FAIRBANKS — When Todd Surloff arrived last week to go on a four-day dog mushing trip in the White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks, the 43-year-old chiropractor from Atlanta, Ga., was champing at the bit.

He had planned the trip for the better part of three years. His 28-year-old fiancee from Thailand, Chonticha Tanapornsakul, had agreed to go along, even though she isn’t a big fan of the snow and cold.

But what Surloff thought would be a dream vacation turned into a nightmare last weekend when Alaska State Troopers had to rescue both Tanapornsakul and one of the guides on the trip, Peggy Billingsley of Fairbanks, after the group became separated on the trail and two of the dog teams quit.

Troopers found Tanapornsakul curled up her in sled seven miles from the Wickersham Dome trailhead at 28 Mile Elliott Highway. She was “breathing but unresponsive,” according to Justin McGinnis, the trooper who found her. McGinnis couldn’t tell whether she was asleep, unconscious, or hypothermic, but it was clear she didn’t have the proper gear to spend the night outdoors, the trooper said. She was wearing only a light parka, had no food, no sleeping bag and no way to make a fire. Tanapornsakul was rushed by snowmachine back to the trailhead, where she was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital.

Billingsley, who was found 15 miles from the trailhead, was in better shape. She had a slightly injured shoulder but otherwise was in good shape. She had a fire going and had plenty of survival gear, as well as a satellite phone, McGinnis said.

While neither woman was seriously injured and the rescue wasn’t dramatic by Alaska standards, to me this tale illustrates the importance of knowing what you are getting into, whether you’re a guide or a client.

“Clearly they weren’t prepared for the situation or they wouldn’t have been in that situation,” Mike Potter, one of the troopers who assisted with the rescue, said of Billingsley and her husband, Darrell Harpham. “It ended up being more than what they were capable of doing.

“Obviously these people had to be pulled out of there for a reason; they were in danger,” he said. “They had people running sleds that really didn’t know what they’re doing. Who would expect them to know how to mush dogs?”

Part of the program

It wasn’t long after Surloff arrived in Fairbanks that he began wondering about the “professionalism” of Billingsley’s operation.

Billingsley was recommended to him four years ago by someone who worked at Chena Hot Springs Resort, where Billingsley had given sled dog rides. Surloff said he spent the past three years exchanging emails with Billingsley about the trip.

Billingsley, who said she’s been mushing for 24 years and has been doing tours since 1989, no longer works at Chena Hot Springs and said she doesn’t do many trips anymore because both she and Harpham work full time.

Initially, the trip Surloff arranged was supposed to be a four-day trip in the White Mountains. Billingsley had reserved three cabins and told Surloff they would be mushing over the Continental Divide. They had a good chance of seeing moose, caribou and wolves, she told him. They agreed on a price of $3,200.

But almost as soon as they arrived in Fairbanks, things started to go wrong, Surloff said. The night he arrived in Fairbanks, Billingsley texted him that both she and Harpham had food poisoning from “eating a bad burger” and they might have to cancel the trip because they were too sick to travel.

While he was concerned after spending thousands of dollars to get to Alaska, Surloff figured Billingsley had a backup plan and would line them up with another outfitter if she and Harpham were too sick to take them out. On Thursday, the day they were supposed to leave on their trip, Billingsley sent Surloff another text saying she was too sick to travel and offered a list of tourist attractions for them to visit, including the University of Alaska Museum of the North, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, the Yukon Quest office and the Santa Claus House.

Surloff was not happy.

“I didn’t come to Alaska to go to the Santa Claus House,” he said.

In the end, Harpham convinced Surloff to rent a car, which he hadn’t planned to do because he had no experience driving on snow and ice, and drive out to the kennel at 10 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road for a seven-mile ride on local trails.

When they got there, Surloff said Harpham and Billingsley proceeded to put them to work hooking up dogs, even though they knew nothing about mushing.

“I felt like I was on a dude ranch,” Surloff said.

But Billingsley said “that’s part of our progam.”

“It’s a hands-on program,” she said. “We tell people right up front this is what we expect you to do. We want you to be a part of mushing and be a part of the sport.”

That sounds all warm and fuzzy, but as a former competitive long-distance musher, I know it’s not practical to expect someone who has never mushed a team of dogs before, especially a 120-pound woman from Thailand, to step in and start wrestling sled dogs into harnesses. One of the dogs bit Tanapornsakul in the buttocks, Surloff said, leaving a nasty bruise.

Even so, the short ride around the trails was enough to whet Surloff’s appetite for something bigger. On Friday, Surloff said, he called Billingsley several times asking if they could go out on a trip.

