Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers negotiate a dizzying number of factors, from loads of supplies and equipment, to the personalities of their dogs and unpredictable weather on the way to Nome. Starting last year, we asked readers what they wanted to know. This week, we spoke with mushers who had answers.
David Gehring says: “I want to know what kind of clothing the mushers wear to stay warm against the cold and wind.”
We received several questions asking about the effect of extreme cold on mushers and dogs. As a three-time Yukon Quest champion, Eureka musher Brent Sass has had lots of experience confronting the cold.
Sass said he carries an extra anorak to put over his parka. He also carries multiple neck warmers so he can switch to a dry one when the one he’s wearing is iced over by his breath. Beaver mitts are also important, he said. Sass carries two pairs. The smaller set fits inside the larger ones so he can wear both when the weather turns brutal.
“Your hands take a real bad hit when the weather’s bad,” Sass said.
Sass said what he’s doing is as important as what he’s wearing. He works with a ski pole for most of the race, and his intensity increases when the temperatures plunge, he said.
“You can have all the warm weather gear you want, but if you aren’t moving your body around, you’re probably just going to sit there and freeze,” Sass said.
When temperatures reach 30 to 40 below zero, it means more dog care work for the musher, Sass said. Dogs are burning more calories to stay warm, which means he must feed them more often. The team also wears more gear.
“The dogs are OK, but we’re putting on protection for their private parts at that point. ... We’re just having to really pay attention to the dogs a lot more,” he said.
Sass carries the required insulated jackets for each dog and an additional set of fleece blankets.
“It just makes them more comfortable. And the better they rest and the more comfortable they are, the more successful race we’re going to have,” Sass said.
Sass has finished the Iditarod three times. His best finish was 13th in 2012. He said 12 members of his Iditarod dog team this year will be from his winning Yukon Quest team in February.
Sheri Laman asks: “My students are studying the Iditarod and want to know if the trails aren’t marked, how do the mushers and dogs know where to go?”
A musher’s strategy matters little if the team isn’t pointed in the right direction. Three-time Iditarod finisher Jeff Deeter of Fairbanks credits race workers who mark the trail from start to finish with orange-tipped reflective laths. But you can’t always count on it, he said.
“Occasionally those markers blow out or get covered in snow, and then you really rely on your dogs, if you’re not leading the race, to follow a scent path,” Deeter said. “I have a few dogs that are incredibly talented at smelling, and then feeling the trail, using their feet to feel the path underneath the freshly fallen snow or the wind drifts.”
Deeter, who finished 15th last year, notes Iditarod rules now allow mushers to carry GPS equipment.
“I will actually track my route as I’m moving,” he said. “In case I do get off the trail, I can follow my tracks back if I’m in an active snowstorm and there is no visibility.”
An anonymous reader asks: “How many dog booties will a team go through over the course of a race?”
Jeremy Keller, a two-time Iditarod finisher from Knik, said booties are generally removed at the end of each run and replaced before the next run. He did some rough math in his head as he wrapped up his mandatory veterinarian checks.
“Let’s see. So, if you’re bootie-ing every time you hook up, then you got 20 to 24 runs, and if you have 14 dogs, then that’s 56 booties times 20 to 24, what’s that?”
In Keller’s example, that’s 1,120 to 1,344 booties.
That total wouldn’t include what’s needed for training. Booties cost him $1 each, he said. Other expenses include dog food, veterinary care, equipment and race fees. Keller says his kennel is about as small as they come in distance mushing, with 16 dogs. Nonetheless, it’s an “exceedingly expensive endeavor” to run the Iditarod.
“Just the four months from November when we started training until I get home from Nome, is $15,000 to $18,000,” Keller said. “Separate from lost wages.”
Race rookie Damon Ramaker, an emergency room nurse from Fountain, Minnesota, said he paid about $1.10 per bootie this year, and he’ll have a supply of about 1,500 booties for the Iditarod.
“There’s just all sorts of little things that add up to a lot,” he said.
Kathy Farynairz asks: “Can you talk about current vet research on Iditarod dogs and how practices have changed?”
Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson said a pilot study beginning this year will look at the body weight of return dogs. Return dogs, also known as dropped dogs, are those that a musher removes from the team during the race to send home.
