ANCHORAGE — Battling a blizzard on the Bering Sea ice, a native of France on Monday lost the trail and with it, the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.
Now, Nic Petit and two other mushers are essentially dead even with only 170 miles left in the nearly thousand mile race across the Alaska wilderness.
Also on Monday, the Iditarod's board of directors issued a formal reprimand to its director of drug testing after a musher claimed Dr. Morrie Craig threatened him before the March 4 start of the race.
Petit had a nearly 2 ½ hour lead when he left the checkpoint in Shaktoolik Monday, and headed toward Koyuk across the Bering Sea ice.
Instead of making a straight shot north to the village across the ice, Petit lost the trail. He drifted east to the coast, and then back across the ice trying to find trail markers.
"When I got to the line where the open ended trail was supposed to be, there was nothing there but a bunch of snow," he told the Iditarod website. "I did a couple of loops to make sure I didn't miss it."
The conditions were severe, he said. "Lots of snow, lots and lots of snow. Be careful what you wish for, huh?"
Petit, who now lives in a ski resort town just south of Anchorage, eventually found the trail again and arrived in Koyuk only to find that Norwegian musher Joar Ulsom had already been there an hour. Defending champion Mitch Seavey of Seward, Alaska, also made it to Koyuk after Petit.
All three mushers were resting before heading to the next checkpoint about 50 miles down the trail, in Elim. The winner is expected in Nome by mid-week.
This year's Iditarod has been marked by fallout from the race's first-ever dog doping scandal. Last year, race officials said dogs on the team of four-time champion Dallas Seavey had tested positive for an opioid pain killer. Seavey has denied giving his dogs tramadol, and sat out this year's race in protest.
Another musher, Wade Marrs, has claimed that Craig, the head of the drug testing program, threatened to reveal his name as another musher who had a positive test last year. Marrs in a statement released by his kennel has claimed it was in retaliation for Marrs' criticism of how race officials handled the incident, and to silence him ahead a meeting of mushers in Nome after the race.
The Iditarod's board said Monday that there are differing accounts of the conversation between Marrs and Craig and the perceived intent.
However, the board said the conversation that took place 30 minutes before Marrs started the nearly thousand mile race was "at best ill timed, and a breach of protocol."
It said it has reprimanded Craig but didn't indicate what the punishment was, citing it as a personnel matter. However, Craig is not an employee of the race but works as a contractor for a $2,500 annual stipend. Messages left with race officials for the Iditarod's chief operations officer and Craig seeking clarification and more information weren't immediately returned.
Craig's role is to analyze, interpret and report laboratory findings only to the board of directors, the statement said, and any further action deemed detrimental to the race could result in termination.
Craig, a toxicology professor at Oregon State University, was terminated on Oct. 30 after a faculty committee found he had bullied two students and had sexually harassed a student and faculty member.
Craig remains employed as he challenges his termination through the university process and in the Oregon state court system, a university spokesman said last week.