The Iditarod is an annual, historic sled dog competition held in Alaska. Teams of dogsleds race across about 975 miles of the frozen Alaskan terrain. This race has historically used volunteers for many of its functions since the 1970's and Dr. Michael Walker has volunteered as a veterinarian since 2005. Along the trail the teams stop at checkpoints and veterinarians stand ready to check on the dogs for their health and safety and assist the mushers in the care of their sled dog team. Without volunteers. like veterinarians. the race would not be possible. The race is held annually at the beginning of march and generally lasts about 2 weeks with teams crossing the finish line within 8-15 days.
The amazing thing about this race is that it brings to life the special bond that can happen between dogs and their owners. The cold Alaskan winter and dangerous terrain requires a strong relationship and trust between human and canine. The dogs that compete are true athletes, and athletes deserve the best care. The musher is the dogs trusted coach, care taker, and friend, and the veterinarians are there to assist in the medical care and treatment of these incredible athletes. These veterinarians give their time, strength, and energy often waiting around in far below freezing weather, flying in small planes to little known places, staying in tents on frozen lakes and waiting up long hours of the night to be ready to help the mushers take care of their team and help with any injuries that may have occurred as soon as they pull in to a checkpoint. To get a better idea of what it is like, here is an interview with Dr. Michael Walker who has served as a veterinarian to these amazing dog sled teams for almost 15 years.
Why do you volunteer at the Iditarod?
Initially I volunteered as an adventure. The Iditarod was an event that I was familiar with and thought that it would be fun to attend and experience. My first year was definitely and experience and it also got me hooked on the race. I now return for several reasons. Mostly the dogs. These animals are truly athletes and I enjoy taking care of them and watching them perform. I still enjoy the adventure part of the race as well as time away from daily practice. Though it can be looked at as a vacation, it is a working vacation with some long hours and hard work.
Do you ride on the sled dog teams?
No, not during the race. Occasionally we will stand on the sled breaks to keep a team from taking off while the musher is doing something. It is actually against the rules for us to assist in the routine care of the dogs or interfere with the race. Most mushers are in race mode and will not allow riders during the race. We are however constantly examining the dogs, giving medical advice, and doing minor medical treatments of the racing dogs as that is our purpose there. If a dog is dropped out of the race for any reason then we as veterinarians are fully in charge of their care and medical treatment until the dog is picked up in Anchorage after the race.
I have been on a non-racing dog team sled. It was only a team of 6 dogs and it was amazing the power that those few dogs had to pull. A full team of 14 dogs would be a bit intimidating.
What is the coldest weather you have been in?
45 degrees below that I am aware of. We are in remote locations most of the time and not always near thermometers or technology that could get an accurate reading. I believe I have been in areas that were approaching 60 below but had no way of proving it. Regardless, 20 below can feel much colder when there is a strong wind and storm passing through and the wind chill makes it feel like 40-60 below.
Where are the most interesting places you have stayed?
Very few of our checkpoints are in actually in any significantly populated areas. Villages in the bush can range form 10 to 40 people with a few as large as 100. Some checkpoints are not even populated areas, just dots on a map. I have stayed in canvas tents, storage rooms, post offices, libraries, community tribal buildings, and when in Anchorage an actual hotel. I carry gear to roll out a bedroll where ever I can find space.
Were there any musher/dog stories that really got your attention?
There are lots of stories that get your attention, I can’t remember them all. Most have to do with the musher team interaction during the race. Mushers well be exhausted during the race, fall asleep on the sled and wake up somewhere down the trail or not on the trail. Others fall off their sled and watch their team continue. The story then is how the next musher picks them up and reunites the team to the musher. If the musher is having a bad experience the team can pick up on that and become totally unmotivated to continue. Mushers tell stories of their encounters with wildlife and late night northern lights. They are always talking about the trail and all the difficult parts of it that takes them to their limits.
What was your most memorable moment?
Multiple memories. I have had the pleasure of flying over a good portion of Alaska in small private planes. Some of my longer journeys have been between Fairbanks and Unalakleet and also form Unalakleet to Anchorage over the Alaskan range. I fully enjoyed the beauty of the wilderness in Alaska.
One late night while in Opher Alaska we were checking teams that were coming in to the checkpoint. Withing a mater of second the sky went from pitch black to full of green Norther Lights. This lasted about a half hour an then just disappeared.
During a different race but in Opher again, a lead musher pulled into the checkpoint late at night and was working on his routine chores. One of these chores is breaking up bales of hay to bed the dogs down for a few hours. While cutting the bale string his knife collapse onto his finger. I was standing next to him when this happened and being the only medical type personnel at the checkpoint treatment falls on us as the veterinarians. He just about cut his finger completely off which we had to treat and splint for the night. There was no transportation available to get him back to Anchorage until at least 9am the next morning. He was added to our treatment list of dropped dogs for the evening.
Do the dogs like to race?
Yes……The excitement and energy that these dogs have to leave a checkpoint is phenomenal. Most teams are jumping, howling, and anxious to get on the trail, wondering what is keeping the musher from letting them go. Periodically dogs are left at checkpoints because of injuries or illness. It is not uncommon to see a dog left get excited for every team that leaves because they want to join. Yes they do get tired and worn out, but with a little rest they are ready to go again.
What do you love about volunteering at the Iditarod?
Helping the dogs, the country and wilderness, the challenge.
Here is an interview of Dr. Walker you can find on the official Iditarod website.
If you are interested you can ask more questions to Dr. Walker at your next appointment with him, and there is also an official Iditarod website you can visit. Every year in March you can follow the race in the news and online. We love to read and hear the heartwarming stories of these mushers and their relationships with their dogs. The fact that our beloved furry friends have played such an important role in history saving human lives, and still do so today in many different ways, is commemorated and brought to memory by this incredible race.
For more information here is the official Iditarod website
The following are photographs from Dr. Walker's actual experiences over the years
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