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Veterinarian Technician February 2006 (Vol 27, No 2) Focus: Oncology

Love Affair with Dogsled Racing

by Lori Windows


    Sgt. Preston and Yukon King. Jack London's Call of the Wild and Gary Paulsen's Winterdance. Balto and Togo. Libby Riddles and Susan Butcher. Iron Will and Snow Dogs. The John Beargrease, the Yukon Quest, and the Iditarod! Ever since I was old enough to say "doggie," I have been fascinated with dogs in general and sled dogs in particular. For me, sled dogs embody everything about life that is glorious. They meet challenges and accomplish goals with strength, endurance, teamwork, and that great intangible — heart. They leave me breathless. I followed the big races for years as a fan and an observer, although I am a doer, not a watcher. But in November 1998, I took my love of dogsled racing one step further.

    It was my birthday, and several of us had gathered to celebrate. After all the insulting cards had been read and goofy presents had been opened, my friend and coworker, Dr. Dee Crittenden, had one more surprise. She had registered both of us for the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association's training seminar to be held in March 1999. We were going to Anchorage; we were going to the Iditarod!

    Volunteering at the Last Great Race

    The seminar is held every year before the start of the Iditarod. It is required attendance for veterinarians and technicians who wish to volunteer at the Last Great Race. Dr. Stuart Nelson, the Iditarod's Chief Veterinarian since 1996, presides over the 3-day session. Topics include sled dog nutrition, cardiology and the unique features of the canine athletic heart, orthopedic injuries, vitamin E and sled dog myopathy, serum electrolyte values and hydration status in racing dogs, gastroenterology, and parasitology. I was amazed at the differences in the care of these dogs, particularly in nutritional requirements and cold weather care. Heavy emphasis is placed on evaluating the dogs before the race and at race checkpoints. An acronym helps mushers and veterinarians remember the priorities of these evaluations: HAWL (heart and hydration, appetite and attitude, weight, and lungs).

    The seminar also includes participation in the required prerace physicals. Each musher is allowed to present 20 dogs. Each dog is given an electrocardiogram, extensive blood work, a locomotion critique, and a hands-on physical examination. This evaluation helps the mushers decide which 16 dogs will be harnessed on race day.

    The seminar also concentrated on "people" skills. We would have to deal with mushers who might be suffering from sleep deprivation, starvation, and hypothermia and might not be making correct decisions.

    We spent the Wednesday before the race getting personal with several hundred of the finest four-legged athletes on the planet. The predominant racing dog is the Alaskan husky. Although the Alaskan husky is not recognized by any kennel club, the proud owners of these dogs can quote pedigrees for generations. Alaskan huskies are a mixture of village dog, Eskimo dog, and imported northern breeds. They average less than 50 lb, are remarkably friendly, and come in a range of colors.

    The breeding of world-class racing sled dogs has become a science. Because the Iditarod is held in March when daytime temperatures often rise above freezing, the introduction of bloodlines one would never expect to see in harness, such as German shorthaired pointer and coonhound, has improved the sled dogs' ability to handle heat without compromising their endurance. In the words of Martin Buser, four-time Iditarod winner, the ideal dog athlete is "friendly with other dogs, can run 100 to 150 miles in a day, gobbles his food down quickly, drops off to sleep immediately, and 6 hours later, jumps up to run again." Meeting these dogs and their owners was one of the highlights of our trip. When we returned to the hotel, my husband, John, wrinkled his nose less than appreciatively at our coveralls and gloves. "That's the smell of champions, honey," I told him.

    The Mushing Bug

    The trip to Anchorage and attending the seminar and start of the race was a dream come true and the beginning of a new dream. Dogsled touring is extremely popular in Alaska. Visitors pay a premium price for the privilege of tucking themselves in a sled bag and zipping down snowy trails. I knew I couldn't leave Alaska without that experience. I contacted Tom Hamill of Birch Trails Kennels, and he met Dee, John, and me at the Chugiak sled dog trails a little north of Anchorage. As he unloaded his dogs from their boxes in the slide-in system that is as common in Alaska as a pick-up pulling a horse trailer is in Texas cattle country, Dee and I commented on how familiar some of the dogs were. "That looks like one of Buser's dogs," I said. Tom answered, "Yeah, I got him from Buser when he didn't pan out as a long-distance racer. You guys seem to know dogs." It wasn't long before Tom realized he wasn't dealing with the average tourist and I realized that Tom wasn't just a hired guide out to make 3 hours of wages.

