The Dalles Moose, not bears, are the biggest threat to sled dogs racing almost 1,000 miles across the frozen Alaskan wilderness.
That was one of the many interesting aspects of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that Sterling Thomas of The Dalles learned when he recently volunteered as a veterinarian.
Because footing is easy to find, he said moose move at night along the 998-mile trail groomed for use by about 60 teams. The official rule book for what is known as the Last Great Race even makes accommodation for the possibility that the musher will have to shoot the moose with the gun he or she carries to protect the team.
If that happens, said Thomas, other mushers are prevented from maneuvering their dogs ahead of the carcass until it has been field dressed, which must take place immediately.
Once the meat is removed from the scene and given to the closest villagers, the grueling event resumes and teams race for the finish line in Nome. Their challenge after setting off from Anchorage each year at three to five-minute intervals is to traverse forests and tundra in pelting snow and frigid winds that drop temperatures to subzero levels.
The race is named for a village and river in Alaska and began in 1973 as a symbolic link to the state’s historic mode of transportation. One of the best known stories about dog teams is how they were used to move medicine from Nenano to Nome when an outbreak of diphtheria in 1925 threatened the lives of nearly every inhabitant.
The Iditarod Trail takes the sled teams across frozen tundra, over mountain passes and across the Yukon and other rivers. Although the race begins in Anchorage, home to more than 40 percent of Alaska’s population, most of the route passes through isolated wilderness and small villages that are spread far apart. The environment is tough enough that every team begins with 16 dogs, but many are down to the six required to cross the finish line in less than two weeks.
“It’s like moving an army,” said Thomas. “The Iditarod Air Force begins dropping supplies for people and dogs into place weeks before the race begins, and all of the volunteer force — people to set up camps, cook and operate the communication systems — moves forward as the teams advance.”
His job, and that of the other vets volunteering their time and skills, was to man 25 checkpoints along the trail after the race began March 3. The start order for each team was determined by a drawing among mushers that took place at a banquet two days earlier.
Thomas, who worked shifts up to 36 hours, was prepared to deal with exhausted, dispirited animals after they spent 16-20 hours in the harness each day. Instead, he saw the dogs yipping and leaping with excitement as they prepared to set off again after a few hours at rest.
The veterinarians were housed mostly in tents and given the responsibility of making sure the dogs were fit to travel. They signed off if all was well in the musher’s log book if there was no sign of muscle breakdowns, stomach ulcers and lameness, among other problems.
“These dogs have medical issues such as those seen in a plow horse that is towing a heavy load,” said Thomas. “Ninety-nine percent of the dogs are easy to work with, a few aren’t, but I just approached them slowly and cautiously to let them get used to me and I never had any problem.”
When a dog had to be dropped from the race, said Thomas, the animal was left at the checkpoint, where it was cared for and then shipped back to Anchorage by plane as quickly as possible.
He and fellow veterinarian Dirsko Von Pfeil received the Golden Stethoscope Award for saving the life of a dog that had collapsed due to exhaustion at the Eagle Island checkpoint, the most remote stop along the trail, where they were the only ones on duty. The dog was administered fluids and given lots of rest and hearty meals before being sent home.
“It was a shock (to get the award) I didn’t even know they gave such a thing — but it was an honor to receive it,” said Thomas, who had been part of Corvallis Mountain Rescue for many years and an avid outdoorsman.
He decided to offer his services to take on a new challenge and to learn more about a sporting event that pitted man and dog against nature. Thomas had operated a veterinary clinic in The Dalles for years and spent time in Alaska as a fisherman, which made him confident that his application to the volunteer selection committee would at least be given consideration.
“It was pretty exciting to get notified that I was going to be part of the 2013 race,” he said. “I knew what it was like to be out in the snow and the woods so I felt that I could contribute in a helpful way.”
One of the first things Thomas learned upon his arrival in Alaska was that dogs on the trail are fed fat-rich diets of about 15,000 calories a day so they can stay warm. Although the temperatures with a wind chill factor fell to minus 20 degrees during the 2013 race, they have been recorded as low as minus 100 in the past.
The musher sets the pace and the direction for the team, using the word “Haw” to send the dogs to the left and “Gee” to get them to veer right. Every sled is equipped with a GPS device that allows race officials to keep track of the sled’s whereabouts in case the team wanders off the trail and loses its way.
“If the dogs aren’t given a command they just keep going straight,” said Thomas. “The trail is not like a highway where it’s clearly marked all the time; the wind blows and covers up the markers.”
He found the mushers to be very dedicated to the welfare of their animals and genuinely concerned when a problem developed that forced the decision about whether a dog should be left behind or allowed to continue. The mushers included professionals from around the world who had come to test their skills, although most were natives of the state, said Thomas.
According to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, mushers pay an average combined cost of $20,000 to $30,000 to enter the race and compete for a grand prize of about $50,000, with awards of $26,500 to the top 30 finishers.
Thomas described the mushers as strong, independent people who were “tough but quite friendly.”
“I ended up with a real feeling of respect for the dogs and the mushers as well. I achieved a greater understanding of what the race is all about. There is an amazing bond between the musher and dogs because they go through the hardships together.”
He said the lead dog of the team is usually female and selected not for size but intelligence that will make her good at finding the trail in whiteout conditions. Larger and heavily muscled male dogs are placed nearest the sled to take on the weight of the musher, any injured dogs riding on the sled and the supplies needed to get them to the next checkpoint.
The original teams were made up of Inuit Sled Dogs bred by the Mahlemuit tribe but today’s animal competitors are crossbred with Alaskan huskies, hounds, setters, spaniels, German shepherds and wolves.
“These dogs are energetic, strong and smart,” said Thomas. “Some of them look a little like coyotes; they are a mutt that is bred for speed and endurance.”
He said the dogs train extensively prior to the race and fights can break out among teams, who seem to be competitive, so they are kept apart to avoid problems. Extra precautions have to be taken if one of the females goes into heat because that causes problems even within a team.
The 2013 race ended on March 17 when the last team crossed the finish line in Nome to the same cheering crowd that had greeted the first. Thomas and Von Pfeil were then given their award in the final celebration banquet that was dimmed only by the fact one of the dogs had died at a checkpoint from asphyxiation.
Five-year-old Dorado was found buried by snow following extreme winds after experiencing health problems. The dog had been removed from the race four days earlier because he was moving stiffly and awaiting transportation to Anchorage from the small village of Unalakleet. Severe weather had prevented planes from reaching the checkpoint about 260 miles from Nome and 30 dropped dogs awaited transport.
Although seven other dogs had also been curled up outside to weather the storm with Dorado and were unharmed, his death brought changes to the race, which has drawn fire from animal rights groups. The Iditarod Trail Committee recently announced plans to construct more dog shelters along the route and increase the frequency of medical checkups.
Thomas plans to participate in a future race to see how these changes play out,
“It was a great experience so I’m going to do it again,” he said.