Salty tears will surely stipple the trail from Koyuk to Nome.

After a 10 hour 22 minute traverse of Norton Bay, not speedy by any means, but also not the slowest of this race, Katherine Keith and her team of nine arrived in blustery Koyuk. This little village has become quite the bastion of rest after arduous travels across the sea ice this year. Videos portray blinding ground storms that relandscaped the trail with drifts to be circumnavigated and trail markers blown out to sea.

I haven’t personally experienced this year’s trail, but based on these videos and trail reports, these conditions parallel what I’ve experienced during my two runs on this race trail. I guarantee it has not been an easy trek for these teams. Arriving in Koyuk, they will be more mentally fatigued than physically fatigued. I would not doubt there will be dogs that arrive in Koyuk getting a ride in the sled bag for both mental and physical rest.

Kat either carried one of her teammates into Koyuk or handed Blondie over to the care of the Iditarod veterinarian crew shortly after arriving in Koyuk and discovering the signs of pneumonia. It is very likely due to her expertise Kat recognized an abnormality to Blondie's attitude or behavior and notified the vets as soon as she arrived at the checkpoint. I suspect this because I’ve mushed with Kat before and seen the extreme caution and care she has for her teammates.

In 2015, Kat mushed into Old Woman cabin, where I was resting, absolutely distraught over a dog on her team with blood foaming from its nose and mouth. She was convinced her dog was dying and desperate to do anything to help, even pushing the SOS button on her SPOT tracker and ultimately ending her race, just to assure she had veterinary care for her dog as soon as possible.

All the mushers around the cabin sprung into action to help her until help arrived. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Upon examination, the dog ended up just having a small puncture in the nasal cavity-- that when combined with the athlete’s heavy breathing-- caused the bloody foam.

However, Kat’s race was over, and I’m sure if she had the choice, she’d do it again. What I saw from her that day was 100 percent love and care for a member of her family and team.

This year, the ending isn’t like 2015. Midway through her nine-hour break, Blondie died, likely of complications from pneumonia. Blondie will be sent to Nome or Anchorage for a gross necropsy by a board-certified veterinary pathologist to determine the cause of death while Kat and eight of her teammates continue toward Nome where they will be reunited with partner and Iditarod Champion John Baker.

For mushers, dog care and their safety is the number one priority. They are the reason we train and race. I guarantee throughout this race Blondie received better food, exercise and attention from her family and team member Kat than the average house dog. That love and care is why more than 330 dogs have been sent home early by their mushers. In most cases, the dogs sent home do not have traumatic injuries, and if given the choice, they’d run through the sore muscle or strain. However, as mushers, we know better and err on the side of caution and send dogs home early for a little rest and relaxation.

The loss of any dog life is a tragedy felt by all mushers and will be stuck with Kat forever.

The ghosts of Koyuk are no friend of Kat Keith's.

Bryan Bearss trained Iditarod race teams full time from 2003 to 2009 and raced the Iditarod in 2006 and 2015. He is currently an elementary school teacher and marathon canoe racer.

Opinions expressed are those of the author and not of KTVA 11 News.

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