“I didn’t come here to go dog-sledding out of somebody’s back yard for half an hour,” Surloff said.

Billingsley finally agreed to take them on an overnight trip to a cabin 20 miles into the White Mountains the next day.

When they arrived at the kennel on Saturday, it took 2 1/2 hours to load the dogs, sleds and gear into the truck, Surloff said. When they were done, Surloff and Tanapornsakul were crammed into the back of pickup with no seats.

“It wasn’t like they prepared anything,” Surloff said. “We had to do all this work. They were not organized or prepared in any way.”

Blame spreads

The trip was a disaster almost from the start, Surloff said.

Even though they had only mushed dogs one time in their lives, Surloff and Tanapornsakul found themselves driving eight-dog teams.

“There were problems with the dogs the whole way,” Surloff said.

The dogs got tangled and started fighting, he said. There was no way to communicate with one another because Harpham said they had forgotten their two-way radios. Every time there was a problem, either Billingsley or Harpham would have to get off a snowmachine and walk 100 or 200 yards to fix it. There were times when neither Billingsley or Harpham, their so-called guides, were in sight, Surloff said. They had no food or water and had to supply all their own cold weather gear, an unusual arrangement considering they’re from Georgia.

“I don’t think they were prepared or set up to be doing what they were doing,” Surloff said. “I was scratching my head the whole time.”

Billingsley and Harpham, meanwhile, put much of the blame for what happened on Surloff.

“That guy’s an idiot,” Harpham told me over the phone. “Had he listened to us, you and I wouldn’t have to be talking.”

Surloff “started a chain of events that could have got all of us, dogs and people, killed,” Billingsley wrote in an email.

The gist of Billingsley and Harpham’s gripe is that Surloff didn’t follow their instructions when it came to running the dogs and using the brake to slow them down and, as a result, burned them up by running them too fast and too hard. As a result, the dogs got tired and quit, they said.

“He failed to follow our instructions about braking, about running dogs hard, and about over running the dogs,” Billingsley said. “He would let dogs run full bore for half mile and then stop them.”

“All he wanted to do was take pictures and go fast,” Harpham said. “I yelled at him two or three times, ‘Don’t lope our dogs.’”

Billingsley said she repeatedly told Surloff to keep the gangline taut going down hills.

“I told him if the gangline doesn’t stay straight, that’s where you get tangles,” she said. “You have to use your brake.”

When he wasn’t going too fast, Harpham said Surloff was going too slow.

“The first three miles out of the trailhead took us 2 1/2 hours,” Harpham said. “He’d go for 20 yards, stop and take pictures and fiddle with his gloves.”

Imagine a tourist from Georgia wanting to stop and take pictures on a mushing trip?

Surloff, meanwhile, contends he did as he was told and it was the dogs that were the problem.

“I was literally riding the brake the whole time,” he said. “I don’t think the dogs were fit enough to do it. They lacked the physical capabilities. One of the dogs would just stop and sit down.”

Separation anxiety

While the trip into the cabin wasn’t necessarily smooth, it was on the trip back out to the highway when things really unraveled.

Leaving the cabin, Harpham said a rope he had tied to the snowmachine to hold his team snapped and his dogs charged down the hill without him. Fortunately, the snowhook popped out of his sled bag after a short distance and caught in the snow, stopping the dogs.

Rather than turn around and help Billingsley get the other two teams hooked up and ready to go, Harpham decided to head down the trail with the team.

While Harpham said he and Billingsley stressed the importance of traveling together and keeping one another in sight, he never waited for Tanapornsakul, Surloff and Billingsley to catch up on the way back to the trailhead.

Asked why, Harpham said one of the tips on his snowhook was bent when it caught in the ice to stop the team and the hook would anchor the team.

“I couldn’t hook down; the snowhook kept popping out, even when I was standing on it,” Harpham said. “Once I got going I rode the dogs with both feet on the drag brake hoping people would catch up to me. I figured if I just went slow eventually they would catch up.”

What about tying or hooking the dogs to a tree, I asked.

“I could have tied off to tree but I didn’t anticipate them taking so long to leave the cabin,” Harpham said.

Rough exit

After Harpham left, Billingsley helped Tanapornsakul finish getting her team hooked up and sent her on her way. Almost immediately, the lead dogs tried to do a U-turn, so Billingsley ran down and straightened the team out. As she was leaving to help Tanapornsakul she told Surloff to start hooking up his team.

When Billingsley got Tanapornsakul's team straightened out, “I told her Darrell would be up the trail right around the corner,” she said.

When Billingsley returned, she said Surloff hadn’t hooked up or harnessed any of his dogs.

“He was just standing there,” Billingsley said.

