ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Mushers pressed their dog sled teams closer to the finish line in Alaska's famous Iditarod on Sunday after a snowmobiler intentionally rammed into two top competitors at speeds up to 100 mph, killing one dog and injuring others, authorities said.
The crash Saturday was not the first encounter between teams and snowmobiles, but they are rare, experts said. It's just one of the perils of the 1,000-mile race, which covers long stretches of unforgiving terrain, including two mountain ranges, the mighty Yukon River and the wind-scoured Bering Sea coast.
Besides conditions that can bring blinding snow and ripping winds, mushers also have to contend with fatigue, brutal cold and the occasional encounter with wildlife, such as moose.
A 26-year-old man arrested in the crash appeared in court via video Sunday. Arnold Demoski of the checkpoint village of Nulato is accused of intentionally driving a snowmobile into the team of Aliy Zirkle, who finished second in the race three times from 2012 to 2014, and then the team of four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King. One of King's dogs, Nash, was killed and at least two others were injured.
Demoski has said he was returning home from a night of drinking when he struck the teams. He was going about 100 mph when he crashed into King's team and about 40 mph when he struck Zirkle's team, court documents say.
He was charged with assault, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. His bail was set at $50,000, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. Attorney Bill Satterberg declined to comment to the newspaper.
In 2008, a crash between a mushing team and a snowmobile occurred around the same area on the Yukon River. It killed one dog and left another permanently injured. At the time, people on snowmobiles, which are commonly called snowmachines by Alaskans, were coming and going from a community gathering in Nulato.
Such incidences are rare and deemed accidental, Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley told The Associated Press on Sunday. Based on what he has been told, Saturday's incident appears to be malicious, and that is an anomaly on the trail, he said. There is probably more risk getting into a car than seeing such a scenario again, he said.
"Mushers and snowmachiners know the key to incident-free encounters on a multiuse trail is common sense," Hooley said.
Snowmobiles serve an important purpose in the race, being used for trail clearing and marking, as well as the occasional rescue, said Dan Seavey, a veteran of five Iditarods.
"Many of us have had near hits," said Seavey, who came in third in the inaugural 1973 race.
But today's mushers also take more precautions than they used to, relying on headlamps and reflective materials to stand out on the trail.
Seavey said he also has seen snowmobilers go out of their way to be responsible users of the trail.
"We definitely don't want to demonize snowmachiners," he said.
His grandson and the defending champion, Dallas Seavey, was leading the race and gunning for his fourth victory. The winner is expected to reach the finish line in Nome early this week. Seventy-seven teams remain in the race.
The man arrested in Saturday's crash told Anchorage news station KTUU-TV that when he woke up and heard what had happened, he checked his snowmobile and realized he had done it.
The snowmobile was missing a part and had rust-colored stains, Demoski said. He said he doesn't remember the crash.
"I just want to say I'm sorry," he said.