We pioneers of the Iditarod could have never imagined in our wildest dreams the incredible realms of performance today’s superb sled dogs are blowing our minds with. As one veteran veterinarian recently stated, “. . . and we don’t have a clue.” The animals have baffled science with output that has never been witnessed coming out of flesh and blood of not only canines, but any animal species. Animal science is delving into how it works and striving for explanations.
Seems these fantastic pooches of ours, once they have gone for an hour or so at a raised heart-beat, settle—with no drop-off in trail speed—into a kind of second-wind, long-term endurance mode where their heartbeat drops back to a near resting level. In this state they almost get better the longer they run. They aren’t machines, of course, and need to be rested, but the distance they can go and the little amount of rest it takes before they are raring to tighten their tuglines again is an amazement.
In yesteryear, one of the characteristics we looked for in a good dog was that they be “easy keepers.” Those dogs which could process their food most efficiently and thrive on the smallest amounts were valued highly. Today, however, dogs are prized which gobble vast amounts and burn their fuel like furnaces with the dampers wide open.
Iditarod dogs may average burning through as many as 13,000 calories a day during the race. That’s like maybe 35-40 Big Macks! In the old days, mushers hunting, freighting, running trapline, or just traveling fed their dogs once a day in the evenings. On the early races most of us supplemented with small snacks several times daily. Now, though, with dogs churning out around 125 miles a day, these snacks are much larger and more often in order to keep the furnace roaring. The “interval meals” usually contain a lot of meat and fat as well as each musher’s secret ingredient (vitamin-and-other-proprietary-healthy-goodie) package. It’s of a high moisture content, pre-cut into thin slabs by band saw so it may be easily crunched up by the dogs. Fed frozen, not only is it fast to break out and feed, but it helps the dogs stay cooled.
At long rests, the musher first anchors off the sled and goes to the lead end of the towline and sets another snow hook. On his way back to the sled he unsnaps each dog’s tugline from its harness, giving some freedom. Back at the sled he pulls out his cooker to begin preparing a soup-like meal for hydration, a big caloric intake, and a warm meal in the belly to make rest more efficient. The cooker is simple, no moving parts, just a 4-5 gallon bucket with alcohol burning in a pool in the bottom, holes a little ways up the sides for air flow, and a large cook pot that fits inside the “fire bucket” closely enough that the rim of the pot rests on the rim of the bucket, keeping the pot the right distance above the fire.
Usually nowadays, with the race so blazing fast that the teams average 2-3 checkpoints a day—where sometimes in the old days we were 2-4 days between the most distant checkpoints, necessitating more bush skills and performing camp tasks on the trail with no accouterments provided—these major stops are usually pulled in the checkpoints. In the more wilderness checkpoints the drivers melt snow or dip water from a hole in the ice, the latter, of course, getting the pot to the boiling stage much faster. Into the water not only goes the dog food, but the musher’s vacuum-sealed fare.
While food’s heating, the driver quickly shakes out straw for bedding, removes all of the booties to maximize circulation and distributes light-weight feed dishes that hold a couple quarts or so. Soon, the food’s at the right temperature to feed. Once fed, the animals settle down for a good rest, maybe covered by blankets.
Somewhere during the process the musher and team will be visited by a race veterinarian, the dogs looked over, perhaps certain dogs discussed, and possibly an animal or two dropped from the team to be cared for and flown home. At this point the driver will busy himself working salve into the dogs’ feet, massaging legs and shoulders, and before leaving again prepare more soup. Often, a big batch of boiling temperature stew will go into a large cooler to be fed later out on the trail. Obviously, the dogs rest, but the driver doesn’t. Nearing the end of the race those competitors who do best are able to function in their severely sleep-deprived state like very efficient zombies.
There are so many amenities at the checkpoints it’s usually counterproductive to pull rest stops out on the trail. However, at times it works better in a driver’s run-rest timing to do just that. Then you’ll see them quickly signing in, throwing their bags of supplies, a bale of straw, and maybe some hot water on their sleds, and signing right out. In Nicolai, the school kids, as a project keep a fire going under a 55-gallon drum of water. From such a source or some other, the driver may pick up a few gallons. Taking this big sled load out a few miles, the musher stops for not only a rest that better suits his sequence, but allows the dogs a more uninterrupted rest away from the hubbub of the checkpoint.
Race fans and media who are unaware, often wonder why elapsed time between checkpoints shows the driver’s suddenly slowed time.
Many of the more experienced and highly competitive racers really reacted negatively at first when GPSs were placed on their sleds which allowed satellite monitoring of their whereabouts and speed. While nice for fans out in America, it not only gave away to competitors what they were doing out there and where, but sometimes spilled the beans about placement of strategic camping spots which they had come to favor.