The single-engine plane soared 1,000 feet above the Alaskan tundra, shuddering with every blast of arctic wind. Below, moose looked like flakes of pepper to Michael Leverone, who was flying into Skwentna (population 37), the second checkpoint along the Iditarod dog sled race course.
Leverone worried the moose might cross paths with the mushing teams along the first 80 miles of the 975-mile race between Anchorage and Nome. “Moose hate wolves, a natural predator,’’ he says. “They can’t distinguish a dog from a wolf, so if they see dogs, including sled dogs, they’ll attack them.’’
Still he enjoyed the ride. The owner of the Reading Animal Clinic in Reading, Mass., Leverone used to fly small planes for fun. And he was eager to work with sled dogs, which he first encountered during a family vacation to Alaska in 2011, when he visited the racing kennel of 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey in Seward and the Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla.
“It made me realize that the Iditarod is a very big deal, and they need lots of volunteers, including veterinarians, to pull the thing off,’’ says Leverone.
When he returned from Alaska, Leverone applied to serve as a volunteer veterinarian for the 2012 race. Four months later, “on a Tuesday night in mid-January, I got a call out of the blue from the head veterinarian,’’ he recalls. “He said, ‘We’ve got an opening.’ I signed up for the full two weeks, figuring I might as well go for broke.’’
First run in 1973, the Iditarod was created to celebrate the tradition of the sled dog and its contribution to the Alaskan way of life, as sled dogs’ importance and use had been diminished by the arrival of the snow machine (as the snowmobile is called there). Today as many as 100 sled dog teams compete in Alaska’s most popular sporting event.
Mushers begin the race with up to 16 dogs each and take anywhere from a little over a week to double that to cross the finish line. They race across often treacherous sea and river ice, over two mountain ranges and against 60 to 80 mph winds. The route itself is equivalent to more than a third of the width of the continental United States. The record time of just under eight days and 20 hours was set in 2011 by John Baker, the first Eskimo to win the race.
A rookie volunteer vet, Leverone arrived in Anchorage a few days before the race to participate in a workshop on sled dog medicine. He traveled light, but the items in his duffel bag were heavy-duty: a sleeping bag, pad and bivouac sack that would keep him snug at 20 below; a knife, headlamp and multitool; a surgical instrument pack and medications; a signal mirror and water-purification tablets.
There are 20-plus checkpoints along the Iditarod trail, which alternates between a southern and northern route in odd and even years. At each checkpoint, race officials record the mushers’ times in and out and confirm that they are carrying the required survival gear. Other volunteers provide mushers with straw to bed down their dogs and their pre-dropped supplies: dog food, food for themselves and spare gear, including extra sled runners.
In addition to certifying the dogs as healthy (including a prerace EKG to check the heart rhythm), the job of the 52 volunteer veterinarians, Leverone says, is to examine the dogs at each checkpoint, provide medications for the dogs and advice to the mushers, and care for any animals that have to drop out along the way. At many checkpoints, the veterinarians are the only health-care professionals; some of the vets tell stories of suturing cuts and treating other health issues of the mushers or other volunteers.
Leverone worked four checkpoints, to which he was shuttled by the Iditarod Air Force, a fleet of bush planes that, besides ferrying personnel and supplies up and down the trail, also carries dogs deemed unfit to continue racing back to the major pickup points. His assignments ranged from “large’’ metropolitan areas (the kind that have two stores, a bar and a restaurant) to remote Native Alaskan villages.
He slept foot-to-ear in a tiny log cabin, normally used as a post office and heated with a kerosene stove, and in a large community hall in Unalakleet, a town of 700 people on the Norton Sound. A few checkpoints are just tents in the wilderness. “At one point I heard wolverines had gotten into a food cache, and they had to schedule extra plane flights to replace destroyed supplies,’’ he says.
More than 1,000 dogs left the starting line in 2012. Early in the race, the veterinarians’ schedule is intense because the competitors are still packed closely together.
At Skwentna, “the first musher came in at 8:30 at night, and they just kept coming and coming until 6 in the morning,’’ says Leverone. “That was a long night, especially at 20 below. We check each and every dog. Sometimes they’re just blasting through. You only have a few minutes to check their gum color and heart sounds and make sure nobody is anemic, lame or frostbitten or breathing harder than normal.’’
As they race at speeds up to 15 miles per hour, sled dogs can experience a host of medical problems not usually seen by veterinarians who care for pets in the Lower 48—sore shoulders and swollen wrists, foot pad tears from pounding over the ice, and diarrhea, which can quickly cause an animal to become dangerously dehydrated. The veterinarians are also on the lookout for aspiration pneumonia, which can occur if a dog vomits while running, and exertional rhabdomyolysis, also called tying-up syndrome, a potentially fatal breakdown of skeletal muscle caused by nutritional deficiencies.
Leverone reports that he had to pull just one dog out of the race, for dehydration, which was quickly remedied with IV fluids. Despite the extreme physicality required to run the Iditarod, he believes the dogs love it. “You can see that,’’ he says. “That’s what they live for.’’
Apparently Leverone has come to feel the same. He’ll volunteer for the 2013 Iditarod, which will take the southern route, from Nome on the Bering Sea to Anchorage in south-central Alaska. “It was cold, the hours were long at times, and the sleeping arrangements were rustic, but it was a great experience,’’ he says. “I’m ready to go back.’’