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‘An amazing thing’: Iditarod dog found 3 months after disappearing from race checkpoint

He lost some weight, but otherwise Léon, an Iditarod sled dog who disappeared from a checkpoint in Alaska three months ago and was recently found, seems to be doing OK. 

“For sure he was thin when, you know, when he was finally caught. But he looks great,” said Mark Nordman, the Iditarod’s race director and race marshal.

“It’s an amazing thing. I mean, it just shows you what the Alaskan husky can do, and survive with.”

The nearly 1,609-kilometre Iditarod race began March 6 just north of Anchorage. The route took mushers along Alaska’s untamed and unforgiving wilderness, including two mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and Bering Sea ice along the state’s western coastline. Brent Sass won the race March 15 when he crossed under the famed burled arch finish line in Nome.

Such an epic race would be a big enough adventure for most restless dogs, but apparently not Léon. He was at a race checkpoint in Ruby, Alaska, just under 800 kilometres from the race’s start, when he somehow managed to slip out of his collar and skedaddle. 

His owner — musher Sébastien Dos Santos Borges of France — had already continued up the Iditarod trail with the rest of his team. Individual dogs are often left behind with handlers at checkpoints, for extra rest or medical care.

Nordman chalks up Léon’s escape to “human error.”

“I just don’t think the collar was put on tight enough,” Nordman said.

A musher heads down the Yukon River between Ruby and Galena, Alaska, during the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News/AP)

Where Léon went from there is a mystery. But people in Ruby really “stepped up,” Nordman said, and began looking for the dog as soon as word went around that he was missing. A helicopter got involved at one point. 

“There was a lot of emotions at the beginning. It was hard for people to understand how this could happen,” Nordman recalled. 

“It went on and on. And we’d hear, you know, maybe this was the dog, maybe it was wolf tracks — back and forth.”

Winter turned to spring, the snows melted and the rivers opened — and Léon was still lost to the wilds.

Nordman says he never gave up hope, though. He thought the dog may have initially bolted back up the race trail, scavenging abandoned dog food along the way.

Then, in late May, word came to Nordman that a homesteader near McGrath, Alaska — about 195 kilometres south of Ruby — had been seeing a dog frequently near his cabin. Word of Léon’s earlier disappearance had spread through the area and many people had been keeping an eye out for him, including in McGrath.

The homesteader and another musher from the area left food for the dog — Léon — and eventually managed to capture him.

Nordman was “elated” when he heard Léon was safe.

“I don’t know if you’d say it’s a miracle or not, but it just shows how people work together and how tough these sled dogs can be,” Nordman said. 

Léon has since been reunited with Dos Santos Borges in Willow, Alaska, and the two were expected to soon fly back to France.

Nordman said it was an amazing reunion. He described Léon “bouncing around, really happy to be back with Sébastian.”

“Everybody’s saying, if only Leon could talk because I’m sure he’d have a good story to tell!”

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