Alaska Editorial: Iditarod incident highlights need to address underlying issues

  • Wednesday, March 16, 2016 1:06am
  • Opinion

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has seen some dark nights in its 44 years on the trail between Southcentral Alaska and Nome. But one of the darkest came Saturday, when a highly intoxicated driver on a snowmachine plowed into the teams of lead-pack mushers Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle between Koyukuk and Nulato, killing one dog and injuring others. The incident indelibly marred this year’s race, hurt both Mr. King’s and Ms. Zirkle’s teams and cast a pall over rural Alaska as the region’s struggles with alcohol abuse have been brought suddenly and sharply to the forefront of statewide conversation.

The question of what happened on the trail was answered quickly, within hours of the arrival of Mr. King and Ms. Zirkle in Nulato. In the wee hours of the morning Saturday, a snowmachine hit both teams — in the case of Ms. Zirkle’s team, twice. The incidents, which in both teams’ cases involved high-speed collisions with the dog team and mushers’ sleds, left several dogs injured and killed one of Mr. King’s leaders, 3-year-old Nash. Despite the damage to their teams, both mushers opted to continue to Nome.

The question of why the incident took place has been far harder to parse. To be sure, there were identifiable contributing factors. The snowmachine driver, who voluntarily came forward the morning after, was Arnold Demoski, 26, of Nulato. He told members of the media in interviews before his arrest that he had been blackout drunk at the time after partying with friends at the upriver village of Koyukuk and that he only realized what had happened after hitting both teams. He told reporters on the trail he didn’t intentionally harm the mushers or their dogs and expressed sadness at the death of Mr. King’s leader.

That alcohol appears to have played a prominent role in the incident is deeply saddening but hardly surprising. Alaska has long had a troubled relationship with alcohol, and the drug is a factor in a shocking percentage of incidents of violence — a relationship severe enough that the state is at the top of the charts for crimes such as domestic violence and assault. The problem is especially pronounced in rural communities, where law enforcement is sparse and resources devoted to stemming alcohol-related issues are spread thin. To have such a high-profile incident take place when eyes around the world are turned to Alaska underscores the urgent need for better, more effective solutions to the issue of alcohol abuse.

But alcohol itself can’t be blamed for the entirety of the incident. It’s possible to drink alcohol, even to excess, and understand what a dangerous idea it is to get on a snowmachine or any vehicle and drive. Even driving under the influence doesn’t fully explain the chain of multiple strikes — in Ms. Zirkle’s case, an hour apart — hitting two dog teams that were the only other traffic on the wide river. The incident, regardless of intent, speaks to a sickness of the spirit, a chain of errors of judgment that added up to calamity and the death of one of the state’s most beloved athletes. If we are to prevent similar occurrences in the future, it’s vitally important to not only curb the problem of alcohol abuse but also to address these issues of poor judgment that are not caused, but only enabled, by alcohol.

The incident on the Iditarod trail Saturday morning was senseless. But its senselessness doesn’t absolve us from taking a hard look at the problems it exposed and trying to remedy them. We owe that to Nash, to Mr. King and Ms. Zirkle. We owe that to Mr. Demoski. And most of all, we owe it to one another.

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