News-Miner file photo. Local rider Tyler Huntington, standing on his snowmachine, celebrates a victorious performance in the 2011 Iron Dog snowmachine race with his partner Chris Olds, of Eagle River, on Saturday evening, Feb. 26, 2011, on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. The Polaris team of Huntington and Olds also won the race in 2010.
FAIRBANKS — Two-time Iron Dog champion Tyler Huntington, of Fairbanks, was seriously injured in a crash on the Bering Sea coast Monday afternoon while training for next month’s 2,000-mile snowmachine race from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks.
Huntington, 27, was going between 80 and 90 mph when he hit a piece of driftwood on the edge of the trail about 3 miles north of the village of Shaktoolik about 3 p.m. He was thrown from his machine and suffered a broken pelvis and possible internal injuries in the crash, which occurred during a practice run with racing partner Evan Booth, of Nome.
Booth and villagers from Shaktoolik put Huntington onto a stretcher and loaded him in a dog sled. He was towed into the village by snowmachine and medevaced to Anchorage, where he was scheduled to undergo surgery Tuesday afternoon.
Riding a Polaris Indy 600cc, Huntington was trailing Booth when he hit the log, which Booth estimated at 12 to 18 inches in diameter.
“I was coming off a lake going onto the beach, going about 80 or 90 mph,” Huntington said from his hospital bed in Anchorage before going into surgery. “It was pretty windy; I couldn’t see the ground very well.
“I hit a big, old log and went tumbling,” he said. “It happened so fast I didn’t even know what was going on.”
Booth said he noticed the driftwood when he went by, but it didn’t appear to pose a threat or he would have stopped and alerted Huntington, as he had done in two or three spots earlier the same day.
“It was just a typical pile of driftwood left behind from a tidal surge, a bunch of logs laid down any old way,” Booth said. “It was just one of those deals.”
Huntington landed in a scattered pile of driftwood logs, and doctors told him he may have hit another piece of driftwood when he landed. His pelvis was broken. Huntington knew immediately something was wrong.
“Oh my God,” he said. “I’ve never felt that kind of pain before.”
Booth, who was periodically looking over his shoulder to check on Huntington, turned around as soon as he realized Huntington wasn’t there.
“I went back and came across the accident site,” he said. “Tyler’s machine was upside down running and he was laying there making some noises.”
Booth, also a two-time Iron Dog champ who dislocated his hip in a crash during the 2001 race, could tell right away that Huntington wasn’t going to be able to move or ride. Booth had a satellite phone to call for help but thought it would be quicker to ride into Shaktoolik, given how close he was to the village.
“The first three things that went through my mind was it was a broken upper femur, a dislocated hip or a busted pelvis,” Booth said. “I made sure he was OK, that no bones were sticking out and he wasn’t bleeding out.
Then Booth used Huntington’s snowmachine to help block the wind, which he said was blowing about 30-35 mph. He then covered Huntington with a space blanket. The temperature was about 10 degrees above zero.
“It wasn’t horrible but the wind can bust it down pretty quick,” Booth said of the weather.
Booth raced into Shaktoolik to alert villagers to call Alaska State Troopers and to get help in the form of manpower to help move Huntington.
“It took me two minutes to get there, one minute to give them instructions and two minutes to get back to him,” Booth said.
Once back with Huntington, Booth used his satellite phone to call troopers and Bering Air in Nome to prepare them for a medevac.
“I made sure they knew it was life threatening,” Booth said.
Villager Dale Sookiayak showed up with a sleeping bag that they zipped Huntington into and other villagers showed up on snowmachines, including a health aide who gave Huntington a shot of morphine so he could be loaded onto a stretcher and into the dog sled.
“There was no way I could move,” Huntington said.
Drawing from experience when he dislocated his hip back in 2001, Booth knew time was of the essence in that environment.
“The main thing I wanted to get out there was morphine to get him settled down so he didn’t go into shock,” Booth said.
The accident happened about 3 p.m. and rescuers had Huntington in Shaktoolik by 5 p.m. He arrived in Anchorage by medevac about 10 p.m.
Huntington said it was fortunate he was so close to Shaktoolik when the crash happened.
“If I was any further out they would have had to get a helicopter,” he said.
Huntington and Booth were a last-minute entry in the 2,000-mile Iron Dog, scheduled to start February 15 in Big Lake. They replaced the team of Micah Huss, of Willow, and Dan Lowrie, of Phoenix, when that duo pulled out of the race 2 1/2 weeks ago. Huntington and Booth were considered top contenders among the 40 two-man teams entered in this year’s Iron Dog race.
The two riders were on a 1,000-mile training run from Nome to the Yukon River village of Ruby and back when the accident occurred. They were planning to spend the night in Galena, which is Huntington’s hometown.
“We were going to Ruby and back to Galena, and we were going to spend the night in Galena and go back to Nome,” Huntington said.
The crash ended Huntington’s dream of winning a third Iron Dog title in four years. He won back-to-back Iron Dog titles with Chris Olds in 2010 and 2011 and finished second last year with Tre West, of Nome.
Huntington was looking forward to racing with Booth, who was trying to return to the winner’s circle for the first time since his last win in 1994.
“We would have had a lot of fun,” Huntington said. “We had the sleds riding really good. Everything just felt right.”
Booth, who won Iron Dog titles in 1992 and 1994 with Dan Zipay, plans to remain in the race at Huntington’s request and will race with Iron Dog veteran Doug Dixon, of Anchorage.
If they win any prize money, Booth said, they’ll donate it to Huntington to help get him back on his feet, since he’ll be out of work for several months.
Huntington said the crash was the worst of his career.
“I’ve had some pretty nasty ones before, but I never ever got hurt,” he said.
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry at 907-459-7587.