“We’re always trying to learn more about how to take the best possible care of these dogs,” Nelson said. “And if we identify any correlations that certain body weights are more optimal for the well-being of the dogs, then obviously that would be our target goal.”
This year, return dogs will be examined and scored in Unalakleet, Nelson said. Dogs that finish the race in Nome will be similarly scored. He expects a more formal study is forthcoming and will be a multi-year effort.
Nelson said there have been numerous studies over the years. One of the biggest involved the prevention of gastric ulcers in sled dogs.
“We feel like we have a successful way of preventing them now,” Nelson said.
Adriana Pacheco asks: “Can the dogs get distracted on the trail?”
Cantwell musher Paige Drobny, a five-time Iditarod finisher whose best finish was seventh last year, said dogs are as individual as humans when it comes to their attention spans.
“Some dogs are easily distracted and others are hyperfocused on just getting down the trail,” she said.
Drobny said dogs can be distracted by wildlife, other teams and anything they see happening in the woods. This training season, that has meant lots of moose on the Denali Highway, where she trains. She carries a flare gun to move moose along.
“I have used it a couple times this year, and it’s pretty effective,” she said.
Sometimes, her dogs are distracted by one another. That’s the story of her 4-year-old dog Aggie.
“She’s just super excited and happy all the time. She always pokes the neighbor, like ‘Hey, aren’t we having fun? Let’s get going,’ ” Drobny said.
Two-time Iditarod finisher Lev Shvarts, of Willow, said dogs can get excited or bored just like people.
“You just think of them, basically, as 2-year-olds in the bodies of Olympic athletes,” Shvarts said. "That’s what they are.”
Brynn Ludwick asks: “What was your most memorable race so far and why?”
Each of the 45 veteran mushers in this year’s Iditarod would have a different answer. We posed the question to two mushers with deep roots in the race.
“Depends on how you define memorable,” said 66-year-old Linwood Fiedler of Willow. He’s starting his 26th Iditarod this year.
“Some have been crash and burn. Some have been wonderful successes where it feels like a magic carpet ride getting to Nome,” he said.
It was the latter in 2001, when Fiedler finished in second place, his best result. Everything seemed to click, he said. His dogs seemed to be working in concert.
“It’s not 12 individual dogs, or 14. It’s one unit. And when you whistle up, they all go from a trot to a lope at the same time. And when you say easy, they all back off at the same time,” Fiedler said. “Those moments are the ones we really live for.”
As a four-time champ, Lance Mackey has had plenty of race highs from which to choose. But Mackey considers his 2002 race his most memorable. That was a year he scratched.
“In 2002 I didn’t make it to Nome, but I started the race with a feeding tube,” Mackey recalled, sitting in his parked pickup truck in Wasilla with his girlfriend, Jenne Smith, and their two children, Atigun and Lozen. “Even without finishing, it was still very rewarding and meaningful.”
A year prior, Mackey ran the Iditarod with what he believed was an abscessed tooth. Soon after the race, he was diagnosed with cancer: squamous cell carcinoma. Within weeks he was in surgery to remove a tumor in his neck and all his teeth. Radiation treatment came next, followed by hyperbaric treatment, then another course of radiation treatment.
He was in the hospital from April to October, he said.
“It’s easy to dwell on some of those moments and issues. … You feel completely alone, nothing to live for, and all those negative thoughts,” Mackey said. “So the race, the dogs just (gave me) the desire to (expletive) prove the doctors wrong, so to speak. That was kind of my attitude. Who are they to tell me what I could and couldn’t do, and how long or if I was going to live?”
During the 2002 race, Mackey fed himself through a port in his stomach. He carried cans of Ensure nutrition drink in his sled and had others waiting at checkpoints in his drop bags. “They’d be frozen solid when I got there,” he said.
Mackey calls it the toughest race he ever ran. He attempted it against his doctor's advice. Others strongly suggested that he reconsider continuing once the race was underway, he said.
“It was probably right up there with the dumbest things I ever attempted. But it was a reason to ... get me out of the hospital,” he said.
Mackey scratched in Ophir, but the attempt had a lasting effect on his perspective for years.
“(It) made me feel that if I could deal with that, and get through it mentally, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t accomplish,” he said.
Five years later, in 2007, Mackey won his first Iditarod. Then he won the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that. No other musher has won four Iditarods in a row.