    With our help, Tom harnessed 14 dogs. He hitched them to a sled, then hitched a second sled behind that. It was on this "drag sled" that I first learned how to ride the runners, how to lean and tuck and dance with the snow. I learned how to control the speed using the drag brake and the metal claw brake. I learned fast. I have ridden horses all my life and have a good sense of balance. We hadn't gone too many miles before Tom stopped the team and instructed me to set my snow hook. "You take the front sled," he told me with a frozen-mustached grin. And I did. I stepped on the runners, pulled up my hook, and in my most authoritative voice yelled, "Hike!" With a snap that almost ended my mushing career, we were off.

    The rest of the afternoon was like a day in heaven. Tom took me to some of the more difficult trails, ones that involved hills and tight turns. He praised me, and like a puppy eager to please, I made even more of an effort. I learned to one-foot pedal to help the dogs and to jump from the runners and run beside the sled without letting go of the handles. By the time our tour was over, I was soaked with sweat and glowing with pride. We met up with John and Dee at the trailhead. Tom gave me a high-five and told John that I was his best student ever. John gave me a look that said, "Well, now you've got that out of your system." Little did he realize that the mushing bug was not out of my system. It had gone systemic.

    Return to the Iditarod

    Warm weather, lots of hours spent at a technician job that I loved, and a full season of endurance horse racing kept my mushing bug in remission for the rest of the year. But the end of the century loomed near, and I knew I had to find a way to celebrate the event of a lifetime. The day after Christmas, I left for northern Minnesota. I spent a week sleeping in a Mongolian yurt (round canvas tent over a frame) and boiling water to defrost my toothpaste. During the nights, temperatures plummeted to -40°F (-40°C); during the days, my spirits soared to unbelievable highs. I was at the kennel of Doug and Deb Siem, caring for a yard full of Alaskan huskies and learning more about mushing. I ran a six-dog team, and I got to know and love each dog. I wrapped my sled around trees, tipped over in waist-high snow drifts, was dragged face first for what seemed like miles over snow-packed trails, and generally had the time of my life. I spent the landmark night of New Year's Eve 1999 bathed in moonlight with six new best friends. We were somewhere between Minnesota and Canada, listening to wolves howl and mushing along snow yet unmarred by sled tracks. I was living the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

    For the next 2 years, I kept content by being somewhat of a local celebrity, "the lady who had actually been to the Iditarod." The race has great teaching applications. Many teachers use the Iditarod as a teaching tool to connect several subjects to real life. The race covers numerous topics, including math (distances between check points, average speed, how much food to drop at check points), history (the purchase of Alaska), geography (map reading, calculating elevation), sociology (lifestyles of the Native Americans), and science (weather, biology of the sled dog). The teachers have their students choose a musher and follow his or her progress. So every March I would lecture at several schools and libraries. After every talk, someone would ask, "When are you going back?"

    One night, I said, "Next year." John, who often attended the talks with me, fell off his chair. Several people rushed to help him. As I brushed off his arm, I said, "Tomorrow I'll book our flight to Nome." What a great husband I have.

    At the Finish Line

    Nome is a flat, barren town of about 2,500 p

    eople living on the edge of the Bering Sea. It is icebound more than 6 months of the year. The people rely on moose meat and overpriced groceries; the economy revolves around their greatest claim to fame. Every March, the giant burled arch is trucked out of storage and hauled to Front Street, where it is declared the official finish line of the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

    In March 2002, John and I arrived on a breezy, subzero afternoon at the tiny Nome airport. It is not hard to find help in Anchorage for the start of the race. The city is easily accessible and offers many amenities for travelers. Nome, on the other hand, is hard to get to and has only one real hotel. The residents open their homes to tourists, mushers, and race volunteers. Our lodging for the next 10 days was the basement apartment of a generous citizen. Our aid was needed in every aspect of preparing for the exciting moment when the first musher crossed under the burled arch. We helped build the finish chute and the dog lot. We folded about 1,000 T-shirts that had been flown from the race headquarters in Anchorage to the "boutique" set up in the community center at Nome. I traveled the final 22 miles of the trail on snow machine to take supplies to the volunteers at Safety Road House, the final checkpoint on the route. We helped keep the "Big Board" up to date, penciling in the statistics of each musher's progress along the trail. In short, we were in the thick of it all.

