On the Iditarod trail

On the Iditarod trail

Mar 31, 2010
Leawood, Kan. -- Four years ago, Vern Otte, 67, a Leawood, Kan., veterinarian and owner of State Line Animal Hospital, was looking for something uncommon to do in his “spare” time.

Of course, Otte’s hobby list was already dotted with out of-the-ordinary adventures, including many medical missions to Central and South America, as well as Africa in which he participated through the U.S. Army Reserves Veterinary Corps.

So, it should come as no surprise that his new pursuit would take him to another extreme -- the stark, brutally cold reaches of the Alaskan wilderness to volunteer as a trail veterinarian for the Iditarod.

For the past four years, Otte and more than 35 other veterinarians from all over the world have monitored the health and attended to any injuries or sickness of the more than 70 sled dog teams participating in the 1,150-mile race across Alaska. Each team begins with 16 dogs and must finish the race with at least six.

The veterinarians are responsible for their transportation to and from Alaska, as well as providing their own warm clothing, sleeping bags, and medical supplies. They are flown from checkpoint to checkpoint by volunteer pilots -- often doctors and businessmen who donate their time as well as their own planes for the duration of the race.

At any given checkpoint, the sleeping accommodations may vary. Sometimes the vets sleep in tents; sometimes they may sleep in a building like a community center or school gymnasium. In most places, the population is minimal; in some, it is 0. For example, Eagle Island is just a spot on the Yukon River where tents are set up as a check point.

As the dog teams reach a checkpoint (there are 23 checkpoints in all), they may stay anywhere from two minutes to 24 hours, with an average stop lasting six to eight hours. The veterinarians check the heart, lungs, legs, joints, and mucus membranes of all of the dogs. They also check for dehydration, common among racing dogs because there is no water along the trail. Often mushers have to melt snow or cut holes in a frozen stream or lake to get fresh water for the dogs. Diarrhea is another common ailment due to the 10,000 calories consumed by each dog every day. The vets assess the weight of each dog to ensure that the dog is not losing too much weight along the trail.

All mushers are required to take three breaks, two of which must be 8 hours in length. One can be anywhere along the Yukon River; the other 8 hour break is at White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish. The 24-hour stop can be at any checkpoint during the race. Most mushers don’t want to stop for too long at the early checkpoints; they often drive their dogs right on through, stopping just long enough to be checked in and get their supplies. The veterinarians watch the dogs come in, visually checking their movement, and do a cursory exam while the musher gets his supplies.

Most of the teams finish with fewer than their starting 16 dogs. Some dogs are dropped because of illness or injury. About 20 percent of the dogs dropped were because of shoulder problems. Another 20 percent were dropped because of being tired or not wanting to pull. Others are young and lack the stamina to run the entire 1,150 miles. The mushers want to give these young ones experience and expect to drop them at some point along the way. Sometimes a dog is dropped because it doesn’t want to run: it just isn’t having fun! Dropped dogs are cared for at the checkpoint by volunteers or veterinarians, then are flown back to Anchorage where they await their owners.

Veterinarians are critical to the success of the teams as the dogs are expected to race around the clock -- in 6 to 8 hour increments. The pattern is to race for six to eight hours and rest for six to eight hours. “They run best at night,” Otte says, “especially if the temperature gets above zero. They tend to overheat at temperatures above zero.

This year, Otte notes, there were no deaths, which is “unusual” considering the length of the race. Dogs have died in past years because of a variety of unexpected medical conditions. Aspiration pneumonia is one such cause. We were very happy about having no deaths this year. In fact, when you compare marathon runners with sled dog runners, there is a similar percentage of deaths in the Iditarod as in a marathon.”

“Amazingly, the race does not take too hard a toll on the dogs,” Otte says. “They just want to know where they are to go, and they remember the trail as they head back out after a stop. They’ve got it down.”

“These dogs are remarkable athletes! They are magnificent specimens that appear to be able to run forever -- because they want to,” he says. “Often a musher would come to a checkpoint and once his team had been examined, the entire team of dogs would stand up and start barking, as if to say, ‘We’re ready … let’s go!’” This year the weather in Anchorage started out pretty warm, relatively speaking -- somewhere in the mid-20’s, according to Otte. “By the time we got to the Alaskan range, it was way below 0, about -40 degrees. The mushers and the dogs are used to temps ranging from -20 to -40 which is not a big deal to them,” he added.

In the four years that Otte has been a trail veterinarian, he has seen a definite technology shift. “We now have GPS on all the dog sleds. It is used as a tracking device only, however, as it doesn’t help the mushers find their way,” he says. Veterinarians have a computer available at the checkpoints to see online where a team is. They can also monitor weather temperatures, see how fast a team is moving, and have a good idea when it will show up at a checkpoint.

This year’s Iditarod was a bit unique in that it hosted its first musher from Jamaica. Lance Mackey, this year’s winner (as well as the winner for the past 3 years), let the Jamaican musher run his second team of dogs. While most mushers are from the U.S. and Canada, there were two from Scotland and one from Belgium this year.

Participating as an Iditarod trail veterinarian offers Otte a “nice break” away from his busy practice in Leawood. But, he says it is always great to get back and return to routine. His “hobby” has “helped prevent burnout by providing a change of pace while still doing veterinary work,” he says.

As for naysayers who may be opposed to the concept of dogs racing until exhaustion, Otte says protests from animal rights groups thus far have been minimal.

“I’ve not yet seen any protester willing to stand out in 40-degree-below-0 temperatures to protest a cause,” he notes.