Behind the Millennium Alaskan Hotel, hundreds of miles from their teammates on the Iditarod Trail, sled dogs with sore wrists, frostbitten lips or tired bones rested on piles of straw. Volunteers checked vitals, ladled out kibble, and comforted weary dogs. Over the weekend, the place was hopping.
This is the Anchorage staging area for dropped dogs. An army of volunteers from across the country and beyond care for the ones that mushers think shouldn't continue pushing toward the finish in Nome.
A couple have been seriously ill with signs of pneumonia and were sent to clinics, but so far this year most of the 200-plus dropped dogs -- out of more than 1,100 in the race -- just have sore wrists or shoulders, said Kate Swift, the race's long-time dog drop coordinator.
"Perhaps just tired. We get that a lot, or things like not pulling. Bad attitude. A female in heat. Those are typical reasons," Swift said.
The dogs are shuttled from Iditarod checkpoints to hubs in McGrath and Unalakleet, where race partner PenAir picks them up, secures them with necklines, and flies the plane full of pooches to the Anchorage airport.
On Saturday, Swift and six other volunteers piled into the Iditarod's big blue dog truck to pick up 18 dropped dogs. Musher Tom Thurston, who scratched in McGrath, and the nine dogs he had left were on the flight, too.
"I see puppy dogs!" cooed volunteer Dana Joyner of Reading, Pa. She's been volunteering at the Iditarod for six years. She just loves the dogs. She's a teacher aide back home.
Each dog was unhooked and handed off to a volunteer in a fast-moving assembly line. Most were carried to the waiting truck.
Back at the Millennium, each dog is secured to a post behind the hotel, given some straw and a blanket and checked by one of the two vets working dog drop: Douglas Chilcoat of Talkeetna, and Erika Friedrich of Long Island.
One little dog, Niki, shed her collar and took off, a brief spell of freedom before Swift lured her back with kibble.
A crew of about 70 runs the dog drop in shifts. Volunteers come from Alaska and Missouri, Arizona and Australia. When one volunteer who hadn't signed up specifically for the dog drop tried to shovel poop, Swift asked her not to -- you've got to be part of the drop team even for doody duty.
The paperwork sent with each dog on the plane said one smoke-colored dog had a problem with his quadriceps, but his temperature was normal and he ate at the last checkpoint, Chilcoat said.
"Hey bud, how's it going?" Chilcoat asked. He listened to the dog's heartbeat, looked at the gums, checked skin elasticity for signs of dehydration, felt for sore spots. Most of the dogs were alert and didn't seemed stressed. Once the checkups were done, volunteers plunked down bowls of kibble and broth. Most dogs couldn't gobble it up fast enough.
One dog named Ware House from Sonny Lindner's team didn't want to stand up and picked at his food. He was brought into the hotel room that functions as dog drop hub. A volunteer stayed by his side, rubbing his face and neck. He'd be watched all night, Chilcoat said. By the next day, he had perked right up, Swift said.
Another dog needed ointment for what looked like a spot of frostbite. One got medicine to relieve swelling.
Some dogs are picked up by approved handlers at the Millennium and others are trucked to Hiland Mountain Correctional Center for safe keeping. Over many Iditarods, inmates have cared for dropped dogs until they can be picked up and taken home.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER