Dan Dent's dreams of completing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race have come to a bloody end on a frozen river northwest of Anchorage.
The Baltimore investment adviser's hands were badly bitten on Sunday, just nine hours into the race, when he tried to break up a fight among his dogs. He resumed the race, but Iditarod officials saw by Monday evening that he had lost most of the use of his hands, and forced him out. He was then flown back to an Anchorage hospital for treatment.
"It was a pretty ugly end to a good story," Dent said yesterday from his hospital bed.
An Iditarod rookie, Dent, 57, was running last among 55 mushers in the grueling 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. Although he has been mushing for five years, he has raced competitively only three times, for a total of 900 miles. Race officials say half of all Iditarod rookies typically drop out.
A more experienced musher, or one better known to the dogs, might have put the fight down more quickly, said Dean Osmar, an Iditarod veteran whose son Tim owns Dent's team. Deep snow complicated the job. Osmar added that he would never have waded into the fight with his bare hands, as Dent did.
Dent's quest was both a personal dream and a vehicle to raise money for the Baltimore Police Athletic League. He hoped to attract $500,000 in pledges, and to inspire thousands of PAL children to learn about Alaska, dog mushing and pursuing a dream.
D'Antoine Webb, 14, an eighth-grader at Pimlico Middle School, won a PAL essay contest and a weeklong trip to Alaska for the ceremonial start of the race Saturday. Webb got to nuzzle and hug Dent's dogs, and ride in his sled for several hours Saturday. He watched the official start Sunday, then returned to Baltimore on Monday.
Smooth start, then trouble
Dent and his team of 16 Alaskan huskies began their official run at Wasilla, north of Anchorage, at about noon Sunday. "Everything was going fine," he said. Three or four hours down the trail, beside Flathorn Lake, they stopped for a rest and a snack, before pushing on toward Yentna.
But at about 9 p.m., somewhere on the frozen Susitna River, the team hit some deep snow. One of his dogs -- a 3 1/2-year-old male named Storm -- stumbled and rolled, became tangled in his lines, and was attacked by the other dogs.
"This was really unexpected," Dent said. Although sled dogs will often squabble and nip at each other, "this is a really well-behaved team. With all the crowds and everything [at the race's start] I think they just freaked out."
Wading into the fracas in deep snow, Dent tried to pull the attacking dogs away. Simultaneously, he shed his gloves and struggled to untangle Storm's tug line, which had wrapped tightly around the dog's legs.
"It was like a wolf pack attacking a kill," he said. "I could pull off one or two dogs, but I couldn't pull off four." Searching for the silver lining, he said, "I felt I saved the dog's life, without question."
Dogs that are trained and psyched for a long race can be aggressive, Dean Osmar said. When one falls, as happened Sunday night, the others sometimes pile on. "It's the nature of the beast," Osmar said. Even so, he insisted, "This is a quality, veteran team."
After Dent stopped the fight -- he can't remember exactly how he did it -- he found his sled too full of race supplies to carry Storm safely. The injured dog was on his feet and appeared ready to run. So all 16 dogs resumed the race.
Bloodied, he presses on
Two or three hours later, at Yentna, he dropped Storm from the team, and a trail veterinarian sutured Dent's hands. His gloves had filled with blood and were frozen solid. His hands were swollen and increasingly useless.
Despite his injuries, Dent and his 15 remaining dogs pressed on toward the next stop at Skwentna, 34 miles away and 100 miles from Sunday's starting line.
"This was my one shot," he explained. "I was going to keep going."
When they arrived just after 11 a.m. Alaska time on Monday, Dent went about the chores of resting and feeding his dogs. That afternoon, race officials saw he could not operate a doorknob, and had to lift his cooker with his forearms. They told him to drop out or face disqualification.
A doctor told Dent his injuries were a threat to him, and to his ability to handle his team. At 7: 06 p.m., Dent agreed to quit.
Iditarod officials said Dent was the second rookie to scratch since the race's start, and the first Iditarod musher in memory to be airlifted to a hospital because of dog bites.
Dent said yesterday he thought briefly about going back on the trail after his discharge from the hospital. But just talking about being on the trail, but out of the race, put a catch in Dent's voice. "Having been a part of it, I think I'd have a hard time dealing with that," he said softly.