When they finally did get Surloff’s team hooked up, he “blew up” the dogs by letting them run all out for four miles and not holding them back, Billingsley said. When she came up on him five miles from the cabin on a snowmachine, Surloff told her one of the dogs had collapsed and wouldn’t run anymore.

I find it hard to believe that you can “blow up” an adequately trained dog team in the matter of five miles but let’s forget that for a moment and move on.

At that point, Billingsley said she made the decision to have Surloff ride the snowmachine 15 miles out to the parking lot, even though he had ridden a snowmachine only once in his life and that was for a brief stint the day before with Harpham on the back.

“I wasn’t going to leave him out there to spend the night,” she said. “I wasn’t going to leave him out there with our dog team.”

Instead, Billingsley gave him a shovel, a sleeping bag, a satellite phone and directions to the trailhead.

“I told him to stay on the hardpack and drive until you catch up to Darrell,” Billingsley said.

While the trails in the White Mountains are generally in great shape and the federal Bureau of Land Management does an excellent job of maintaining them, the 20-mile Wickersham Dome Trail that runs between the Elliott Highway and Borealis LeFevre Cabin can be gnarly. Every year, there are a few spots where overflow creates sloping glaciers that challenge even for the most experienced dog mushers and snowmachiners.

“There’s some pretty hairy overflow ice sections,” said BLM ranger John Priday said, adding that he was amazed that Tanapornsakul managed to negotiate those sections of trail.

Surloff, too, wondered if he was going to make it back to the trailhead.

“I’d never ridden a snowmobile solo in my life and I had to ride 20 miles by myself in White Mountains without a map,” Surloff said. “When I got to those glaciers I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get across. I just gunned it and went for it.”

Panic attack

It took Harpham 3 1/2 hours to get back to the trailhead, and even then he wasn’t concerned he hadn’t seen any sign of Tanapornsakul Surloff or Billingsley.

“I got back to the truck and I figured I’ll give them an hour or hour and a half and they’ll show up,” he said.

Evidently, the thought of turning his team around and going back to check on his guests never occurred to him because Harpham put his dogs away and climbed inside the truck. Twenty minutes after Harpham got there, Surloff showed up on the snowmachine Billingsley was supposed to be driving.

When he asked Harpham where Tanapornsakul was, the guide responded by saying, “She’s not with you?”

That’s when Surloff panicked.

“I just about lost it,” Surloff said. “I said, ‘What do you mean she’s not with you? She’s not on the trail. She’s lost.’”

Harpham got on the snowmachine and headed back down the trail to see what happened. Surloff ran out to the Elliott Highway and flagged down a passing trucker to call 911.

Out of control

Unbeknownst to Surloff, he had passed Tanapornsakul after her team turned off the trail about 10 miles from the trailhead.

Fairbanks cyclists Rocky Reifenstuhl, his wife, Gail Koepf, and friend, Tom Clark, were at Eleazar’s Cabin, about two miles off the main trail, when Tanapornsakul showed up.

It was obvious that Tanapornsakul, who was wearing a layer of thick mascara on her eyelashes, didn’t know what she was doing.

“She was totally out of control,” Reifenstuhl said.

Tanapornsakul, who speaks decent English, told them she was from Thailand and now lived in Georgia, where she works at a candy store. She said she was part of group of three mushers and “a motorcycle,” Reifenstuhl said.

The cyclists helped her untangle her dogs and offered her something to eat and drink but she refused, saying she didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom.

“We suggested she stay there and we tried to get her to drink something,” Koepf said. “She just seemed to have it in her mind she had to keep going.”

The cyclists helped her get her dogs turned around and hooked up and she set off again. Almost immediately, the sled slid off the trail into the deep snow. They helped her get the sled back on the trail only to have the process repeated.

Finally, Clark got behind the sled and drove the team back down to the main trail. At that point, they pointed Tanapornsakul in the right direction, gave her some directions and hoped for the best.

“All we did was worry about it for the next two or three hours and then went to sleep,” Reifenstuhl said.

It was around midnight when BLM’s Priday pulled up on a snowmachine and woke them up, asking if they’d seen a dog musher.

Curled up in sled

It wasn’t long after Harpham took off from the trailhead on the snowmachine that he found Tanapornsakul stuck at a patch of overflow about eight miles from the trailhead.

“When the dogs see the ice they stop,” Tanapornsakul said in an interview Tuesday at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge. “I try to pull them across the ice but it very hard.”

Harpham helped her get the dogs across the overflow. Instead of helping her get back to the trailhead, he told her to keep going.

“I thought he going to follow me but he didn’t,” she said. “He say, ‘Keep going straight; go on the road.’”