    To put my training to its best use, I signed up to work the dog lot. When a dog is dropped from a musher's team at one of the 26 scheduled vet checks along the race route, it is flown to a facility where it can be cared for until the musher can claim it. For the first two-thirds of the race, the dogs are flown back to Anchorage. Dogs dropped in the last third of the race are sent ahead to Nome. There are many reasons for dropping a dog. Sometimes it is logistics: The musher no longer needs to care for the extra dogs. Sometimes the dog is a young one that the musher had no intention of taking the entire way. Medical reasons include fatigue (mental or physical), injury, and metabolics.

    Whatever the reasons that brought them to the lot, my job was to help care for the dogs. Some needed medication, but most just needed rest, food, and lots of emotional support. Most knew they had not completed their job. Some were depressed. They were a far cry from the creatures that had lined up on 4th Avenue in Anchorage, crazed with excitement, just days before. I pulled 4-hour stints in the dog lot, running security and cuddling tired huskies.

    One of the activities held while waiting for the first musher to arrive was the Businessman's Race, a 3-mile event that anyone could enter. The three-dog teams were supplied by members of the Nome Kennel Club, the oldest club in the world specializing in sled dog racing. Guess who was wearing bib #4?

    "This is just for fun," John kept telling me. "Wipe off that 'race face' look." But I've never approached anything in life "just for fun." When the starting line official yelled "3-2-1-GO!", my lead pair, Happy and Francis, were throwing snow back into my race face, and I was flying. I quickly passed the first two mushers who had started in front of me and started to pass the lead musher. As instructed, I yelled "On By" to my threesome, but the woman driving the lead team was even less experienced than I. She let her dogs intertwine with mine, and as I struggled to untangle my racers, I watched team after team pass us. Finally free to run, Happy, Francis, and Zero did their best to play catch-up. I crossed the finish line a disappointing 15th out of 64.

    At 8:46 am on March 12, 2002, riding behind a team of 10 trotting huskies, 44-year-old Martin Buser crossed the finish line. Thirty years before, the winner of the first Iditarod had taken more than 20 days to reach Nome's Front Street. On this sunny, crisp morning, Buser and his seemingly inexhaustible dogs completed the trail after 8 days, 22 hours, and 46 minutes, smashing the old record by almost 3 hours. At the finish line, screaming with excitement and crying with emotion, were two volunteers from a small central Illinois town. One of them, a 50-plus-year-old woman who had loved dogs all her life, felt a shock to her system that bordered on pain. Her chronic disease, the mushing bug, was becoming acute.

    The day we climbed on the plane to leave Nome was very, very sad. I would have loved to stay in that quaint, primitive village and enter the true world of mushing. But part of life is compromise and being true to one's responsibilities. The good part was knowing I had good friends waiting to greet me when I arrived home, and greet me they did.

    Mushing at Home

    My own dogs have always been of northern breed descent, and for the past 20 years, I have named them after my favorite Iditarod mushers. Riddle, Butcher, and Boulding had passed on. When I arrived home in March 2002, it was Buser and Redington that were waiting for me. I had presents for them — custom-made harnesses from Rae's Harness Shop. They were less than thrilled. Buser and Redi had lived with me all their lives. I had gotten them as puppies from litters that were destined to die of parvovirus, parasites, and general neglect. They were both cum laude graduates of my obedience school. They had been taught to walk quietly by my side and never pull. But they had another side, too: The side that would run swiftly through the woods, like a shadow across the ground; the side that would follow in the wake of my endurance horses for 60 miles a day. I knew they could pull, and I knew they would enjoy it.

    I started with a little grey wagon. I harnessed the dogs and tied them to the handle. Then I ran down the blacktop road in front of our house and had them chase me. This worked. The dogs were not scared by the rattle as the wagon weaved crazily behind them. They even ignored the commotion when the wagon flipped on its side and screeched like fingernails on a chalkboard. Good dogs.

