Pre-race veterinary checks are completed for the roughly 1,000 dogs set to run the Iditarod.
By Wednesday, vets had completed electrocardiograms to check the dogs' hearts and blood tests to look for illness or illegal treatments, like drugs or blood doping.
Some mushers had their own veterinarians perform the final required examination, a hands-on check of up to 20 dogs per team. Others used Iditarod's free vet service offered Wednesday at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, where dog trucks came and went through the day as dogs were shuttled to the vets, then back to the trucks.
Race veterinarian Stuart Nelson said about 40 of the 69 teams in the race used the Iditarod's veterinarians.
"I was happy with what we saw out there," Nelson said. "This is a very significant point in the race, because all the pre-race screening has been completed, and we're just about ready to roll."
Only one dog was rejected, because it was too skinny, Nelson said.
"That was part of the issue, but it was probably the manifestation of some underlying condition we haven't identified," he said.
Nelson declined to name the dog's owner.
Musher Jason Mackey said his dogs' checkups went well and that his whole team is healthy.
"You never know. Lots of volunteer vets ... see sled dogs for the first time here and have lots of questions," Mackey said. "But it was flawless."
Mushers can run a maximum of 16 dogs in the race to Nome.
-- Casey Grove
Last year's death of a dropped dog in Unalakleet has prompted the race to establish more stringent checks, tracking and care of dropped dogs.
A volunteer in the dropped dog lot found 5-year-old Dorado, one of Fairbanks musher Paige Drobny's dogs, dead in the coastal checkpoint. Snow had drifted over Dorado and nine other dogs, something sled dogs are used to, but Dorado asphyxiated, race officials said.
It was the first dog death in the race since 2009.
Officials said a storm that prevented planes from reaching Unalakleet caused more dropped dogs than usual to stay in the village at the time Dorado was there.
This year there will be requirements to check on the dropped dogs at specific times and log those checks, race marshal Mark Nordman said Wednesday.
"It's something a little more upgraded," Nordman said.
There are also more dog houses in Unalakleet and McGrath, so more of the dropped dogs can take shelter, Nordman said. And, weather dependent, race officials hope to have more flights to move dogs out faster, he said.
In severe weather, volunteers will check on dropped dogs at least every two hours, if not more often, said Nelson, the race veterinarian.
"We're going to try to up the ante this year," Nelson said.
-- Casey Grove
King debuts helmet
Dog mushers tend to travel with as little extra weight and gear as possible, particularly when they're racing for big jackpots and lucrative sponsorship opportunities. But when legendary Denali Park musher Jeff King announces new race gear, people take notice.
King announced Tuesday via Facebook that he will be donning a protective helmet this year as he makes his way through the notorious Dalzell Gorge between the Rainy Pass and Rohn checkpoints.
Why head gear?
Look no further than the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon, which recently wrapped up. Eureka musher Brent Sass was jockeying for the lead in the 1,000-mile distance race when he fell off his sled and suffered a race-ending head injury.
Within days Sass had announced he'd wear a helmet in the Iditarod. And within days of that, he withdrew from this year's race.
King is a perennial contender with four wins under his fur hat. Or helmeted fur hat. By Tuesday afternoon a few other mushers had commented on King's Facebook timeline that they too might consider wearing protective gear.
Trail conditions may be a factor in this year's race from Willow to Nome, with little snow and lots of ice expected along the Southcentral portion of the trail route into the Alaska Range.
-- Eric Adams