By: Michael Rogers
At this writing, it has been confirmed that Nicolas Petit has scratched in Shaktoolik checkpoint at 7:00p and is officially out of the race. His team stalled out on the sea ice in Norton Sound and wouldn’t budge. While many fans of the race wonder why what happened, happened; the simple fact is we may never know. Petit’s team had performed superbly all race and Petit reported in an interview that one dog had picked on another and started a fight on the ice that he broke up by yelling at the dogs, a practice he doesn’t normally do.
There is also the fact that dogs travelling on sea ice frequently exhibit strange behavior and it has been recorded many times in Iditarod history. Some teams get to the frozen ocean and simply lock up and refuse to budge. Some may continue with coaxing, food, or rest and others may follow another team across the ice. In Petit’s case, none of those strategies worked, his team was just shut down. He is certainly not the first musher to wipe out on an otherwise stellar run at the edge of a frozen ocean and will not be the last. In Iditarod lore, dogs that are good on sea ice are known as “coast leaders” and aren’t troubled by the frozen ocean.
There is also some consideration that Petit’s team was simply run too hard for too long. It is possible. Dogs, even racing sled dogs, have physical limits that aren’t readily exceeded. This year’s race was unusually warm and Petit’s run from Kaltag to Unalakleet appeared to be a non-stop 11-hour trail-breaking one. Could Petit have found the bottom of what appeared to a bottomless reserve of energy in his team? Petit was and is well regarded in his uncanny ability to know what his dogs can and can’t do but after 8 days of trail it’s possible that his judgment erred.
It’s possible that it could be any, or all, or none of those things; but the result is the same.
While scratching isn’t unusual in the Iditarod and many race veterans have scratched at least once or twice, it’s also understandable when rookies in the back of the pack or folks who’ve just endured a physical toll scratch. But it’s heartbreaking to watch an otherwise outstanding run collapse. It also shows proof that contrary to popular belief among those unfamiliar, a musher can’t force a dog team to do anything it just doesn’t want to do.