    In Nome, I had attended the finish-line wedding of four-time Iditarod Champion Doug Swingley and his fiancé, Melanie Shirilla. Melanie and I had found a common interest besides mushing, one in which I held the upper hand: We wanted to be en­durance riders. We started an email friendship. I told her how well my dogs were doing, and she responded, "DON'T EVER RUN IN FRONT OF YOUR DOGS!" She explained that my dogs already considered me "Alpha," and if they got used to me leading, they'd assume I was the lead dog. Neither of them would accept the responsibility. So I changed tactics. I sat patiently in my little grey wagon, saying "Hike" over and over again, while Buser and Redi looked back at me as if I had gone stupid. Finally, bored out of his mind, Redi took a step forward. "Good dog!" I said encouragingly. Soon I was moving down the road behind my team.

    Fortunately, my dogs were smarter than I am. They learned quickly; I had to crash a dozen times and rip the knees out of my coveralls before I realized that the wagon was just too unstable. I needed a new "sled," and John made one, much to the amusement of neighbors and passersby. It was an ancient wooden ironing board, something I had never used in my less-than-domestic life. When John attached wheels and a backboard, it finally had a purpose.

    During this period, I acquired a third dog. The previous owner had dragged him into our clinic on a log chain and dumped him. He was a terrified piece of canine flotsam, urinating every time someone talked to him. He was 15 lb (6.8 kg) underweight, had severe fly strike on both ears, and was wearing a collar so embedded in his neck that he was suffering from maggot infestation. Not expecting to be able to adopt him out but not wanting to euthanize him because of his obvious husky traits, I started the job of turning him back into a dog. Then came the late-night emergency call. One of our favorite clients, Buffy the Chesapeake, had fallen victim to rat bait poisoning. Buffy needed blood, and she needed it right away. Our regular donor dog had given blood only a few days earlier, and we couldn't use him again. That left only one candidate, and we needed more blood than he could safely give. As I started a jugular blood draw, I promised the dog that if he lived through the ordeal, he'd have a home for life. Three days later, I took him to meet John, Buser, and Redi. I named him Seppala after the legendary musher and hero of 1925's Great Serum Run that saved Nome from a diphtheria epidemic and inspired the modern Iditarod. I called Rae's Harness Shop and ordered a new harness.

    The Learning Curve

    My dogs learned a lot in the winter of 2003 to 2004. Because I could steer the ironing board contraption, I began teaching commands. Buser, the smartest of the dogs, learned "gee" and "haw" in a couple of days, but she didn't want to run in lead. In fact, none of the dogs wanted to run in lead. I began hitching them in Greenland style, all three abreast. In Greenland, as many as 15 dogs are run all fanned out in front of the sled. Greenland is pretty much treeless, and this method works well there.

    The ironing board had its drawbacks. It had no brakes, and I could travel no more than 2 miles in any direction from my house without encountering a sizable hill. I wore the tread off several pairs of boots and nearly broke my ankle countless times in efforts to slow down. Another problem was that I could only ride the ironing board sitting down. I couldn't help the dogs, and if they got tangled and I had to get off to straighten them out, they could take off without me. One night, they did just that. The ironing board went airborne, hit me behind the knee, and swept my legs out from under me. That was the first, but not the last, concussion I suffered that winter.

    John realized that my obsession was not just a passing fancy and that if he wanted to grow old with me, I needed to find a safer means of dog travel. By now, I was making connections, meeting new friends via the Internet, and gaining access to more mushing information. At John's insistence, I bought a used training cart. This three-wheeled monstrosity weighed almost 150 lb (68 kg), but it was constructed so perfectly that I could pedal it uphill on my own. It had a brake! I could go downhill without slamming into my dogs' backsides. And I rode standing up, able to one-foot pedal and even jump off and run behind. If I had to fix a tangle, I could set the brake, and if I forgot to do so, I could still leap on board as the cart passed me.

    Buser and Redi loved the cart, but I began to see a change in Seppala. As the other two grew stronger and more confident, our speeds increased. My dogs averaged a nice 8-mph trot and could sprint up to 15 mph. Speed terrified Seppala. The rattle of the cart as it hit potholes sent him straining at his neckline. I contacted Melanie and asked what she would do with a dog that was not happy in harness. "I'd get another dog," was her practical reply. But my dogs are pets first and sled dogs second. I did not discard Seppala. Now he waves goodbye to the team as we head out and greets us joyously when we return. He is a sweet, gentle dog. If he never pulls again, I will not be disappointed in him.

