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Ideal Iditarod knife? Musher aims to turn pain into pleasure

Jill Burke
Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz, leading dog sled rides at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. July 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz, leading dog sled rides at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. July 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz, leading dog sled rides at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. July 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz, leading dog sled rides at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. July 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz, leading dog sled rides at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. July 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz, leading dog sled rides at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. July 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz, leading dog sled rides at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. July 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz, leading dog sled rides at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. July 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

Alaska musher Jake Berkowitz had high hopes for the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Even after a single-blade knife he was using to cut apart frozen-fish snacks for his dogs slipped and plunged deep into the flesh of his left palm, he thought he could salvage a top finish -- if he could just stop the bleeding.

Before the mishap, Berkowitz slid into Unalakleet in sixth place. But that checkpoint would be Berkowitz’ last official stop of the 1,000-mile race, as his severed artery required medical attention. With the memory of a dashed finish and the pain of the stab still haunting him today, Berkowitz is healed and ready to race again. And in his wounds, he's found opportunity.

For 2013 he must not only conquer the psychology of a promising race gone awry, but he also plans to use his experience mishandling a knife to create a blade exclusively designed for sled dog mushers.

"Knives do not injure people. We do that all on our own," Berkowitz said during a recent interview. "Ninety-nine percent of knife injuries are user error, mine included."

Teams with Fairbanks knife maker

Mushers are notorious for using tools in ways unintended by the manufacturer. Chopping. Prying. Whacking. Cutting. A musher will do all these -- as quickly and efficiently as possible -- during breaks. Because mushers must be able to free tangled dogs quickly, most carry a knife on their person, and keep a second attached to their sled that’s easily accessible.

Berkowitz believes the perfect musher knife has yet to be made, so he's teamed up with knife maker Nate Miller, of Alaska Sportsman's Edge in Fairbanks, to create one.

"We are not trying to make a multi-tool. I do not want forks and spoons coming out of my knife," Berkowitz said. "We are creating a knife that will have the features that we would want in a one-piece thing. We are not trying to make the best knife in the world. We are trying to make the best knife for the Iditarod."

After his injury along the Iditarod Trail on March 11, the 26-year-old musher from Big Lake, Alaska, was intent on finishing the race. Yet he must have sensed he was in trouble.

In the pre-dawn hours, when minus-45 temperatures greeted racers and their dogs approaching the windy Bering Sea coastline, Berkowitz knew he should wait for friend and fellow musher Ray Redington. Berkowitz wanted Redington to know he'd been hurt. If he passed out, the bleeding from his hand wound was the likely cause. 

Just missed tendons

Berkowitz had been separating frozen pieces of pre-cut sheefish with a U.S. Marine Corps.-inspired Ka-Bar knife when the knife either twisted or slipped and entered his palm between the thumb and pointer finger. Incredibly, the blade missed nerves and tendons. But the slice across his radial artery would require emergency stitches in Unalakleet and another surgery in Anchorage afterwards.

And he had a complication -- frostbite -- that took hold in the minutes Berkowitz spent trying to give himself first aid on the trail before a two-and-a-half-hour journey by dog sled to Unalakleet.

Later that same afternoon, race officials yanked Berkowitz from the race. It was the right decision, Berkowitz says now, as hard as it seemed at the time.

Berkowitz is among the corps of young up-and-coming mushers taking charge of the Iditarod, led by 2012 champion Dallas Seavey of Willow, Alaska. Berkowitz finished his first Iditarod in 2008 in 65th place, and reached Nome a year later with his entire 16-dog team intact -- a rare feat. He placed fourth in the 2012 Yukon Quest, and set a speed record in the mid-distance Copper Basin Sled Dog Race of 2011. In the midst of a promising 2012 Iditarod run, he would be forced to wait to test the rapidly growing skills of his team.

But the injury and subsequent withdrawal gave Berkowitz time to think about how the ideal Iditarod knife might look. What safety features might it include to minimize injuries in the cold, icy conditions that sleep-deprived mushers face as they try to get through chores as quickly as possible?

For non-mushers and people unfamiliar with the specialty designs of outdoor knives, some of the design suggestions that have come to Berkowitz, who announced the knife project on his Facebook page, can create an image of a durable medieval torture weapon, with blades and hooks.

The people for whom the design is intended, however, should find the features sensible. Berkowitz and Miller intend to create a knife that will be attractive to collectors, too.

At the start of the Sheep Mountain 150 in December, look for Berkowitz and Miller to roll out their design.

According to Berkowitz, they’re planning:

• A fixed blade with a good grip -- one that will handle reliably with cold hands and gloved hands

• A rounded or blunt tip -- so that injuries won't be as severe

• A narrow tip -- to be able to slip into the sled's runners and pry ice away in an easy, single slide

• A half-serrated, half-straight blade to be able to cut rope in the event of a dog tangle

• A gut-hook style feature to pop off zip ties from drop bags and food bags

• A hand guard not unlike what might be found on an epee used in fencing, some kind of cup, hook or claw that will prevent the hand from sliding down to the blade.

Facebook fans had a few more suggestions:

• A handle strong enough for beating things, perhaps to loosen frozen snaps

• A deep finger groove to help with the grip

• A hole for a lanyard

• A hollow handle in which to stash matches or other safety gear

• A small "protrusion" from the handle similar to the tip of a flathead screwdriver to pry apart meat and snacks

• "No folding blades!"

Seavey's knife mishap

Folding blades are apt to fold and perceived by many as more dangerous than fixed-blade knives. But sometimes, a folding knife is a necessary back up, as was the case with former Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey in 2011.

A severe knife wound to his hand using a folding knife forced him out of the race a year earlier than Berkowitz, dashing what Seavey believed could be a winning run. His nearly-severed finger never completely recovered. In December, Seavey took the knife manufacturer to court, claiming the folding knife was defective in that it failed to hold the knife locked during use, allowing it to close on his hand. The case remains unresolved.

Four months after the Iditarod, Berkowitz’ left hand is nearly healed, with a barely visible scar and minor weakness. He's spent his summer giving sled dogs tours at the Alaska Native Heritage Center with 2011 Iditarod winner John Baker, and so far the hand is holding up. His main test? Putting dog booties on and taking them off, over and over and over. If he can do that quickly and reliably, it's as good a test as any for his hand's fitness, he said.

Meanwhile, he's got that knife project to attend to.

"No one has made the perfect knife. The ability to make a perfect knife is still out there," said Berkowitz, who plans to enter teams racing from his kennel in the 2013 Yukon Quest and Iditarod. They’ll all be testing his knife prototypes.

The knives conceived by Berkowitz and Miller will be branded the "Apex Collection," a direct reference to Berkowitz's kennel. Ultimately, they hope to market three types of knives: Solomon, a higher end collectible made to order featuring hard woods or bone, named after the kennel's main stud; Pixie, a smaller version for smaller hands named after a female leader; and Con Man, the standard-issue, utilitarian knife tool for mushers, named after Berkowitz's best male leader. 

Production begins in three weeks. "Apex series will hopefully a household name for gear you are going to take on Iditarod," Berkowitz said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com