Earthquakes and Sled Dogs

Paws Along the Trail with an Earthquake

While in Alaska last winter as a Teacher on the Trail™ finalist, we gathered on the top floor of the hotel, enjoying the Exxon Mobile social. The first speaker proceeded through a litany of warnings and advice on what to do in the event of an earthquake. I thought it was an opening joke to lighten up the crowd! As he continued, however, I made a mental note of the small cocktail tables we were told to crawl under if the building began to shake. The week went on and similar safety warnings were given at every public gathering; it hit me that earthquakes are a common occurrence because  the Pacific and North American plates meet along the Aleutian Islands chain. I began to wonder what sled dogs would do if an earthquake happened while on the Iditarod trail. Asking around, 4-time Iditarod champion Jeff King hadn’t experienced it but wrote, I have never seen them during an earthquake. Would be interesting.”   

Tectonic plates meet along the Aleutian Islands. [Gif credit:  USGS]


The Iditarod is one of the longest dog team races in North America, but mushers enjoy shorter competitions throughout the winter. Kathy Chapoton, wife of 4-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser,  told me that an earthquake hit during a smaller race in 2016, the Northern Lights 300, giving me a direction for my research.  

Many of the teams were out on rivers, January 25,  2016. Eye-witnesses said that geyser-like fountains of water, mud, and rock spewed up through cracks in the ice! Musher Karin Hendrickson was on the river when the 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit. “The ice was rippling and waving like a waterbed when someone jumps up and down on it. I was having a hard time keeping my feet. As the ice rolled and jumped, it cracked and snapped all around me. Water came shooting up through the cracks, and I was trying to figure out if we were all going to wash away… I was trying to figure out how to get the dogs there, as they were too riled up to follow directions at that point. One of the last places I want to be during a 7.1 earthquake is running dogs down the middle of a frozen river. “

Karin Hendrickson is shoveling snow off her dog box truck.

Trail managers had to go onto the Big Susitna River and reroute the trail for safe crossing. Huge cracks and jumbled ice, along with mud and rocks flung from the bottom up through the fissures in the ice, were reported by mushers. [credit:  Alaska Public Media, Ellen Lockyer,1/25/16]

According to an article in the Anchorage Daily News, [Joseph Robertia, 1/26/16] another musher said that her dogs, who should have been tired at the checkpoint, began acting oddly. Moments later, the earthquake hit and they were hearing it and feeling it. She wondered if she should get her team off the river as she heard ice cracking.

Meredith Mapes, a rookie in the Iditarod this year, was resting inside a checkpoint. “I was just drifting off to sleep when it hit, so I wasn’t totally sure if it was an earthquake or a dream. I opened my eyes and realized it was actually an earthquake, sat up along with all the other mushers/volunteers in the room, and we all just kind of stared at each other until it stopped. The dogs and cats were going crazy in the house, running up and down the stairs, barking and meowing. It was definitely an interesting experience, and not one I’m likely to forget!”

Heidi and Meredith at the summer Musher Sign Ups


Earthquakes are a part of life in Alaska. From what mushers said, the sled dogs definitely react when the earth moves under their feet.

Earth movements is a science unit that can be easily enriched by some study of sled dogs and Alaska!

The following literacy activity  worked well alongside our science study of earth movements.

I gave my students this article to read.   They then were asked to do the following to demonstrate their understanding:

Summarize what the mushers saw and felt during the 7.1 earthquake while they were on the river, about one paragraph. Write it in your reading journal.  Draw what you imagine the teams looked like during the earthquake.

One summary of the article

What might it have looked like during the earthquake?