UPDATED, March 16, 2016: Clarified third to last paragraph.
While a senior at Andrew K. Demoski School in Nulato, Alaska, Arnold Demoski helped raise $20,000 for a class trip to Cleveland, Ohio. Upon graduation from high school, he was a Doyon scholarship recipient.
He became natural resources coordinator for the Nulato Tribal Council, represented the council at meetings of the Western Interior Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council, and served on the Middle Yukon River Advisory Committee, which advises the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on issues related to game, trapping, and fishing issues on the state and federal levels.
But as he walked a good road toward being a leader in his community, alcohol shadowed him like a storm cloud. According to the Alaska Courts database, Demoski pleaded guilty or no contest in 2008 and 2009 to minor consuming/possessing alcohol; fourth-degree assault and minor consuming/possessing alcohol; furnishing alcohol to a minor; and criminal trespass.
In the ensuing years, he continued to struggle with alcohol, he told KTUU-TV.
“He's a good kid,” Nulato Mayor Maurice McGinty told KTUU-TV Channel 2. “It's too bad alcohol got the best of him."
Demoski was scheduled to appear in court in Fairbanks on March 13, a day after his snowmobile clipped two Iditarod sled dog teams, killing one dog and injuring others.
Saying alcohol is “ruining my life," Demoski was tearfully apologetic in a KTUU-TV interview March 12. “I don’t know how I can possibly make it right” for mushers Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle, whose teams had the encounter with Demoski’s snowmobile.
“I hope they can forgive me. I feel real bad for what I did,” he said. “I don’t want people to think bad about me or this community. I embarrassed my community and I embarrassed my employer. I just want to do everything I can to make it right.”
Zirkle and King reported at the checkpoint in Nulato – Zirkle at 2:17 a.m., King at 3:25 -- that they and their teams had been clipped by a snowmobile.
According to Alaska State Trooper Robert Nunley on Iditarod Insider, Zirkle reported that the snowmobile injured one of her dogs while she was on the trail outside of Koyukuk, and that she encountered the snowmobile again seven miles down the trail. Then, an hour later, King checked in and reported “one of his dogs was killed and two others injured by a snowmobile 10 miles outside of Nulato.”
King told Iditarod Insider that the snowmobile missed him and his sled “but hit several of my dogs at high speed. The snowmachine never stopped … One of my dogs was killed pretty much on the spot. A couple of others I gave first aid to the best I could and loaded them into my sled. The driver never stopped and never returned.”
King also collected the snowmobile’s cowling, which had fallen off at the scene, and turned it in to authorities to aid in identifying the responsible vehicle.
Demoski told the Alaska Dispatch News that he “blacked out … after drinking hard liquor in a nearby village.” He heard about the incidents when he woke up in the morning, checked his snowmobile, saw damage, and “knew it was me right off the bat.” Demoski said he called the village public safety officer, claimed responsibility for the crash, and said he’d cooperate with the investigation.
Later that day, Nunley took Demoski into custody on two counts of third-degree assault, reckless endangerment, reckless driving and six counts of criminal mischief 5. Demoski was scheduled to be arraigned in Fairbanks at 1:30 p.m. March 13.
The incidents shocked and saddened Nulato and the Iditarod.
“I don’t know that we thought this would have ever happened,” said Karen Ramstead, race judge in Nulato. “The Iditarod doesn’t feel that this incident at all affects the relationship we’ve had with Nulato over all of these years. The village has always been very welcoming and friendly to us and we really regret the negative attention that this is going to bring to the community.”
The incidents also cast a light on the problem of substance abuse in rural Alaska.
“There are many wonderful people in these communities, and there’s also very serious social issues in rural communities around Alaska that involve substance abuse,” King told Iditarod Insider. “I feel sorry for the communities that have to suffer through that. It seems beyond comprehension to me that this was not related to substance abuse.” He pointed to the numerous role models who are working to “put an end to the tragedy that goes along with substance abuse.”
One of those role models, Mike Williams Sr., an Alaska Native political leader and veteran of 15 Iditarods, wrote about mushing and the Sobriety Movement for Alaska Natives in his book, “Racing Toward Recovery: The Extraordinary Story of Alaska Musher Mike Williams Sr.,” co-written by journalist Lew Freedman and published by Alaska Northwest Books.
Williams knows the devastation of alcohol: each of his brothers succumbed to alcohol-related accidents or illnesses. In his book, Williams describes how he recovered from his dependence on alcohol through faith, family, and mushing.
“It’s more than competing, it’s our way of life,” Williams said in an earlier interview. “We’ve hunted and camped with our dogs for thousands of years and we want to continue to keep that culture alive.”
Williams said what happened in Nulato is the “tip of the iceberg” of rural Alaska’s substance abuse problem – particularly in Native communities that have lost their traditional way of life and their language, and lost their control of local resources to the state. Tribal governments lack jurisdiction and there is little opportunity for economic development, Williams said.
A key part of the solution is indigenous sovereignty and empowerment. “There are many Arnolds throughout the state,” Williams said. “We need to get ahead of that and take our lives back.”
Williams said he hopes Demoski is at a turning point in his life.
“He has to help himself … He has to be motivated to take care of his issues. I think that he needs to deal with this in a treatment center. For starters, a 90-day assessment and dry out program. Not just him, but his family. Elders need to be involved. He is a good candidate to turn his life around. I have seen too many in our area for many years. Just having hope on them is essential.”