By the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2022, idyllic winter conditions had finally arrived in Nome, Alaska. Famous for hosting the finish of the Iditarod sled dog race, this remote town is closer to Russia than it is to Anchorage; here, vast tundra landscapes meet the sea ice that forms over the Bering Strait. A series of dreaded rain-on-snow events earlier in the month had made winter travel miserable. But now, a fresh white blanket covered the rolling hills, reflecting the pinks and blues of a clear sub-Arctic sky. Snowmachines were whining, and the local mushers were looking forward to another season of exercising their sled dogs. One of them, Curtis Worland, took a break from work to visit his kennel on the outskirts of Nome.
Worland was a court services officer for the Alaska State Troopers, a job that involved prisoner transport and court security. At the kennel, though, he had other obligations. Keeping a dog lot anywhere requires a constant loop of chores: feeding dogs, running dogs, scooping up dog poop. But keeping one in Nome comes with additional responsibilities: monitoring threats from musk oxen, stubborn, shaggy animals with formidable horns and a record of attacking dogs. During his decade as a musher, Worland, 36, had seen Nome’s musk oxen problems increase. He shared the dog lot with his wife and their friends, and about once a week, when musk oxen got too close, he took on the task of keeping them away. On Dec. 13, he was on a snowmachine, trying to scare off a herd that had come within a quarter-mile of the lot. No one else witnessed what happened, but one of the animals charged him. Worland received a fatal laceration to his femoral artery, and by the time emergency responders arrived, he had bled out.
The portrait that the Alaska State Troopers released in their announcement of his death shows a serious-looking man in a uniform and a fur hat. But in the slideshow during his memorial service at the local recreation center, Worland is often wearing an open-mouthed smile, or tearing it up on a dance floor. Sudden deaths are painful in any small town — Nome has around 3,700 people — and Worland was a well-liked member of the community, remembered for his adventurous spirit and love of hunting and the outdoors.