MARQUETTE - A somber cloud was cast over the 24th running of the U.P. 200 Sled Dog Championship this year after a musher's sled dog team was struck by a vehicle as it crossed M-28 early Sunday morning.
Frank Moe, of Bemidji, Minn., was leaving the Wetmore checkpoint shortly after 5:30 a.m. when his team was struck by a pickup truck as he was attempting to cross M-28.
According to information from the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association, Moe was running with a team of 12 freshly rested dogs and was unable to stop the team when he saw the vehicle approaching.
One of Moe's dogs was killed and two others seriously injured as a result of the crash. The two injured dogs were still being cared for at a veterinary clinic in Gwinn, as of press time this morning.
In a year that celebrates the first four-time consecutive winner in the race's history, the collision also marks a first for the race - the first time there has ever been a collision between a dog team and a vehicle.
Pat Torreano, president of the association, said two volunteers were at the road crossings and did their best to stop the accident.
Torreano said a sawhorse with flashing lights - which warn mushers of road crossings - was working at the time of the incident and both volunteers were in place and wearing reflective gear, as they should have been.
"They (should be) in reflective clothing, and they were, we double checked that," Torreano said this morning before the start of the U.P. 200 awards breakfast at the Holiday Inn in Marquette.
According to a press release issued by the association, race volunteers attempted to warn Moe of the oncoming vehicle, but Moe was unable to hear their calls. They also attempted to stop the team from entering the highway but were unsuccessful.
Michigan law prohibits race volunteers from stopping vehicle traffic.
The driver of the pickup, an unidentified man from Ontario, Canada, stopped briefly after the incident before leaving the scene. A short time later, he contacted police about the crash.
The Michigan State Police have determined the incident was an accident and no citations were issued.
UPSDA Vice President Ron Hewson said he had spoken with Moe Sunday evening, and he was still distraught over what had happened.
"When I saw him last night, he looked very tired," Hewson said. "He spent all day with his dogs."
Both Torreano and Hewson said dog mushing is a dangerous sport, and mushers know and understand the risks.
"We had a long-time musher on his own trails, before the race, he didn't mush this year because in an instant, one wrong thought, and he's got a gash (on his head), two black eyes ... (while) training on his own property," Hewson said. "It's like ice fishing. Some people won't go. You just weigh the risk."
Torreano said the UPSDA board of directors met from 8 to 10 p.m. Sunday to discuss the accident and how they can prevent future crashes, adding she'd like to see safety measures triple at that intersection.
"We came to some positive ideas," Torreano said of the meeting. "But I don't want anybody to misunderstand, I don't want anybody to think we were sitting there trying to figure out how to make it safe. It was safe. As safe as you can make it."
Ryan Anderson, the U.P. 200's top finisher this year, said mushers are always aware of the dangers they face when they hit the trail.
Though it's more unusual for a sled dog team to be hit by a car, Anderson said it's not unheard of for sled dog teams to be hit by motorized vehicles.
Many sled dog races take mushers along snowmobile trails, which pose a risk as significant as road crossings.
"If you're coming around a corner and a snowmobile is coming around a corner, you don't see each other until it's too late," Anderson said. "It's just bad news."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.