'I made the right decision,' says Yukon musher penalized by Iditarod for sheltering dogs in storm

After being penalized by the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog for sheltering her dogs during a fierce storm, Yukon musher Michelle Philipps said she has no regrets about what she did.

‘It was about me and my dogs and keeping them safe,’ said Michelle Phillips

Yukon musher Michelle Phillips at the Dawson City checkpoint in the 2020 Yukon Quest sled dog race. Phillips is appealing a decision by Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officials that lowered her standing in the race earlier this month because she sheltered her dogs during a fierce winter storm. Officials said it gave her a competitive advantage. (Steve Silva/CBC)

After being penalized during the last leg of the 1,510-kilometre Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race earlier this month for sheltering her dogs during a fierce storm, Yukon musher Michelle Phillips said she has no regrets about what she did.

She said she encountered high winds, which she estimates were at about 80 to 95 km/h, and decided to shelter her dogs in a cabin along the trail instead of leaving them out in the harsh elements.

"It was about me and my dogs and keeping them safe. And, you know, I made the right decision, which I would never go back and change," said Phillips on Monday.

Four other mushers complained and she was penalized by being dropped one position, from 17th to 18th.

Fellow mushers Mille Porsild of Denmark and Riley Dyche of Fairbanks were also penalized for sheltering their dogs during the storm. Porsild was dropped three spots, from 14th to 17th, and Dyche was fined $1,000 but wasn't demoted in the standings.

Phillips waves to the crowd as she takes off down Fourth Street during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage on March 5. (Emily Mesner/Anchorage Daily News/AP)

The drop in finishing position equated to $3,450 less for Porsild and $1,000 less for Phillips.

Six other mushers scratched that day.

The race across Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome, was won on March 15 by Brent Sass, who was also affected by the storm just as he was nearing the finish line in Nome. He said he fell off his sled and couldn't see anything, and thought he was going to have to hunker down with his dogs and ride out the storm.

Phillips to appeal decision

The decision to punish the mushers was made by Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman, who said the indoor rest for the dogs amounted to a competitive advantage over teams that trailed them into Nome, Alaska.

"No doubt that Michelle and Mille did the right thing for their dogs," Nordman said. "But it also affected the competition for racers going forward."

Phillips is appealing the decision.

Iditarod rules say dogs cannot be taken inside shelters except for race veterinarians' medical examination or treatment. 

However, the entry immediately after that one in the Iditarod rule book says: "There will be no cruel or inhumane treatment of dogs. Cruel or inhumane treatment involves any action or inaction, which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog."

"I think [the rule] needs to be revisited," Phillips said. "I'd like to see the rules change to reflect, you know, what's important in the care of the sled dog."

'Not a competitive advantage'

Phillips, who was participating in her 21st 1,000-mile race, said she's noticed that storms are getting worse on the Iditarod.

"So you kind of have to be ready for anything out there. And, you know, maybe the rules, it's time for them to change, to reflect that in order to keep people and dogs safe," she said.

Phillips added that as far as she knows, no musher had been penalized before.

She said she and Porsild are experienced mushers who have seen and raced in all kinds of weather.

Phillips, a veteran musher, arrives at the Yukon Quest 300 finish line in Whitehorse last month. Phillips came second in that race. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

"It's not like it was slightly windy, and we decided to put our dogs in the cabin," said Phillips. "We spent a lot of hours in there, and we dropped a lot of places. So, it was not a competitive advantage."

She said one of her dogs wasn't feeling well and ended up dropping out at the next checkpoint.

"I spent a couple hours there and he went on to be sick with pneumonia," she said. "So, you know, I think spending… nine hours out in the weather would not have helped him at all."

Done with Iditarod

The demotion of the three mushers, which was not widely publicized by the Iditarod, immediately drew a harsh retort from the race's biggest critic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

"Nothing makes it clearer that this death race must end than the fact that the Iditarod slapped mushers with a fine as punishment for acting to prevent dogs' deaths," PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman said in a statement Friday.

She called for cruelty charges to be filed against mushers who did leave their dogs outside while they went inside shelter cabins, "Cruelty is baked into this deadly race, and it's time for it to stop."

Phillips, seen here in 2016, said being penalized by the Iditarod this year 'really solidified' her decision to not run the race again. (Julien Schroder/Yukon Quest)

Phillips said after the race that she wouldn't be racing in the Iditarod again.

She said she had already thought this was going to be her last Iditarod and with what happened, "this really solidified my decision."

"Of course I'm a dog musher, and I can change my mind, but, you know, right now, I really don't think I'll run the Iditarod again."

She said she hopes to compete again in the Yukon Quest and will do some mid-distance Canadian races.

"[And we'll] see what else is out there."

With files from Kanina Holmes and The Associated Press