    Rounding Out the Team

    In January 2004, John and I took a 3-week vacation to Indonesia. We are scuba divers, and the waters off of the island of Bali drew us. I was also fascinated by the dogs of Bali. The Hindu religion that predominates on the island deems all life important. The beach, street, and temple dogs that I encountered were remarkably healthy for Third World dogs. I fell in love with a puppy that hung out at a fish market hut and had visions of bringing him home. I would be the only musher in existence with an Indonesian sled dog. Red tape prevented that from happening. I was home only a few short days when I realized that another dog needed me more than that puppy.

    My boss was on a call at a sheep farm when he radioed the receptionist to tell her he'd be a little late. The farmer had a dog to put down. Five minutes later, he radioed back and said, "Tell Lori her new dog is on its way." That was how I met Buddy, a year-old purebred Siberian husky whose only crime was distracting the farmer's sheepdog! Buddy was not a name I could live with, so I set about finding an Iditarod-related title for my new dog. I hadn't had him more than 3 days before I put him in harness; he leaned into the traces and pulled like a champ. We flew out of the drive faster than we'd ever gone before. It was inevitable: I screamed at the top of my voice, "Let's roll!", and Buddy became Beamer. Todd Beamer, the mastermind of September 11's Flight 93 passenger revolt, was not a hero of the frozen north. He was a universal hero who will forever stand out in my mind as the symbol of what ordinary people can do in extraordinary circumstances.

    Once again I had three dogs in harness. Teamed with Beamer, both of the veterans ran happily in lead, but aesthetically, the formation — two in front and one in back — did not please me. Several people offered to give me another dog; Melanie even offered a retired lead dog. But sanity prevailed. I didn't want a dog yard. I wanted pets I could walk and take riding with me and let in the house on occasion. The answer to my dilemma came in an unconventional form: someone else's pet. Mick is a blue merle Australian shepherd mix who paces instead of trots, has no tail, and belongs to my friend, neighbor, and coworker, Dr. Beth Sondgeroth. Like my own adopted dogs, he was obtained through a rescue shelter. Mick is all smiles and enthusiasm. If he were human, he would be Jim Carrey. He is available any time I need him, and he rounds out my team to an even number.

    Being able to borrow Mick on an on-demand basis may have saved me from being known as "that crazy lady with more dogs than sense," but it hasn't completely saved me from ridicule. Lots of people look at me and scratch their heads in wonder. What would make a mature woman behave the way I do? But every once in a while, someone comes along who understands, someone who dons the coveralls and face mask and warm mittens and climbs on board. These people are only one short "Hike" away from catching the same bug to which I fell victim years ago.

    Racing in Spirit

    On the first Saturday in March, the mushers of the Iditarod will line up on 4th Avenue in Anchorage. I will go to work and spend 9 hours with the dogs and cats of our clients. Most will be overfed, underworked, and loved fiercely by their owners. That evening, I will attach my blinking light to my cart, hook LED lights to my dogs' harnesses, strap my headlamp over my stocking cap, and head out of my driveway. I don't know how far we will go; I never do. I'll imagine myself as Libby Riddles, the first woman to ever win the Iditarod. Or as Susan Butcher, the only woman to ever win the race four times. Or as DeeDee Jonrowe, Charlie Boulding, or Lance Mackey — all cancer survivors and all long-distance dog racing veterans. Or as my friend, Melanie Shirilla-Swingley. I'll imagine my dogs as Yukon King, or Buck, or Balto, or Demon.

    Thornton Wilder once said, "The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself, 'Oh, now I've got myself into an awful mess. I wish I were sitting quietly at home.' And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure." Unlike those intrepid mushers in Anchorage who are heading into 1,100 miles of frozen wilderness, I will return home that night to my warm house and soft bed and loving husband. As I bed down the dogs and strip out of my cold-weather gear, I'll think about the great Arctic explorer, Norman Vaughan, who did not run his first Iditarod until he was 72 years old. That gives me more than a decade to prepare.

    Something is terribly wrong with me.

    NEXT: On The Cover: "A Talk with Debbie A. Coleman, RVT, VTS (Anesthesia)"


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