Snowmachine driver strikes dog in Iditarod team between checkpoints

Mar. 13—A snowmachine driver struck an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race team Tuesday night between checkpoints on the Norton Sound coast, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Troopers said a Village Public Safety Officer in Koyuk notified them around 7:30 p.m. that the snowmachine struck the team between the Koyuk and Elim checkpoints, more than 800 miles into the nearly thousand-mile race. The driver fled, but authorities identified a person of interest based on a description and information provided by the musher, who wasn't injured, troopers said.

A post from a social media page for New Hampshire musher Bailey Vitello's team said the snowmachine "came down the trail recklessly driving and clipped one of the dogs on the team." The collision happened on a straightaway in broad daylight, the post said.

The driver continued down the trail and Vitello tried to get their attention, according to the post. He was able to confront the driver and learn who they were so he could pass the information along to authorities, his team's post said.

Vitello wasn't initially sure how badly the dog was hurt and said the animal seemed "a little off in his front end," the post said. He brought the dog in his sled bag to the Elim checkpoint, where the animal was assessed by the Iditarod's veterinary team and given a clean bill of health, the post said.

Troopers had earlier said the dog was hurt, but a statement from the Iditarod Trail Committee midday Wednesday said that while the snowmachine had made "contact" with the dog, the animal was "uninjured and still running."

The dog, named Oak, was able to eat and rest at the checkpoint and was evaluated and inspected again before it continued on with the team to White Mountain, according to the Vitello team's post. He and his dog team spent 2 hours and 48 minutes at the Elim checkpoint.

Vitello, who's racing his second Iditarod, was poised to depart White Mountain for the finish line in Nome midafternoon Wednesday.

Troopers said the investigation into the collision was ongoing.

This is the second time in the 2024 race that a dog team has been involved in an unusual outside encounter on the Iditarod Trail.

A dog from Dallas Seavey's team was injured early in the race when a moose became entangled with and attacked his team. Seavey shot and killed the moose, and Vitello's team was one of several that ended up running over the moose carcass on the trail. Seavey's dog was returned at the Finger Lake checkpoint and was in critical condition when it was flown to Anchorage for surgery, and the animal is now recovering, his kennel said on social media. Seavey went on to win the Iditarod on Tuesday for a record sixth time.

[Third dog collapses and dies on the 2024 Iditarod race trail]

This mushing season has been a dangerous one for sled dog teams, in terms of snowmachine collisions. In November, two of Seavey's dogs died and seven were injured when a snowmachine struck a team of his dogs driven by another musher on the Denali Highway in November. The snowmachine's driver was cited for negligent driving.

Three dogs from Chugiak musher Jim Lanier's kennel died and one was hurt in December when a snowmachine struck them, also on the Denali Highway. The snowmachine driver was testing equipment for Polaris when he struck the team. A misdemeanor charge of reckless driving was filed against the driver and Polaris.

[After fatal collisions between snowmachines and mushing teams, Alaska dog groups push for safety gear]

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that while Alaska State Troopers initially described the dog as injured, the Iditarod Trail Committee said the snowmachine had made contact with the animal but it wasn't injured.]