Harpham then continued down the trail to find Billingsley.

Tanapornsakul, meanwhile, went another mile or so before her dogs rebelled and tried to turn off the main trail.

“My dogs want to turn this way,” she said, motioning with her left hand. “I don’t know how to tell dogs to go right.”

Tanapornsakul did the smartest thing she could do. She stopped the dogs and sat down on the sled. It wasn’t long before Harpham returned.

He had found Billingsley where Surloff had left her, about 15 miles from the trailhead. She had a fire going, she had a sleeping bag and food for herself and the dogs and none of the dogs were injured so Harpham turned around and headed back to the trailhead.

He ran into Tanapornsakul where she had stopped at the intersection. The tangled dogs were curled up in balls sleeping and Tanapornsakul was doing the same inside the sled. Harpham woke her up, untangled the dogs and got her under way again. Tanapornsakul said she pleaded with Harpham to take her back to the trailhead.

“I told him, ‘I’m tired. Can I hook dogs and go with you?’” Tanapornsakul said. “He say, ‘Keep running. You’re only six mile away. You should be fine.’”

She watched the snowmachine headlight disappear ahead of her.

‘I’m going to die’

Tanapornsakul didn’t go far before dogs got tangled again. Tired, cold and hungry and with no headlamp to guide her in the dark, Tanapornsakul crawled into her sled bag and went to sleep.

“I told myself ‘Don’t close eyes,’” she said. “(Harpham) told me when get cold your body shuts down and you want to go to sleep, so I try to keep my eyes open. I feel like I’m going to die.”

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. It wasn’t long before McGinnis and Harpham found her. They hitched the sled to McGinnis’ snowmachine and towed her back to the trailhead with Harpham riding on the back of the sled. They let the dogs loose to follow.

When they reached the trailhead and dropped Tanapornsakul off with EMTs, McGinnis and Harpham then went back to retrieve Billingsley and her team. Billingsley rode the snowmachine out while Harpham drove the dogs, which were rested and ready to go by then.

Even after they were rescued, Harpham blamed Surloff for using too much gas driving the snowmachine out to the road.

“I don’t know where over half a tank of fuel went,” Harpham said. “He must have burnt it up coming out somehow.”

“Had that idiot not burned up a bunch of fuel in the snowmachine we could have gotten everybody out of there without involving troopers,” he said.

Does anyone see a pattern developing here?

Commercial operation

The fact that Billingsley and Harpham were doing business in a national recreation area is another matter, and one that BLM is investigating, Priday said.

It’s illegal to operate a commercial enterprise on federal land without a permit, and it’s clear from talking to Surloff and reading emails exchanged between him and Billingsley that this was a commercial operation. In fact, Surloff had written a check for $3,200 to give to Billingsley, though he never gave her a cent after what transpired.

Billingsley and Harpham said they had “no idea” they needed a permit to take trips into the White Mountains, and there’s no mention of it on BLM’s web page about the national recreation area.

But Priday said it’s common knowledge in the guiding industry that you need a permit to do business on federal land.

“You can’t run a commercial operation on any federal land anywhere without a permit,” the ranger said. “It’s not exclusive to the White Mountains National Recreation Area. You would think people that were in the guiding business would know that.”

One reason BLM requires permits is to address exactly what happened in this case, Priday said. That way the agency can require an operator to do or have certain things, like provide survival gear for its clients.

“It helps us make sure peoples’ lives aren’t in danger and the lives of BLM staff are not going to be put in danger (in the event of a rescue),” Priday said. “It helps us make sure folks know what they’re doing.”

Hard feelings

Last time I talked to Surloff, neither Harpham nor Billingsley had called him to check on Tanapornsakul or talk about what happened.

At this point, Surloff is considering legal action against Billingsley, if nothing else to recoup hospital bills. Billingsley, meanwhile, is concerned that Surloff may have permanently injured one or two of her dogs.

Needless to say, the trip didn’t turn out well for any of the parties involved and there are hard feelings on both sides.

“If they want to dig in their heels and put the blame on two tourists who didn’t know anything about mushing, then I’m going to pursue a lawsuit against them,” Surloff said. “I don’t see how a guide for a second can try to twist things around that it’s the customer’s fault they got stuck alone on trail.”

The main responsibility of a guide, any guide, is the safety and welfare of their clients, regardless of the situation or attitude of that client.

“To me, our guides were negligent and not prepared,” Surloff said. “Instead of passing us off to someone else who could handle it, they tried to handle it and it turned into a real mess.”

Outdoors Editor Tim Mowry is a veteran of two Iditarods and seven Yukon Quest. He can be reached at 459-7587.

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