Feeding furry fuel tanks

COMMENTMarch 5, 2012 

The Iditarod racers are off and running. Actually, by now, they are through the Alaska Range and onto the Interior trails.

For the competitors, the checkpoints of Skwentna, Finger Lake and Rainy Pass have come and gone. Most of us watching the race check on the times and positions of the teams. However, few consider the role pre-race preparations play in how teams are moving. Food drops, which were sent off weeks ago, are the single most important factor in a team's performance.

What is a food drop? Obviously, the musher cannot pack enough food and gear from the start to take them nearly a thousand miles across Alaska at the speed they must travel to race competitively. Food and supplies are packed by the dog drivers and sent out by the Iditarod Trail Committee in mid-February.

The majority of checkpoint supplies sent by the mushers is dog food. There usually is a dry kibble base. This kibble varies by brand, but it is all be high-powered stuff -- at least 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat by volume. That computes to roughly 25 percent protein and 40 percent fat by caloric count.

Racing dogs need to consume 10,000 to 12,000 calories every 24 hours. A little more than 30 percent of their energy must come from protein and as much as 55 to 60 percent from fats. To achieve this ratio, mushers use many different sources.

Meats and fish provide the protein. If you looked in a food drop bag, you would find smaller bags filled with pieces of herring, salmon and whitefish. Chicken and beef are also favorites. Liver, pork and lamb can also be found. And it's good stuff -- you could put most of this stuff on your kitchen table (Well, maybe not that good).

Fat comes in many varieties also. Chicken skins are probably the most common; they are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Fat blends can be found at feed stores and some of these are sent out, though for the most part they are not as palatable as natural sources. Beef fat, pork, seal oil and lamb are common.

These items are the basis of most food drops. Individuality comes into play with the remainder.

Food drops at the early checkpoints vary somewhat from those at locations farther along. The south side of the Alaska Range is warmer, the dogs are fresh and lively and not so picky with their food. Plus, the novelty of eating every two or three hours is exciting.

Generally, fat content and variety increases as the teams travel into the Interior. Hot dogs, sausages and more exotic types of meat are seen.

There are additives in the drops too -- vitamin supplements and digestive support are important. There also foot ointments, liniments, wrist wraps, booties (by the hundreds), spare harnesses and lines. Sled runner plastic and sled repair parts can also be found.

Everything is packed with an eye to keep the dogs moving at their best, but the musher may require a few things for themselves.

Spare mittens, gloves and socks are a must. With nearly 70 teams on the trail, checkpoints are crowded and it is almost impossible to dry these things, especially early on.

Food for the driver is extremely important. Few of the checkpoints provide mushers with food -- and they burn nearly as much energy as the dogs. Everything from salmon strips to chicken cordon bleu can be found. Pizza is a favorite because of the variety and because it heats up quickly in a food cooker. In one of the early Iditarods, one of the competitors sent out big packs of cinnamon rolls. His camping spots were certainly popular with other mushers.

Food drops are sent out by the Iditarod Trail Committee via bypass mail to most checkpoints. The Iditarod Air Force hauls drops to more remote sites such as Cripple.

The total weight of an individual musher's supplies varies, but if you figure 1,700 pounds, you'd be close.

The dog drivers all have a "return" bag in their drops also. Unused booties and personal things may be returned this way. Leftover dog food and meat is distributed among villagers at the checkpoints.

It is imperative that the dogs eat well to maintain optimum health and performance during the race and the mushers have gear that prepares them for a variety of weather and trail conditions. The food drop is the most expensive part of the Iditarod, but once you pay the entry fee, it is the most important.

John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A former champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, he has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines. His wife, Zoya DeNure, is running this year's Iditarod.

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