, and there is no telling how effective it might have been with the snow blowing in as fast as one might dig.

Maybe my larger, old-school village dogs would have fared better in those conditions than Dr. Packer's dogs - but maybe not. One of the dogs that died was reported as being an Alaskan husky with a good coat.

No matter how I look at it, it appears that Dr. Packer was simply caught by a sudden change in weather, which is not uncommon in Alaska. I think he did the best he could with what he had available, and for the two dead dogs it just wasn't quite enough.

It is just one more reason to thank the Creator for a tight house, a warm fire and shelter from the storm, and to ask that same Creator to extend blessings to those out on the trail tonight.

Swanny and the Stardancers

No comments:

Post a Comment